Why do people act the way they do on Black Friday?

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Police have warned retailers in the UK for some time that they must have enough security to handle Black Friday sales. But why does the prospect of a deal send some customers into a frenzy?

Footage of people fighting over TV sets made headlines on Black Friday last year. The sales led to arrests as well as injuries. A woman broke her wrist in a crush in Manchester while shoppers scrambled to get the best deals.

"Even on #BlackFriday shoving people to the floor so you can get £20 off a Coffee Maker is still an assault," tweeted a Metropolitan police officer in London. But what makes people behave so desperately over kitchen appliances?

"Black Friday is designed around scarcity," explains Kate Nightingale, a customer psychologist. The sales operate around the fact that there is a limited supply of goods. Rare items are seen to be more valuable.

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This is the reason why companies such as Amazon highlight the number of goods left in stock. It draws attention to the scarcity of the item and triggers a fear of missing out which drives people to buy faster. "We start to become a bit more competitive," says Nightingale. "Our basic primal instincts are starting to wake up even if we don't need the items that we actually buy."

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This is exacerbated on Black Friday because people will remember that last year the most desirable items ran out quickly. The sense of competition is a powerful motivator. Bidding wars on eBay show just how easy it is for someone to get caught up in a contest and pay more than they intended just to win the battle.

In the real world, allowing a crowd to run towards a limited number of TV sets puts customers in direct competition with each other.

The way that Black Friday is handled adds to that competitive feeling. "They all arrive early, there is a big crowd waiting, the doors are shut and at midnight there is this grand opening," explains Rosy Boardman, lecturer of fashion business at the University of Manchester. "People are caught up in the excitement." It also helps turn Black Friday into a ritual which can make spending a lot of money on one day seem more acceptable and lure in less impulsive shoppers.

Key to this atmosphere is building up a sense of anticipation. Retailers have to ensure that people have heard of the offers that will be available. Black Friday needs to be turned into an event like Valentine's Day or Halloween. Retailers will use emails, adverts, social media updates, and glaring website messages in the weeks leading up to Black Friday. "It hypes people up into a kind of frenzy," says Boardman. "Their expectations are very high and they have been promised a great deal."

This can lead to frustration when people miss out on what they wanted to buy. A study in the US suggested that people who commit acts of "consumer misbehaviour" were more likely to have carefully planned their Black Friday shopping trips. Researchers concluded that some people were reacting badly to being blocked from their goals.

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Image caption US shoppers await the door opening

These goals are not always physical goods, argues Nightingale. "Our behaviour will also be partly associated with identity." This means that some people may be fighting for more important issues than they realise. "If it's important for someone to be seen as a winner or as an affluent person in their social circle then they're more likely to participate in such behaviours. Simply buying a better TV would be representative of them being more affluent even if they are not," she adds.

There are lots of tricks that can be used to increase someone's need to buy something. Old prices will be crossed out and new prices displayed in a much bigger, brighter font. There might be spotlights on particular displays that are placed near walkways to make them hard to miss. Music can also influence people's shopping habits, says Nightingale. "We are naturally attracted to the direction of music so if a speaker is on the right and there are two choices of TV sets on the shelf next to the speaker, we will tend to choose the one on the right."

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Media captionFootage of shoppers scrambling to get their hands on merchandise

The problem for shoppers is that the atmosphere on Black Friday makes it harder to spot a good deal from a bad one. People are in an emotional state and it becomes harder to assess details such as pricing, product quality and technical features. "We are not able to process as much information if we are in an emotional, adrenaline-driven environment," argues Nightingale.

The aggressive sales tactics and adrenaline-fuelled atmosphere can be exhausting. People get used to sales techniques and they can begin to backfire as shoppers get irritated by them. Asda has announced that it's not going to take part in Black Friday because of "customer fatigue".

But it's not likely to stop Black Friday. The feeling of scoring a bargain gives customers a sense of achievement that can be a reward in itself. Boardman says that last year many people waiting in the crowds did not know what they were going to buy. "They just wanted a good deal," she says. It's the one thing that people will not get tired of.

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