CRUNCHEd: a blog about people and numbers

Your Brain on Shopping: 14 Facts You Should Know Before Black Friday


"Black Friday," the retail orgy that takes place the day after Thanksgiving, has now been joined by "Small Business Saturday" and "Cyber Monday," so you can give your Sunday to the Lord, but every other day of this holiday weekend belongs to Mammon. Your economy needs you. So get out there and stimulate it with some spending … making sure, of course, to shop within your means. The contradictory pressures operating on the shopper’s brain have been the subject of some interesting studies. Here are some of the most compelling tidbits from the neuroscience of retail:

  1. Chronic spenders and the thrifty have different brain chemistry.

    A study published in Neuron magazine in 2007 found that, in the moments just before making a purchasing decision, the brains of compulsive shoppers activate in a different way from the general public. Scientists from Stanford and Carnegie Mellon came to these findings by placing subjects in an MRI machine, giving them $40 they were welcome to keep, but then showing them images of items they could "buy" with the money, as well as the prices. The images of desirable products lit up one part of the brain, the nucleus accumbens (a pleasure center), and the prices lit up another, the insula (a fear or pain-anticipation center) … but not for the shopaholics, who went home with none of their money left.

  2. "Retail therapy" really is a common coping mechanism.

    Researchers from Stanford, Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of Pittsburgh published a paper in Psychological Science demonstrating that a sad mood can lead to impulse buying. Participants in their study who were made to watch sad videos (for instance, of a boy mourning his dead father) were willing to pay up to three times as much for the same items as a control group exposed to neutral stimuli.

  3. Manufacturers are studying the science of shopping, too.

    Not all shopping research that’s being done is in the impartial pursuit of knowledge. Fortune 500 companies are themselves hiring neuroscience researchers like Perception Research Services to figure out how to better push some of your favorite brands. Using EEG headsets, they analyze consumer reactions to find out which design and packaging choices make items fly off the shelves.

  4. Compulsive shopping may be correlated with other addictive behaviors.

    Oniomania is one technical term for the disorder we call shopping addiction. While it’s always tempting to discuss it in joking terms, it’s not so funny for those who are driven into debt by this seemingly uncontrollable compulsion, or for their spouses and dependents. According to the National Institutes of Health, "compulsive buying disorder" or CBD commonly coincides with gambling addiction, mood and anxiety disorders, and substance abuse.

  5. Women are more likely to search for special deals online, but most other online shopping behaviors favor men.

    Perhaps surprisingly, a study by performance marketing agency Performics showed that males were more likely to engage in five of six social shopping behaviors they examined: reading reviews, comparing products, researching product information, finding product availability, and locating physical stores. The only shopping behavior that skewed female on websites was looking for coupons, deals, or specials.

  6. More than half of Americans have saved for this holiday season.

    One of the bright spots in post-recession America is that consumers have seriously reformed their spending habits. Credit card debt is now much lower, and the savings rate much higher, than compared to the past couple of decades. Although this thrift is actually a contributing factor to the slow recovery, it’s also a good long-term sign. The Accenture Holiday Shopping Survey shows 51% of Americans have saved up for this Christmas season, and because they’ve made plans, their interest in shopping is up compared to the last few cycles, with 53% planning to shop on Black Friday.

  7. Computers have altered people’s buying habits.

    According to Ipsos and Google, 80% of shoppers this holiday season will research purchases online before making them. What’s more, these habits are proving quite flexible: many shoppers will look in a store before buying online, while others will do the reverse, presumably based around factors like price comparisons and shipping time. Another increasingly common behavior is to browse on one device and later buy on another, after bookmarking or emailing yourself a reminder. People seem to be shopping smarter and thoroughly exploring their options.

  8. You may live longer if you go shopping often.

    Researchers in Taiwan conducted an interesting study examining the correlation between frequency of shopping and health outcomes. According to WebMD’s write-up of the research, "People who shopped more tended to be smokers and alcohol drinkers, but had better physical and mental health. They also took regular exercise and had a network of friends to have meals with. When other factors were taken into account, daily shoppers were 27% less likely to die, with the men amongst them 28% less likely to die, compared with 23% of women." Suggested reasons for this include the increased physical and social activity, as well as the increased likelihood of eating fresh food.

  9. For stores, crowds are a mixed blessing.

    According to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research by scholars at NYU and Penn, consumers are attracted to crowds. Yet the entire bustle makes them less likely to actually buy things. Another thing the study showed was that the longer shoppers spend in a store, the more likely they are to stop browsing and just go for the things they had already planned to buy.

  10. There are four different "modes" shoppers can fall into.

    A study by the Nielsen Company finds that there are four discrete mindsets common to shoppers. In the first, "autopilot" or "grab-and-go," consumers are just trying to get their routine needs met, generally sticking to the same brands and crossing necessities off their lists. The second, "variety-seeking" mode means customers may be bored and will actively look to add a little novelty to their cart. In "buzz" mode they’re susceptible to attractive marketing and new kinds of products. "Bargain-hunting" mode is a race to the bottom, price-wise, where buyers are more interested in the bottom line than any clever pitch.

  11. Mindfulness training can combat shopping addiction.

    The research group RESOLVE (a consortium of the Centre for Environmental Strategy, the Surrey Energy Economics Centre, the Environmental Psychology Research Group and the Department of Sociology, all at England’s University of Surrey) conducted a study that taught mindfulness techniques to shopping addicts and tracked their progress. After the eight-week courses the subjects were found to have lower levels of anxiety and depression and more control over impulsive behavior.

  12. Taking a Cognitive Reflection Test can tell you what kind of shopper you are.

    A psychologist from Brown and a marketing professor from the University of Colorado administered the Cognitive Reflection Test, or CRT, and found that shoppers could be neatly divided into two distinct personality types, which they dubbed "explanation fiends" and "explanation foes." The former are data-driven consumers who have a conservative estimate of their own initial knowledge, and don’t buy until they know all the details. The latter are more guided by intuition, and began by believing they already had all the pertinent information, which then proved "illusory" upon questioning.

  13. Acting as though you own an item makes you more likely to buy it.

    Beware the dressing room. As economist Dan Ariely explains in his book Predictably Irrational, we become attached to things once we feel ownership over them, a phenomenon called the "endowment effect." Something as simple as touching an object can produce this effect, as can trying it on or imagining yourself using it.

  14. Believe it or not, "Gray Thursday" is on the rise.

    Yes, that means exactly what you fear it might. According to the National Retail Federation, over the past few years retailers have gone from opening in the early morning of Black Friday to opening on the evening of Thanksgiving itself. Stop the madness! Walmart workers are actually planning to strike in protest of their company’s plans to open at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving, which was widely celebrated even before being proclaimed a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863.

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