Black Friday: Why Shoppers Fall For Dishonest Marketing

Shoppers pay for purchases during Black Friday sales at a Best Buy store in Los Angeles. REUTERS/David McNew

A few years ago, J.C. Penney got in slightly ahead of what would become the anti-Black Friday branding trend by announcing it would stop playing games with customers desperate for deals. In the past, the store would tease buyers with inflated original prices that often no one ever really paid, but which made buyers feel like they'd gotten a good deal when they paid anything lower. Why not just be forthright, J.C. Penney higher-ups reasoned, and just tell customers the amount an item was actually being sold for?

As ScienceNews reported in a 2013 article, whether J.C. Penney truly wanted to provide their customers with a more honest shopping experience or whether they were just trying to ride the wave of Black Friday backlash into some good PR, by making the change, they were removing a key element behind what makes a lot of people feel satisfied about going shopping.

"[B]y not showing marked-down prices, Penney's removed an element that helps shoppers feel rational," as ScienceNews reported in a 2013 article. "Seeing that marked-down price next to a higher original price provides an important yardstick for gauging whether we should buy something."

Within a few months, J.C. Penney ended up bringing back coupons and clearance sales. The appeal of all the reduced-price bells and whistles, as ScienceNews wrote at the time, is best explained by a concept called anchoring.

Do you have any idea how much synthetic down winter coat is actually worth? What about a toaster? Of course not—most don't. When customers see a coat priced at $120, on some level they're aware of the fact that they have no clue whether or not this is a good deal or even a fair one. If, however, they have an anchor—a basis of comparison, like a sticker with a crossed-out price of $220—then suddenly that $120 price-tag makes them confident that the coat is a good value.

Retailtouchpoints points out that a similar concept, called the decoy effect, can also attract more buyers. In a now semi-famous case study on the phenomenon, Williams Sonoma once boosted sales of a languishing $225 artisanal breadmaker through the roof simply by introducing another, basically identical model that cost about 50 percent more.

Buyers find these kinds of games psychologically comforting, but still, one reason Black Friday got as big as it did is because shoppers simply find bargain-hunting exhilarating.

"They want to experience the excitement of the event first-hand,"'s director of content marketing Lindsay Sakraida told Time about why people participate in Black Friday. "They just wanted to see what all the fuss was about."