Black Friday brain: The psychological tricks of retail

“If an offer is too good to be true, it probably is”. Black Friday, you might say, is proof that this truism isn’t always as true as it appears. If a retailer sells you a PlayStation 4 at a massive discount, then happy days: you’ve beaten the system.

Black Friday brain: The psychological tricks of retail

Or have you? There’s a reason that retailers go through this act of seeming self-flagellation every year, and it’s not the infectious spirit of the season. Their analytics, combined with the human brain’s malleability, ensure that even if you do indeed beat the system, enough people will not have to make it worth their while. So how do they do it?

Well, obviously, not everything that seems like a bargain is, but shops know their customers aren’t stupid – not all of us anyway. As such, there are a number of tried and tested tricks that can make shoppers’ naturally rational instincts take a turn for the irrational.

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There’s a reason Black Friday and Cyber Monday have become events so big that they’ve crossed the pond. Having a set date promising bargains has us primed for great deals, but more importantly, we know they’re time limited, and that competition will be fierce. In other words, we’re under greater pressure to make a snap decision, and there’s always that innate fear that we’ll miss out if we don’t act. If you don’t buy it, someone else will – and, damnit, you deserve it more than they do.


The 24-hour window may seem a throwback to tradition, or may just be an arbitrary deadline, but putting a time limit on things is a powerful psychological tool to cloud judgement. Combine this with the inevitable crowds a good sale brings and, as Psychology Today puts it, “the crowd in the store gives the impression that you have to act quickly. These factors push people away from a deliberative mindset and toward an action mindset.”

Dr Dimitrios Tsivrikos, a consumer psychologist from London Metropolitan University, explained that, even under ideal conditions, bargains can throw us off our game. “Brain studies have shown that when we are excited by a bargain, this interferes with your ability to clearly judge whether it is actually a good offer or not,” he told the BBC.

So far, so obvious, and some of the psychological tricks are well known and widely documented.

“When we are excited by a bargain, this interferes with your ability to clearly judge whether it is actually a good offer”

Everyone knows that a price of £99.99 is more appealing than £100, even though the discount is actually just 0.01%, but not every trick is quite so blunt. Take background music, for example. A paper from Guéguen, Jacob, Lourel and Le Guellec explains how loud music speeds up supermarket shoppers without reducing sales, while low tempo tunes slows shoppers down, but makes them purchase more. If you’re in a wine store, you’re more likely to pick a French bottle when French music is playing, and a German bottle if you can hear German music.

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Even something like the colour of the price tag can have an impact, according to Nancy Puccinelli, consumer psychologist at Said Business School. Her recent study discovered that men are more likely to believe a discounted price if it appears in red, while women were left uninfluenced. “If you show a woman an ad in red, the woman is sceptical of what is really going on and thinks she has to be extra vigilant. ‘Am I getting tricked?’ she asks herself,” Puccinelli told Oxford Today. “Men are less practised shoppers and they see the red as a useful shortcut.”

That may be a particularly depressing conclusion for my fellow gullible XY chromosoners, but, amazingly, it gets worse: “When we told men they have to pay attention, the effect of the colour red went away. Motivate them and make it important, and they are much better shoppers.”


What may seem entirely random choices for retailers are often carefully crafted to play our brains like xylophones. Those employees that greet you at the Disney Store? A 2008 study found that shoplifters were 68% less likely to steal if they were greeted as soon as they stepped into the store.

Not all of this can apply to online shopping though, of course. No sales assistant can influence you, and music is entirely your domain. Perhaps aware of these limitations, plenty of Black Friday deals will only be available in store, where you can be a lab rat in the maze they’ve designed.

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Human behaviour online can be just as predictable as in regular shops

If you think you’re out of the woods, though, you’re being rather naive. Not only do websites know more about your tastes and buying habits than your average shop manager, but human behaviour online can be just as predictable as in regular shops.

Companies spend significant sums split testing site design, moving pictures, links, changing copy and switching navigation in order to get the best possible sales conversion rate. There are hundreds of articles written about how to counter the phenomenon of “shopping cart abandonment” – where online shoppers add something to their basket, but fail to get to the checkout. It has long been rumoured that some websites track your visit, and raise the price if you come back, assuming you’re in more of a buying than browsing mood the second time around.

None of this means you shouldn’t shop online, or be unduly paranoid as to shop assistants’ motives, but it doesn’t hurt to pause, breathe and ask yourself two questions: “do I really want this?” and “is this really a good deal?” Even if a product is reduced by 80%, that last 20% could still happily sit in your bank account for something you really want, when you have the time and space to make your mind up.

If you still want to shop until you or your wallet drops, be sure to check out Alphr’s Black Friday bargains article or hit up Expert Reviews‘ exclusive voucher codes for bigger discounts.

Images: DJLicious, DJLicious and Neil Conway used under Creative Commons

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