Once upon a time, holiday sales were quiet affairs, held a respectable time after Christmas in sedate stores with names like Lord & Taylor. Now they're launched the day after Thanksgiving, and conducted with all the civility of a wrestling smackdown, with pushing, shoving and warrior whoops as doors open before dawn.
And even before the doors open, bargain hunters waiting all night in the cold are hosting the equivalent of Super Bowl tailgate parties, complete with mini-TVs, crockpots and Smokey Joes.
For those desperately trying to stretch a dollar, standing in line to get a great bargain can truly make a difference in the quality of gifts they give. But for many others, the decision to dive into shopping madness almost before the giblets have departed the gullet is driven by more complicated motives.
Most are on a mission that can only be described as primal, say behavior experts and mental health professionals. In the truest sense, they are bringing home the bacon -- whatever it takes -- and in the process they are reinforcing a sense of personal mastery in their skillful procurement of coveted items. When they're successful, the feeling is similar to the triumph of a hunter bringing home the kill, even if the kill is actually a TMX Elmo.
Some too are drawn to the wildly unpredictable social scene of Black Friday. Like crashing a great party and talking about it the next day, showing up at an ungodly hour and rubbing wallets with strangers can generate adventures worthy of rehashing later around the water cooler.
And still others see the trials and tribulations of shopping on Black Friday as a means to strengthen family relationships or friendships -- nothing says "I'm there for you" like the shared experience of tag-teaming your neighbor for the last Nintendo Wii at the local big-box store.
Fueling this drive to shop early and shop often is the inevitable media attention -- and savvier-than-ever retailers pulling folks into their stores like carnival barkers. "This is the first year that we saw entire outlet malls open all night," says the National Retail Federation's Daniel Butler, vice president of merchandising and retail operations.
All this provides the perfect agar for crazed holiday shopping.
This year, more than 140 million shoppers hit the stores on Black Friday weekend, spending $360 per person, up 18.9% from last year, according to the National Retail Federation. More than one-third of shoppers got to their first destination before 6 a.m.
The growing willingness to do almost anything, publicly, for a deal and then talk about it afterward signals a cultural shift of sorts.
"It used to be that we celebrated what we purchased," says Paco Underhill, founder and chief executive of Envirosell, a research firm and author of "Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping." "Now it's a celebration of what we paid for it," he says. "People aren't bragging about how much they spent, but how little they spent."
Regardless of what brings them to the sales, nearly all the shoppers share one characteristic: Like tigers on the hunt, they are tracking down and pouncing on something of perceived value. In doing so, they are relying on an instinct as old as mankind.
In this case, the prey is a sale item. And, as savvy shoppers know, sale items are more precious than retail items, both at home and on the savanna.
Spotting an item of perceived value taps into a survival instinct, says Dr. Timothy Fong, director of UCLA's Impulse Control Disorders Clinic. "When things are perceived to have value, we as humans want it, whether it's a piece of meat or a good-looking girl or a nice car or a job opportunity," he says. And where once we might have sought out an antelope and a nice fire, "we're on the hunt for a PlayStation 3 or Louis Vuitton bag," Fong says. But the extent of the bargain isn't the only thing that determines the value of an item -- the pain and misery endured while procuring it count too.
"The more suffering that goes into the purchase, the more valuable the item is perceived to be," says Rajagopal Raghunathan, assistant professor of marketing at University of Texas at Austin and author of several papers on shopping. "This is enhanced even more when you see others suffering as well in pursuit of the product."
When it comes to suffering, camping outside a big-box store in the middle of a strip mall in November would certainly qualify. Although the less-driven may shudder at the notion of staying up all night for any reason, Fong gives such campers credit for moxie -- and for prioritizing.
"They're in touch with what they want and need, and they're willing to set out a plan to get it," he says.
A plan is key, of course, to not only surviving Black Friday but also triumphing over it.
Among bargain hunters most likely to be successful are those who see such shopping days as an opportunity to showcase a skill, much like playing golf, says Lars Perner, an assistant professor of clinical marketing at USC who has studied bargain hunting and other shopping behavior. These are shoppers who are highly educated about prices and very organized in their shopping plan. Included in this group are people who like the idea of being in the know and believe that they gain social status in being acutely knowledgeable about sales, he says.
But sometimes the thrill of the sale can be too much for even the most rational, knowledgeable shopper.
Checking out Black Friday action this year, Raymond Burke, professor of business administration at Indiana University, stopped at an office supply store at 4 a.m. and found shoppers lined up to buy heat laminators -- something most of them couldn't possibly have needed. "There's a herd mentality where you see others buying something and infer that if they need it, you must need it too," he says.
Such poor decision-making is sometimes compounded by other very human factors: In the middle of the night, shoppers are tired, under stress and not always sober. The lack of sobriety illustrates the increasing reputation of Black Friday as a holiday kick-off party for a hearty band of wild and crazy folks who like a good time.
"I think there's an American ideal where we promote people who do wild and crazy things," Fong says. We may not want to camp out, party-on and race our way around a mall at midnight, he says, but we like hearing about the folks who do.
Finally, there's another phenomenon at play. Slowly, consciously or unconsciously, Americans have not only incorporated Black Friday into their holiday traditions, Black Friday has become a holiday tradition.
For people such as Mindy Steinman, the day signals the beginning of the holiday season, but more important, it's all about friendship.
Steinman, who once couldn't conceive of shopping in the wee hours of the morning, was dragged to her first Black Friday 10 years ago by friends. "I approached it as a cross-cultural experience," she says. "I thought they were crazy." After that first time though, Steinman, a producer for AirTalk on KPCC-FM (89.3), was hooked.
"I enjoy the people-watching and the bargains," she says, "but more than that, it's a tradition with these dear friends."
Although Fong sees the passion for Black Friday shopping as inherently positive, he also has another thought.
"We're putting huge amounts of energy on acquiring stuff," he says. "Wouldn't it be great if people camped out to help the homeless or recycle or clean up the beach?" When we're motivated, he says, "we're willing to do anything."