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Fri Nov 23, 2012, 10:41 AM

Psychology of Black Friday: Tradition, altruism drive pursuit of deal

By Melissa Dahl, NBC News
For some families, it's not Thanksgiving without grandma's sweet potato pie. For families like Leigh Odom's, it's not Thanksgiving without an after-dinner strategic ops planning session: Shopping lists are itemized, routes are mapped out and a game plan is formed, all with military-like precision. Because after dinner, it's no longer Thanksgiving. It's Black Friday Eve.
To those who spend the Friday following Thanksgiving doing things like spending time with family, or working, or volunteering, or attempting to construct the world's greatest turkey leftover sandwich, Black Friday devotees are a mystery. Yes, an estimated 147 million Americans plan to go shopping sometime this weekend, according the National Retail Federation. But who are these people, what motivates them to rise before dawn in pursuit of a deal -- and have they really never heard of online shopping?
"The deals are part of it, but I don't think it's the bigger piece of it," says Jane Thomas, a professor of marketing at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C. "This is the family ritual, as much as eating turkey and dressing is -- it's going shopping as the start of the holiday season together."
Last year, Thomas and her Winthrop colleague Cara Peters published a study in the International Journal of Retail and Distribution Management that sought to explore those rituals that have sprung up around Black Friday, in order to understand more about this intense subculture and its disciples. Over two years they conducted interviews with 38 "experienced female Black Friday shoppers." (They stuck with women-only because it tends to be the females of the family who handle holiday traditions, including shopping, they explain in the report.) And they found something kind of surprising: Interviewees repeatedly used military metaphors to describe their Black Friday adventures -- the strategic planning, the mission accomplished, and the subsequent bonding with your fellow survivors. This is how seriously these families take it.
In Odom's family, getting up before dawn to search for Black Friday deals, and strategizing the night before, has been a family tradition for 25 years. If we're going to go with the military metaphors, Odom acts as a kind of commander, plotting out entrance and exit routes, and assigning roles (like driving, or waiting in line) and specific zones (electronics, clothing) to the five or so enlisted family members. Everybody knows what's on everybody else's list, so you're not just shopping for yourself; this is a family project. "We’re all working toward the common goal, so we all our lists get completed. We can swap money later," Odom says.
Her family's intense approach to the ritual was actually the inspiration for the Winthrop paper -- Thomas married into Odom's family, and the two are something like "cousins-in-law."
"It's so much fun. It's time to be crazy and be silly and bond with your family and your friends," says Odom, who's 39 and lives in Kernersville, N.C. For her in particular, it was a way to sneak in some extra family time before heading back to work at a local bank the day after Thanksgiving -- they'd be up by about 4 a.m., out the door by around 5 a.m., and done with the whole thing by 8:30 a.m., just in time for her to head off to work. (And, by the way, Odom thinks the study her family helped inspire is "just fantastic."


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