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'Thrill of the Hunt' Draws Black Friday Shoppers to Stores, ODU Consumer Behavior Researchers Say

By Brendan O'Hallarn

There are two groups of people who celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States - those who can't wait for turkey and pumpkin pie ... and those who can't wait for the day after.

Known as Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving is traditionally one of the busiest shopping days of the year. In 2015, retail sales totaled $12.1 billion, according to the retail analysis company ShopperTrak.

Two Old Dominion University business professors say Black Friday plays on shoppers' instincts in particular ways. And they say it's not exclusively bargains that draw consumers to crowded stores.

"In my consumer behavior class, I call it the 'thrill of the hunt,'" said Mahesh Gopinath, associate professor of marketing in the Strome College of Business. "It's a segment of consumers who get joy from the idea of finding a great bargain. It's like a sporting event."

Gopinath said he got up early to observe Black Friday as a researcher a few years ago ("I bought a $2 screwdriver"). He was struck by the tendency for impulse buying among consumers who lined up before dawn to find bargains.

"They're looking for one particular item, but frequently end up buying other things. It's the holiday season, and they get caught up in the excitement," Gopinath said.

Yuping Liu-Thompkins, professor and chair of marketing in the Strome College, said retailers will happily lose money on the eye-catching sale items at the front of the store - called "loss-leader pricing" - because of the expected burst of impulse buying by large numbers of Black Friday consumers.

"A few deeply discounted items alter the perception of consumers that everything is on sale," Liu-Thompkins said. "So retailers will give up money on one thing to make more on 10 other things."

Even though shoppers spent more than $12 billion on Black Friday last year, that figure fell short of forecasts. That is important because the bottom line for retailers frequently depends on a strong holiday shopping season, which Black Friday kicks off.

For that reason, Liu-Thompkins said retailers have started to alter the model around the Thanksgiving holiday, with promotions such as Cyber Monday, when consumers can find significant bargains online. Cyber Monday shoppers spent $4.45 billion online in 2015, according to Adobe.

In addition, "you're starting to see promotions where the sales last the whole month of November," Liu-Thompkins said.

The potential upside of such a marketing push is obvious - a longer period where consumers are looking for bargains, therefore looking to spend money. Liu-Thompkins said it isn't known yet if such a strategy will pay off overall, since it does take away from the spectacle that is Black Friday shopping.

Gopinath said there will always be a segment of the buying audience that will seek out events such as Black Friday. A portion of those shoppers are what Gopinath calls "market mavens" - consumers who draw satisfaction from finding bargains, and then telling others about them.

"'You got that product for $12? Well I got it for $11.95.' You wouldn't believe what a powerful incentive that is for some consumers," he said.

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