Feeling the Black Friday FOMO? A behavioral scientist breaks down why this Thanksgiving tradition means so much to shoppers

Many shoppers are sitting out Black Friday this year due to the pandemic. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)
Many shoppers are sitting out Black Friday this year due to the pandemic. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)

The alarm going off in the middle of the night. The crush of parka-clad shoppers waiting out in the cold, elbows extended to ward off line-cutters. The frenzy, the door-buster deals, the shopping cart collisions and sweet satisfaction as the cashier rings up your total and you calculate your savings while congratulating yourself on having plowed through your holiday shopping list before a single window on the advent calendar’s been cracked open.

For countless shoppers, Black Friday is as much of a Thanksgiving tradition as the turkey itself. But with the United States in the midst of an intensifying coronavirus crisis and new restrictions being announced daily, many people will be sitting out those in-person sales, whether because their go-to stores have been shuttered, or because they’re prioritizing their health over rock-bottom prices. And even with retailers offering steep savings online, missing out on this annual event can feel like a significant loss.

Scott Rick, a behavioral scientist and associate professor of marketing at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, tells Yahoo Life that for many people, Black Friday is much more than a mad dash to save some money on Smart TVs or electric toothbrushes.

“The deals part is the most overrated part of it,” Rick says. “The quality of the deals is probably not that much better than other sales during the year.”

But what is valuable is the tradition itself — whether with friends or family members similarly committed to early rises, or solo — which has shaped how many spend their holiday year after year.

“It’s kind of a ritual for a lot of people, and disrupting a ritual can be very disorienting,” Rick notes.

One of those people is Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor at New Mexico State University who has been a regular early-morning Black Friday shopper since immigrating to the U.S. from India in 2005. While the lure of Black Friday deals initially appealed to him as a graduate student, over time the pleasure he got from going out to the stores with friends and soaking up the energy of the crowds became the real draw.

“While I can try and get the stuff I need online, it was more about the tradition, memories and social activity,” Khubchandani tells Yahoo Life.

“It gave me a sense of belonging with a sea of people from all creeds, religions, colors and ideologies enjoying the tradition together,” says Khubchandani, who will stay home and “be responsible” this year given the pandemic and New Mexico’s new heightened restrictions limiting occupancy at essential retail spaces. “Asking strangers, ‘Hey, where did you get this from’ and them telling me, ‘Let me show you’ ... we transcended boundaries and our day-to-day differences and prejudices to mingle with people from all walks of life.”

Black Friday is a sacred "ritual" to many shoppers. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)
Black Friday is a sacred "ritual" to many shoppers. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)

It’s common to get a psychological or social benefit from shopping, Rick says. Someone who is lonely or feeling down, for instance, might “feel less isolated” while surrounded by other customers or interacting with salespeople. Even introverts may get a buzz from being around other people in a mall without having to engage directly. And Black Friday in particular may be the ideal refuge for someone who wants to escape from the tension of a drama-filled family Thanksgiving gathering and spend some time in the company of salespeople, who, Rick notes, are “paid to be nice to you.” In a year in which those social connections have largely slipped away, missing out on Black Friday can feel overwhelming.

“There’s also the retail therapy component that is taken away, [the idea] that we can heal some of our bad feelings via shopping,” Rick adds. “We can get that through some extent [shopping] online, but it’s certainly not the same as being able to take the shopping home today.”

Some Black Friday regulars may be happy to hit the snooze button or soak up extra family time in lieu of their usual trek to Target. Those looking to fill that social retail void, meanwhile, can “get creative with Zoom co-shopping,” Rick suggests —assuming your shopping buddy is tech-savvy enough to scour the internet for deals with you over phone or video chat. Another option is to plan some “safe shopping,” Rick adds, such as researching brick-and-mortar stores offering curbside service or enforcing strict COVID-19 protocols. But, he cautions, “you don’t want to just fling yourself into a situation that could be dangerous.”

A Black Friday sale is “definitely not worth your health,” he says. “Don’t risk it for any of these deals. I know we’re losing all of these psychological benefits, but it’s not worth the risk, health-wise.”

For the latest coronavirus news and updates, follow along at https://news.yahoo.com/coronavirus. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC’s and WHO’s resource guides.

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