Higher Education and Retail

Nothing normal about Black Friday chaos

WMU prof says craziness is actually part of the allure.

November 21, 2014
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(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Robert Harrison is actually something of an expert on the single most chaotic shopping day of the year.

The associate professor of marketing at Western Michigan University’s Haworth College of Business has spent approximately nine years collecting data from roughly 20 states across the country, examining and identifying consumer behavior during the retail industry’s biggest door-buster sale of the year over the Thanksgiving weekend.

“I have a lot of different academic papers that have stemmed from this,” he said. “I have one that looks at Black Friday from the consumer side, which I am doing with a professor at Michigan, and the retail side, also done with Dr. David Wooten in Ann Arbor. We are interested in both sides.”

The National Retail Federation released a survey Dec. 1, 2013, stating the traffic on Thanksgiving Day reached 45 million shoppers in 2013, up 27 percent from 35 million in 2012, while the number of consumers shopping on Black Friday was approximately 92 million.

The study was conducted by Proper Insights & Analytics for NRF between Nov. 29 and Nov. 30, surveying 4,464 consumers.

In the Midwest Region, the average amount spent over the holiday weekend was $370.16 per person; estimated spending in the country reached $57.4 billion.

Harrison said retail managers typically have a plan for Black Friday, but extreme consumer behavior often overrules the best of intentions.

“If you can imagine how crazy it is for consumers on Black Friday, how crazy do you think it is for retail?” said Harrison.

“How do you get your employees ready for this event, especially when a lot of them don’t want to be there, consumers are crazy, and still make sure they have a safe and fun environment?”

Harrison said he has found businesses have put together plans to help minimize some of the chaos; however, there is only so much they can do to control consumer actions once inside the store.

“In years past, it would be a tidal wave of consumers that blast the storefront, where now it is a little bit more organized when they get people into the store. But then, once in the store, there is a whole other bit of strategy needed from the retailers to make sure people are organized,” said Harrison. “They can plan as much as they want, but people on Black Friday are going to be chaotic; they just have to minimize some of that chaos. To be honest, in my opinion, part of the allure of Black Friday is some of that craziness; if you took away all of the crazy, then it wouldn’t be as fun for these consumers.”

In terms of consumer behavior, Harrison said over the years he has viewed how the event changes individuals’ mentality to behave in a manner that under normal circumstances would be classified as extreme.

“Consumers will even recognize how crazy they are being on Black Friday, and there is no other day like Black Friday where consumption takes on this whole other meaning,” said Harrison. “For example, every single year, somewhere in America, in every store that has Black Friday, someone is going to have an item stolen out of their cart.”

As a scenario often presented in his class, Harrison outlines a situation where one consumer has gathered 10 door-buster items in a cart, despite a limit of two products per person, and a second individual recognizes the hoarding behavior and steals an item. Typically receiving a mixed response as to which consumer behavior is considered more devious, Harrison said some of the audience will claim the hoarder knows the rules and deserves the theft, while others will designate the thief’s behavior as extreme.

“All of this to the unknown observer would be extreme, but those who are out on Black Friday view all of this as normal.”

Harrison said he is interested in collecting additional data, especially in light of the threshold retailers appear to be crossing as it relates to opening stores earlier every year.

“They have been opening earlier and earlier every year, and I am wondering when there will be a customer revolt, or when is it going to be too early?” said Harrison.

“What happens to Thanksgiving if Black Friday shopping starts at 4? What about family? What about tradition? Thanksgiving is a quintessential American holiday, and I don’t know how Black Friday’s intrusion will affect it.”

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