Expert Commentary

Covering Black Friday and winter holiday shopping: A research roundup

This collection of research, compiled to help journalists write about Black Friday and winter holiday shopping, examines shopper experiences, holiday pricing, shopping psychology and Black Friday aggression.

People shopping at the mall

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is widely regarded as the start of the winter holiday shopping season in the United States. Each November, newsrooms gear up to cover this annual rite of retail, dispatching journalists to shopping malls and discount stores in the early morning to report on the frenzied — and sometimes violent — competition for the best deals of the day.

Newsrooms often assign multiple reporters to cover Black Friday and holiday shopping more broadly. While some journalists focus on the consumer experience — for example, family members bonding over hot chocolate and sales fliers — others are on the lookout for Black Friday-related crime, including fights over merchandise. Many news outlets began reporting on Black Friday bargains weeks ago, providing a public service by pointing out which stores will have the best prices on high-demand items such as smartphones, video game systems and the Toy of the Year. Meanwhile, reporters on the business beat will explain what all of this means in terms of jobs, commercial profit and the economy, both locally and nationally.

Whether you’re covering Black Friday for the first time or looking for new angles to explore, keep in mind that several journalism organizations offer guidance. The Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, for example, has published articles on holiday shopping story ideas and developing a “battle plan” for coverage. You can listen to a recording of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers’ training session, “From Turkey to Tinsel: Covering the Holiday Retail Season.” Meanwhile, an online publication dedicated to the field of business journalism interviewed two Bloomberg reporters about their strategies for covering Black Friday — “the new Olympics.”

Journalist’s Resource also wants to help. Below, we pulled together a number of resources to help newsrooms understand and find new story ideas about the winter shopping season. We’ve added new material and links since this post first was published in 2017. You’ll find academic research on shopper experiences, holiday pricing, shopping psychology and Black Friday aggression. We also link to relevant data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Pew Research Center, National Retail Federation and other organizations. Good luck!


Holiday pricing

“Consumer Sophistication, Word-of-Mouth and ‘False’ Promotions”
Deng, Yiting; et al. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 2018.
Summary: This paper examines ‘false’ retail discounts — for example, when a store raises the price of an item before a sale and then advertises the item as discounted after lowering the price to the original price. The researchers created an analytical model to look at the conditions under which two hypothetical retail stores were likely to offer fake sales. The researchers constructed a market composed of two types of consumers: “sophisticated” consumers who know a fake retail promotion when they see it and “naïve” ones who don’t.

The researchers find that the possibility of offering a fake sale can increase the payoffs for both stores, especially in a competitive market. They also find that “even when consumers can identify that a firm is offering a false promotion, and thus not only stay away from the falsely promoted offering from the firm, but also pass this information to others, a firm still finds it optimal to offer such promotions from time to time.” However, they also find that the two stores are less likely to offer a false promotion in an environment where consumers are more sophisticated and share information widely via word of mouth.

“What Did Consumers Pay for 2016’s Hot Toy? A Descriptive Analysis of Hatchimal Prices in Ebay Auctions during the 2016 Holiday Shopping Season”
Dholakia, Utpal M. Unpublished paper funded by Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business, 2017.
Abstract: “While it is undisputed that 2016’s ‘hot toy’ was the Hatchimal, it is unclear how much shoppers paid for the toy in the secondary market or how resellers fared. Using data on 34,657 completed successful Hatchimal eBay auctions by 16,726 sellers between October 13 and December 24, 2016, I find that shoppers paid an average of $143.67 for the $60 toy. Hatchimal prices varied considerably over this time period. They were lowest ($65.24) on October 16 and highest ($185.22) on November 24, Thanksgiving Day. 62.1 percent of eBay shoppers paid between $125 and $175, and just over 3 percent paid more than $200 for a Hatchimal. The Toys R Us exclusive Bearakat was the most sought after Hatchimal version, earning a price premium of 23 percent. In contrast, the Walmart and Target exclusive Hatchimal versions earned rather modest price premiums of 4-5 percent. Most sellers were amateurs, listing one or two Hatchimal auctions and earning an estimated $150 of total profit from their endeavor. Shoppers paid higher prices in Hatchimal auctions with high shipping fees ($10) and those listed by experienced eBay sellers. Based on the findings from this descriptive analysis, I conclude this report with specific recommendation to shoppers about how to shop smart for a hot toy during the holiday shopping season.”


Psychology of shopping

“Who Are the Scrooges? Personality Predictors of Holiday Spending”
Weston, Sara J.; et al. Social Psychological and Personality Science, September 2018.
Summary: This study, led by researchers at Northwestern University and University College London, looks at the relationship between personality types and spending amounts over the holiday season. “More nervous and stress-reactive participants (higher neuroticism) spent less during the holiday season, as did those with more artistic interests and more active imaginations,” the authors write. Meanwhile, “those who are low in neuroticism may be more inclined to spend their money more freely, untethered by the pressure and fear of disappointing others.”

“Consumer Emotions on Black Friday: Antecedents and Consequence”
Lennon, Sharron J; Kim, Minjeong; Lee, Jaeha; Johnson, Kim K.P. Journal of Research for Consumers, 2018.
Summary: This study examines the emotions shoppers felt and expectations they had during previous Black Friday shopping experiences. The researchers make a number of suggestions to help retailers ensure these annual shopping rituals are a positive experience. The findings suggest, for example, that “retailers need to keep in mind that excitement and anticipation [about Black Friday deals] evoked by media hype can result in adverse outcomes when managed poorly (e.g., stockouts, wait in line).”

“With or Without you: The Positive and Negative Influence of Retail Companions”
Hart, Phillip M.; Dale, Rick. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 2014.
Abstract: “This study evaluates whether the influence of shopping with a companion is consistent across retail contexts with service components or between genders. An experiment asked participants to recall and evaluate their most recent solo or joint restaurant or shopping experience. Results demonstrate that for restaurant experiences, there is a positive influence of others on individual time spent, money spent, satisfaction, and attitude toward the act. For shopping experiences, however, these effects were either strengthened or reversed dependent upon gender. For (males) females, joint shopping experiences are linked to (increased) decreased amount paid, attitude toward the act, and re-patronage intentions.” 

“Fairness and Discounts: The Subjective Value of a Bargain”
Darke, Peter R.; Dahl, Darren W. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 2003.
Abstract: “In this work, we examined the surprising value consumers attach to getting a bargain. Past research has largely understood this phenomenon in terms of the impact discounts have on perceptions of fairness. However, the evidence for this explanation is inconclusive due to a number of viable alternatives as well as issues relating to construct and external validity. The experiments we report here provide clearer evidence for the basic assertion that discounts increase purchase satisfaction due to the nonfinancial rewards that are associated with perceptions of fairness. Furthermore, current notions of fairness in the promotion literature are extended by showing that social cues such as the relative size of the discount received by another customer and the loyalty status of that customer can also have an important impact on fairness and purchase satisfaction.”


Shopper experiences 

“Seasonality of Consumers’ Third-Party Online Complaining Behavior”
Lee, Seungsin; et al. Social Behavior and Personality, 2018.
Summary: This study looks at consumer complaints made through a third-party website called Researchers compare the types and quantity of complaints made during the holiday shopping season of November and December to complaints made during the rest of the year. The monthly average number of complaints is higher during the winter holiday season, with the largest proportion of complaints focusing on product delivery, pricing and return and refund policies.

“An Exploratory Investigation of Black Friday Consumption Rituals”
Thomas, Jane Boyd; Peters, Cara. International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, 2011.
Summary: Two researchers from Winthrop University conducted interviews over two years with 38 Black Friday shoppers aged 20 to 70 years to understand their shopping habits and motivations. The authors found that consumers viewed Black Friday as an annual ritual in which these shoppers had participated an average of 12 years. Shoppers said the event provides an opportunity for family bonding and competition. “Holistically, the data suggest that Black Friday is viewed by shoppers as something akin to a military mission. The shopper first recruits a group of bonded people (i.e., her family) to participate alongside him/her in the event (i.e., familial bonding). The group then creates a detailed plan of attack based on the most efficient route to purchase the best items on sale (i.e., strategic planning). Third, the group goes into battle, getting in and out as quickly as possible. In other words, they rise at dawn and race into the stores to grab up the deeply discounted items (i.e., the great race). Finally, the group emerges successfully, purchasing those deeply discounted items at the expense of all the other shoppers who are trying to do the same thing (i.e., mission accomplished).”

“Black Friday and Cyber Monday: Understanding Consumer Intentions on Two Major Shopping Days”
Swilley, Esther; Goldsmith, Ronald E. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 2013.
Summary: This study focuses on the shopping habits of students studying business at a university in the Midwest. Based on a survey of 225 students of various age groups, researchers found that consumers enjoy shopping on Black Friday more than shopping online on Cyber Monday. However, consumers are more likely to shop on Cyber Monday because of the convenience. Women are more than twice as likely as men to shop at the mall on Black Friday. Both are equally likely to shop online on Cyber Monday. Consumers rated both almost equally useful in terms of fulfilling purchasing needs.

“U.S. Online Shopping: Facts, Fiction, Hopes and Dreams”
Schultz, Don E.; Block, Martin P. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 2015.
Abstract: “Much online shopping research has been viewed from the seller׳s side, i.e., volume, timing and the like. This paper looks at online shopping/buying from the buyer׳s view. Based on 285,000+ individual responses from an online U.S. panel, the questionnaires, gathered between 2006 and 2013, form the analytical base. Findings include an increase in online shopping volume among a declining customer base. Consumer-reported details such as leading online retailers (, online product preferences, comparisons of online and fixed location research and buying scenarios, buying influences and the like are discussed.”


Consumer aggression, crime 

“Property Lines in the Mind: Consumers’ Psychological Ownership and Their Territorial Responses”
Kirk, Colleen P.; Peck, Joann; Swain, Scott D., Journal of Consumer Research, 2018.
Summary: This paper looks at the dark side of psychological ownership — the feeling that “It’s mine!” — among consumers. The researchers conducted five experimental studies and find that when consumers feel psychological ownership of an item, “they are prone to perceptions of infringement and subsequent territorial responses when they infer that another individual feels ownership of the same target.” The reaction is stronger among narcissists. “Narcissists are more likely to feel infringed and respond territorially when others signal ownership of their psychological territory,” the authors write.

“The Dark Side of Scarcity Promotions: How Exposure to Limited-Quantity Promotions Can Induce Aggression”
Kristofferson, Kirk; McFerran, Brent; Morales, Andrea C.; Dahl, Darren W. Journal of Consumer Research, 2017.
Abstract: “Marketers frequently use scarcity promotions, where a product or event is limited in availability. The present research shows conditions under which the mere exposure to such advertising can activate actual aggression that manifests even outside the domain of the good being promoted. Further, we document the process underlying this effect: exposure to limited-quantity promotion advertising prompts consumers to perceive other shoppers as competitive threats to obtaining a desired product and physiologically prepares consumers to aggress. Seven studies using multiple behavioral measures of aggression demonstrate this deleterious response to scarcity promotions.”

“What’s Deviance Got to Do With It? Black Friday Sales, Violence and Hyper-Conformity”
Raymen, Thomas; Smith, Oliver. The British Journal of Criminology, 2016.
Abstract: “Based upon original ethnographic and interview data, this article presents an initial theorization and analysis of the violence and disorder witnessed throughout UK high streets and superstores during the 2014 Black Friday sales. While the conduct of these ‘extreme shoppers’ appeared deviant, this article positions such behavior as hyper-conformity to the cultural values of neoliberalism, embodying the competitive individualism, cultivation of envy and aggressive display of consumer items which characterizes Western society in late modernity. In doing so, the authors explore the concept of ‘deviant leisure’, using the disorder of Black Friday to pose important questions about how the underpinning social and cultural values of neoliberal consumer capitalism pervades relatively mundane leisure activities, cultivating harmful subjectivities.”


Other helpful resources: