It’s Black Friday time again. This year UK spending is expected to hit £7.5bn with customers spending over £200 each on average according to PwC. This trumps the typical spend during Boxing Day of around £186 each. Businesses know this is a lucrative sales time, but also that record levels of inflation and higher energy costs mean that consumers will be on the lookout for the best deals.
And retailers are increasingly designing ads, apps and websites to tap into people’s behavioural biases. If design choices are intentionally there to confuse consumers, such as a large “Buy now” button compared to hard to find text about terms and conditions, these are known as ‘dark patterns’.
Here are five common behavioural biases that businesses use during Black Friday and steps you can take to avoid them.
1. Framing: 12 days of Christmas starts now!
Businesses excel at making us think we need to take advantage of Black Friday. Purchasing is framed as a default, i.e. the norm is for people to be on the hunt for deals at this time of year and to buy if we see an offer. This makes it more likely we end up purchasing something we don’t really want or need. Retailers particularly like to emphasise the time of year and frame gifting as a given.
You can tackle this by unsubscribing from marketing emails and mute some of your social media feeds so you are less tempted. For example, on Twitter you can use their advanced mute options to remove all mentions of Black Friday from your feed:
If buying something for yourself, consider whether you really need this item now, and if so whether you can repair rather than replace. If hunting for gifts, research suggests that giving experiences rather than material items is preferred by recipients and helps strengthen relationships, so you may want to consider this instead.
2. Anchoring: I should buy this, it’s a discount of 70%!
We all use reference points when making decisions. This is particularly the case with discounts, where we may base our decision to purchase a product on how much it has been discounted from the previous price.
A Which? investigation in 2020 found that many retailers used old prices as the “was” price, rather than the most recent price before discount, making people think they are saving more than they actually are. The same investigation also found that only 3 out of the 119 products they tracked were at their cheapest price during Black Friday. Unlike in EU countries, the presentation and timing of sales is not legislated in the UK and is subject to guidance, meaning that retailers have significant freedom in how and when they present their discounts.
There are several free tools available to help you find out if discounts are genuine and if you can find a better deal elsewhere. Some tools that MoneySavingExpert recommends are Google Shopping, PriceSpy, PriceRunner and CamelCamelCamel that tracks prices on Amazon.
3. Scarcity: Only 8 hours left, I should buy this now!
Businesses like to give the impression that there is scarcity, for example saying that there are only 3 products left in stock. With Black Friday, false scarcity can be used to make it seem like there is less time available than in reality. A simple and easy trick to increase the sense of stock running out is to tell the consumer in the form of a pop up that “x number of other customers are looking at this item right now”, implicitly prompting the consumer to want to purchase the item.
Even the concept of Black Friday itself introduces false scarcity as people think they must purchase on the Black Friday weekend or risk missing out. While this may, in some instances, apply to the pre-Christmas period, there are many sales periods in the year, including Boxing Day sales. So unless it’s a special Christmas gift for a loved one, think twice about whether this is the product you want at this moment in time before you commit.
To avoid falling for these scarcity effects, you can exploit what is known as the hot-cold empathy gap. In a hot state, for example during the actual Black Friday event when we see an advert emphasising there are only 2 products left in stock, we tend to make decisions more rashly. Whereas in a cold state, that is in advance of the event or afterwards, we tend to make decisions more rationally, meaning that we take a more balanced view of costs and likely benefits. You can take some actions to ensure you do not fall into the trap of purchasing when not intended, which includes prioritising your purchases in advance in your Wish list, or even asking a friend or family member to challenge your decision on the day on big ticket items ahead of you purchasing it.
4. Hidden information & misdirection: I didn’t realise I had to pay for returns
Retailers can hide important information, particularly when it comes to delivery and returns around Black Friday. In some cases, the costs of delivery are hidden right until the very end of purchase. Customers that have gone through a lengthy process looking for deals may be less inclined to then abort (sunk cost fallacy) once committed to purchase the product.
Even if you were to get a good deal on the product and delivery, it can often be difficult to see details of the returns policy, with some companies charging for returns where delivery was free.
Businesses can also use misdirection. The electronics market is particularly susceptible to a practice known as “derivative models”, where popular retailers capitalise on their brand recognition. They introduce new products, which can be significantly stripped back versions of their usual offering, at a heavily discounted price. Consumers, thinking they are getting a great deal on a well known brand, buy the item only to realise later that it doesn’t have all the features or the same longevity.
Again, doing your research before purchasing pays dividends. Check reviews on independent review websites such as Which?, ensuring you check the specific product code. You should also check companies’ Black Friday delivery and returns policy before you start looking for any products on the website, so you know in advance any additional costs you may have to pay.
5. Rabbit Holes: Ooh this looks interesting too, let me explore this further!
The very set up of Black Friday sections of websites is designed to entice. The use of biases such as defaults (items that are selected automatically), ranking (hierarchies that lead you to the top ranked product), bundling (adding in products you don’t need with products you do) and choice overload (the sheer volume of options available) are abundant across online retailers during this time.
All these practices are designed to keep you on the website and encourage you to buy more than you originally intended.
Have your list of priorities clearly in front of you to remind yourself of what you’re looking to get out of Black Friday, and work through the trade-offs, e.g. “if I buy this as well, I won’t be able to buy the other item on the list”. This will ensure that you remain in control of your spending. You can employ commitment devices to help stick to your list, such as telling your family and friends in advance what you plan to spend so they can hold you accountable.
Bonus: The G.I. Joe Fallacy: Be vigilant!
You might be tempted to think you won’t fall for these now that you know about them. After all, “knowing is half the battle”. But researchers have found that simply knowing about these biases isn’t enough to overcome them (another behavioural fallacy known as the G.I. Joe fallacy). But being aware is the first step, and to reinforce this knowledge why not share this blog and our warning ad above with your friends and acquaintances to help support each other in avoiding the traps and bagging (genuine) bargains!