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The secrets of Black Friday revealed: So how do companies persuade us to spend?

Thousands of bargain-hunting shoppers are preparing to hit the Black Friday sales, in the hope of snagging top-end prizes for low-end prices.

Here, consumer psychology expert Gary Pheiffer, from London Metropolitan University’s School of Psychology, explains why shoppers get so caught up in the 'sales mentality' – and how stores persuade people to part with their hard-earned cash.

Gary Pheiffer Credit: London Metropolitan University

Black Friday is an example of a marketing strategy which creates what is called, in academic circles, a 'ritual' - not unlike historical or religious rituals. We already have rituals that involve shopping, such as Christmas, Birthdays and Valentine’s Day, and now Black Friday has emerged as another major sales event too.

Retailers approach this like a military operation, creating the Black Friday ritual through extensive planning, signage, advertising, and promotions, among other marketing activities. Making us feel like we are participating in another ritual means it isn’t only the impulsive buyer that gets lured in.

Customers jostle through an electronics store during a Black Friday sale last year Credit: Reuters

Having such a ritual increases the spending of consumers. It is an artificial stimulus created by marketers that 'allows' or encourages spending that is seen as rather sensible - not impulsive. While the impulsive buyer is often the usual focus of marketing efforts. Black Friday is different because non-impulsive buyers are unconsciously coerced or enabled to spend their money, and made to believe it is a sensible thing to do.

The focus is on the bargain and, because of the ritual effect, shoppers feel free to spend because it is a planned event. Stores use additional discounts that appeal to customers, providing them with a holiday feeling, while in reality the deals are few, often at very unsociable hours, or in very limited supply. A climate is created that allows the consumer to think it is a special day of bargains which makes it appear real, when in fact it isn’t.

Sales are often held at 'unsociable hours' to make it seem like more of an event, Gary says Credit: Reuters

We tend to be competitive - we are still hunter gatherers in our DNA - and we think on Black Friday that 'we’ve won, we’ve beaten the retailer and we got a better deal for our family and friends'. We then feel smarter and more competent; our identity as a hunter gatherer is enhanced, we have taken part in the ritual - it is not an impulsive buy, but a bargain!

The ritual has allowed the consumer to spend and feel like they have benefited and avoided being ripped off when in a sense they have been manipulated. Black Friday, with its build-up of commercials and emailreminders, develops a tension that creates this context.

It’s also fun! It marks the start of the Christmas season, and this further creates a sense of holiday. We interact with family and friends, share 'war stories' about the bargains, and experience a sense of well-being and competence – we share the winning, which is the capture of a bargain, just like our ancestors did around the camp fire!

Retailers make the purchases seem sensible, not impulsive, to encourage people to spend, Gary says Credit: Reuters

So how do companies persuade us to part with our cash during the Christmas shopping season?

1. Sharing emotions

We are naturally more emotional around Christmas and all the values of family, friendship and giving, which may be a little muted throughout the year, become much more important.

And because we are programmed to spend time with people and brands that share our views, we are drawn to companies that focus on family, friendship and giving in their adverts. For example, John Lewis's penguin and Sainsbury's First World War soldiers.

2. Giving (or the 'Reciprocity Effect')

This works all year round, not just around Christmas, but because we're attuned to the concept of giving at this time we are more easily attracted to brands that are giving us something special or unique. For example, better delivery, special customer service solutions, bespoke gifts etc.

3. Understanding and help

Shopping for presents can be really challenging and stressful. This is why brands that help us (or at least we think they do) to find something for our loved ones, or show an understanding of this challenging process are going to get our attention. For example, Debenham's 'Found It' is priming us into thinking that we're certainly going to find a perfect gift in their stores

4. Special deals and discounts

You may not have noticed, but we have a bias for quantity rather than quality when it comes to Christmas gifts. It's especially visible in kids because they're vocal about it, but really we all want that. So by giving discounts and coming up with special deals, retailers can help us give more for the same budget. This encourages us to buy things we wouldn’t normally buy. People are still sensitive about spending their money, even at Christmas when their better judgement is clouded by emotions. So they are always going to look for discounts and good deals.

5. Directing decorations

Retailers also decorate stores in a particular way to prime us to feel certain emotions and focus our attention on specific products.

The views contained within this article do not necessarily reflect those of ITV News.

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