Black Friday isn’t charity. Here’s how retailers want to trick you into spending more than you should

Business Insider SA

News analysis

black friday
  • Black Friday, on 26 November this year, offers some genuinely big discounts.
  • It also features limited stock, price trickery, fake discounts, and mass psychological manipulation.
  • This is how stores will try to trick you into buying things you don't need and spending more than you should on Black Friday 2021.
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Black Friday, which falls on 26 November this year, may feel like an annual treat for shoppers, especially after a tough period as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic, but it has little to do with altruism. 

For retailers it is all about maximising consumer spend and getting rid of old stock. And with the last two years being among the country’s toughest from an economic perspective, for shoppers and sellers, it’s likely stores will be doubling down on their efforts to offer seemingly unbeatable deals. Many have already started, with months-long pre-Black Friday sales.

Some Black Friday bargains will save you money, with certain items selling close to or even below cost price, but profit-starved stores that have also had a torrid year do not plan to come in at an overall loss for the day simply because they care for your wellbeing, or desire for a new flatscreen TV.

Rather, online and brick and mortar stores will use the annual shopping day this year to manipulate consumers, win hearts, minds and news headlines, and, if all goes to plan, generate additional revenue.

In South Africa, shoppers spend billions at stores on Black Friday each year - an amount so significant that in pervious years it’s even helped ‘save’ the country's economy. But with South African consumer spending habits often dictated by pay day deposits, it’s an expense that few local consumers can actually afford - and bargains bought now on credit may in the long run even end up costing more than if bought at their regular price.

Discretion, and a strong dose of cynicism, can go a long way towards avoiding the pitfalls of Black Friday, and learning about the tricks that stores use to get consumers to part with their cash, and then, ironically, thank the stores while doing so, is a good place to start. 

This is how stores will try to trick you into spending more money than you probably should on Black Friday 2021.

Stores will build up your bargain-seeking arrogance – to your detriment.

The psychological manipulation starts long before anyone bangs on the store doors early on Black Friday morning itself, and all the retailers taking part are conspiring against you. 

Stores use several psychological tricks to manipulate shoppers, but one of the most important is boosting your certainty of finding a great deal on days like Black Friday, according to brand and consumer specialist Martin Lindstrom.

He argued on Bloomberg that most of what we do while shopping is irrational and subconscious, and calls the mall “the soul of seduction”. The more rational shoppers think they are, he says, the more likely they are to be manipulated.

In other words, you might think it’s entirely rational, and even pretty genius, to be tracking down that amazing deal on Black Friday - but if anything, this confidence just means you’re more likely to fall prey to their tricks.

Building up the hype prior to Black Friday reinforces the idea that great bargains are to be had. Also watch out for messages that tease limited availability and the need to pounce on deals while they are available, rather than sitting on the idea of buying that brand new washing machine until it is "too late".

Those ticking clocks often mean nothing

With Black Friday slowly moving from a single day to a full month, many online stores now offer limited time deals in the weeks leading up to the big day. To help drive sales, many of these deals come with anxiety-inducing ticking clocks that produce a sense of urgency to help close the sale before you've really had time to think clearly.

Although the deal may well disappear the next day, oftentimes they don't - or they're just marginally more expensive after the time has lapsed. Rather than fall for the trick of thinking you need to buy immediately or your time will run out, take a few minutes to investigate whether this limited time deal is actually as good as the store is urging you to believe.

"Limited stock" is just that – especially if the numbers aren't specified.

Mainstream stores will not risk being caught for fraud; if they advertise a once-in-a-lifetime discount of tens of thousands of rands, they really will sell at that price. But there is no requirement for them to have enough stock to make sure you too can get that item at that price.

Be especially worried when the level of stock is not specified, because "limited" can mean "one".

Stores count on the fact that the adrenaline rush of Black Friday will make you grab a "deal" you haven't properly researched when limited stock means you can't get exactly what you want – especially after you've camped out on a cold floor all night or obsessively clicked "refresh" on a web page.

Those "discounts" may not be as big as they sound - or a reduction at all

Online stores in particular love to shout about their great percentage discounts on products. Even in sales leading up to Black Friday it's common to see shops promoting deals, discounts and savings - often to the tune of thousands of rands.

Alongside the discounted products are "before", "was", or "recommended retail" prices, often triumphantly scratched out to show you just how much you're apparently saving. But there's little legislation governing how shops calculate these deals - and ongoing research by Business Insider has shown how two of South Africa's biggest online stores regularly post misleading discounts.

Stores do this by inflating or using an extremely outdated recommended retail prices - and then posting their new price along side this to make it look like you're scoring more than you really are. If you see a big discount advertised treat it with suspicion - and do some research on other platforms to make sure it's as good as the store says it is.

Retailers lure you in with great deals, and then subtly tempt you to buy stuff that is not on sale

The concept of loss leaders - items that aren’t necessarily profitable, but sold to attract customers to other items - is nothing new, and not exclusive to Black Friday, either.

Between online research and social media, retailers have to offer genuinely good deals to get feet through their doors rather than those of competitors. If they draw enough traffic they may be able to offset the losses with higher volumes on regularly-priced goods, and they tend to do everything in their power to convince you to buy those.

In some cases it seems as if stores also subtly mark up items they think shoppers may not know the value of, and let the halo-effect of Black Friday give the impression that these too are really good deals.

Loss-leading is not a failsafe way for stores to generate profits, but they do work – to the extent that they’re banned in many US states and European countries.

The products on sale may be old....

Check the model numbers of the hot ticket items that are deeply discounted, and you may find that the products are anything but new.

Events like Black Friday are a great way to move old items that haven't sold through the year, and probably won't move during Christmas shopping either – and which will only drop in value as they are outpaced by newer models with new features or technologies.

These can still be great deals if you know what you are in for, and if you are happy with last year’s model, or one with limited features. Just don't be caught with a "new" TV that's replaced with a more advanced model a few weeks later.

... or inferior

Because American consumers can now be counted on to flood into stores for Black Friday, some manufacturers create products especially to capitalise on that spending.

In at least some cases, these special product lines are cheaper to make, and inferior, to mainstream product lines that carry the same name. Because of this, Forbes suggests that the very bastion of a Black Friday deal - the not-so-humble flat screen television - is better bought at other times of the year to avoid buying “toned down, derivative models”.

If you can't find the model number for a common item from a big name with a simple Google search, beware.

You are not being paranoid: some stores will quietly increase prices before Black Friday to claim bigger discount levels.

As with some online stores in South Africa, those dramatic double-digit percentage discounts on offer come 26 November will not necessarily be as attractive as simple math would suggest.

That’s because in order to hit the advertised discounts, some retailers quietly increase the retail price of sale items a few weeks before the event.

That way they can genuinely claim a discount compared to what they were charging before, even though that is not necessarily the price that was generally charged.

The add-ons are often more expensive than the item

If you're buying a new flatscreen TV at a steep discount, chances are you'll need a new stand, or at least some batteries and an HDMI cable. Or if you're buying that cheap gas braai, a gas canister and some tongs are a must. Just because the must-have accessory is sitting next to your discounted Black Friday purchase on the shop floor - or advertised to you in a "Related Items" section on the shop's website - it doesn't mean it too is cheap. In fact, it's common for items like batteries, remote controls, TV stands, gas canisters, and related accessories to be more expensive than you might find them at other stores or during other times of the year.

Chances are you'll get the same thing at the same discount later – and you may do even better.

It’s easy to fall into the temptation trap of Black Friday and think it’s the only sale of the year. But, in the US market at least, CNN claims that there are the same - if not better - deals to be had at other times of the year.

And the South African seasonal retail cycle is looking more and more like that of America, as Black Friday and Cyber Monday take hold here. Some stores, like Checkers and Pick n Pay, have now started members' only shopping weekends that offer deals equal to or better than those you'll wrestle for on Black Friday.

Sales on things like clothes and outdoor equipment are often dictated by the changing weather, so if you’re after summer fashion items, you may be better off waiting a few months after Black Friday.

Likewise, South African electronics stores increasingly release items like smart phones and televisions soon after they launch elsewhere. Those launch dates are often linked to big international events, such as the Consumer Electronics Show in the US.

So if you lust after a big-ticket item such as a new iPhone or a large TV, you might be better syncing your sales clock with, say, Apple's international releases, and waiting for the fire-sale price drops that come when that now top-of-the-line phone suddenly becomes a previous model.

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