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Science of Shopping: How to Survive Black Friday

Black Friday shoppers
Pre-dawn shoppers bustle past a Macy's on Black Friday 2011 in Roosevelt Field Mall in Garden City, N.Y. (Image credit: <a href="">littleny</a> / <a href=""></a>)

The lure of Black Friday is clearly strong. For years, eager shoppers have waited in chilly mall parking lots for door-busting sales that start before dawn. Increasingly, stores are moving those sales earlier and earlier. This year, for example, Walmart will open its stores at 8 p.m. on Thursday night.

Some people may prefer to continue picking at pie over late-night or early-morning shopping sprees, but the allure of a deal appeals mightily to the human psyche, psychologists say. There are a few tricks you can use to hold strong against retailer persuasion, however.

"People truly want to get a good deal, and so they might be less rational … when they can look in the environment and find different cues that make them think they're getting a good deal," Kenneth Manning, a professor of marketing at Colorado State University, told LiveScience in 2010. "The decision-making can be somewhat emotional."

Why we go mad for deals

In fact, limited-time-only deals may appeal to our evolutionary urge to hoard resources, said Gad Saad, a marketing professor at Concordia University in Montreal. Conspicuous consumption may also appeal to the desire to signal our dominance and worthiness as mates. For example, a 2009 study by Saad found that men who drove around in fancy Porsches experienced a testosterone surge over men who test-drove a nondescript sedan.

Deals also appeal to self-esteem, according to work by marketing professor Peter Darke of York University in Toronto. Darke has found that a 50-percent-off deal gives people a happiness boost equal to getting to keep the change on a regular-priced item. [7 Marking Tricks Retailers Use]

"There's some evidence to suggest that it reflects back on them as a sort of rational, good, effective, skilled shopper," Drake told LiveScience in 2010.

How to keep your head

It is possible, though, to make rational decisions even amid the Black Friday mania. Knowing the tricks retailers use can help. Among these are limited-time-only sales, which encourage impulse buys. Remember: Sales abound throughout the entire holiday season. If you don't get that hot gift now, chances are it'll be available later.

Free gifts are another enticement. Sometimes, people look askance at sale items, assuming deep discounts must mean something is wrong. Drake has found that retailers can get around that problem by offering goods at regular prices, but throwing in freebies. Do you really need that free make-up case that comes with a $20 purchase? If not, you may want to shop around for a better deal on the item you really want.

Finally, there's the Christmas spirit. It's not just for cozy evenings around the fire with family anymore. Retailers use Christmas decorations, scents and music to put people in the gift-buying mood.

Lisa Cavanaugh, a consumer psychologist at the University of Southern California, recommends keeping your goals in mind when venturing into these retail wonderlands.

"Having a list, knowing exactly who you're shopping for and what your budget is for each of those people is really important," she told LiveScience in 2010. "It's really easy to get swept up in the craziness that is after-Thanksgiving shopping."

Follow Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas or LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

Stephanie Pappas
Stephanie Pappas

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.