Irrationality and Frenzy: Desire and Shopping on Black Friday

Black Friday at the New York City Apple Store in 2006 (image from jardenberg).

Black Friday at the New York City Apple Store in 2006 (image from jardenberg).

This year even Apple appears poised to join the host of American retailers offering dramatic sales in the early morning or middle of the night on Black Friday.  By Black Friday standards the Apple store sale prices are not especially dramatic, but a legion of consumers seem eager to find an iPad under the tree and will likely beat a path to some of the competitors who are promising dramatic deals on iPads. 

It is now an expectation that Black Friday will be greeted with irrational crowds rioting for prosaic things, and by Saturday a host of videos will dot the internet documenting the most boorish behavior.  Much of the media coverage seems to suggest that the consumer miscreants storming the housewares aisle are a horde quite unlike the bourgeois patiently awaiting iPads.  For some observers, Black Friday reveals the distinctions in class consumer desire and obliquely disparages mass consumption as emotionally driven irrationality; at least implicitly, that storming of the Target doors is suggested to be quite unlike the material desire at high-end retailers and upscale spaces like the Apple store.

A 2012 camp out awaiting Black Friday at Best Buy (image from Mahat Tattva).

A 2012 camp out awaiting Black Friday at Best Buy (image from Mahat Tattva).

The mass consumption experience is followed closely by the media, which routinely psychologizes Black Friday as mob manipulation by clever marketers.  This week, for instance, the Las Vegas Guardian Express hysterically argued that “it seems necessary to recognize that this much anticipated retail extravaganza can be as deadly as it is lucrative.”  In 2011, a Huffington Post article likewise painted Black Friday shoppers as an emotionally frenzied mob, suggesting that “Add in the online-coupon phenomenon, which feeds the psychological hunger for finding impossible bargains, and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.”  The Las Vegas paper’s Daniel Worku blamed all this on clever marketers and manipulable consumers, arguing that “This atmosphere seems to be intentionally manufactured by the countless advertisements, blurbs, signs, billboards, and radio plugs, constantly seeding the suggestible public mind about how this years deals will be better than ever.  The energy and frequency of this media frenzy, galvanizes the debt burdened public into spend-crazy, deal-hunting, sale-seeking, mob with zombi-like [sic] determination.”

Worku’s analogy of Black Friday masses to zombies may capture the apprehension of an anonymous, mindless mob—indeed, survivalist blogs wondered if Black Friday riots are a preview of the scenes that will follow the apocalypse, with one wondering “If people will go this wild just to save 40 percent on a television set, then what in the world are they going to do when they have been without food for a couple of days?”  Even more reasonable observers seem to see those sales shoppers as emotionally irrational materialists distinguished from the thoughtful and reflective consumer collective in places like the Apple Store.

A 2012 Black Friday scuffle in Kentucky (ABC News).

A 2012 Black Friday scuffle in Kentucky (ABC News).

Much of this popular commentary paints Black Friday as a frenzied irrationality projected onto certain sorts of goods: for instance, waffle maker riots make fascinating narratives underscoring Black Market frenzy among the masses, while iPad desires are quite rational and moments of uncivil behavior at the Apple store are portrayed as departures from normal bourgeois shopping behavior.  Much of this commentary reveals widespread anxieties about mass consumer desire, especially among an ambiguously defined working class willing to riot for cheap bath towels while the elite obediently queue for designer clothing and the newest iPad.

Employees marshal eager Black Friday shoppers (image

Employees marshal eager Black Friday shoppers (image

Like many of the most beloved brands, Apple has cultivated an especially loyal following willing to wait in the cold night following Thanksgiving, and Apple consumers are as likely to storm the doors as the hordes at Wal-Mart and Best Buy.  There almost certainly will be exceptional demand for iPads this week that will end up with frenzied shoppers.  In 2011, for instance, a Beijing iPad unveiling resulted in four people being sent to the hospital.  This September enterprising iPhone shoppers in Los Angeles hired homeless people to stand in long lines to purchase the new iPhone 5S; the episode ended in unrest when the recruiters failed to pay the homeless people for their time in line.  Apple certainly wants to fan consumer desire, but its stores have only modest Black Friday promotions.  Apple attributes this to a commitment to quality products and exceptional service, but they more likely aspire to avoid linking the brand to stories of rioting suburbanites charging into the Apple Store’s antiseptic whiteness.

Some media observers suggest Black Friday rioters are our most desperate and marginalized neighbors.  In November, The Guardian Express’ Tihira Nichelle Ruffin inventoried a list of Black Friday tales, observing that “people continue to indulge in the muck of assaults, threats and the intimidation of others while scavenging for goods simultaneously. Could this possibly be the result of human experience with economic distress?”  Ruffin’s theory implies that those shoppers subject to the most material inequality and attendant emotional distress are most likely to unload pepper spray at the Black Friday sale.  The New York Times voiced nearly the same idea in 2011 when Stephanie Clifford suggested that on Black Friday “the differences between how affluent and more ordinary Americans shop in the uncertain economy will be on unusually vivid display.  Budget-minded shoppers will be racing for bargains at ever-earlier hours while the rich mostly will not be bothering to leave home.”

A clerk in a Kansas City store is taken away after a Black Friday sale (image from NY Daily News).

A clerk in a Kansas City store is taken away after a Black Friday sale (image from NY Daily News).

Perhaps there is some genuine truth to the conclusion of a marketer who told the Times that “`Those in a more modest income situation are the people who are going to the Wal-Marts and the Best Buys and the Targets at 8, 9, 10, 11 p.m. with little kids in tow because they can’t afford a baby sitter.’”  In a similar vein, the Huffington Post’s Alice Hines proposed in 2011 that most of that year’s Black Friday tumult surrounded the most prosaic goods, like waffle irons, towels, and baby clothes, rather than big-screen TVs or iPads.  One observer this week suggested that six out of 10 episodes of Black Friday violence were at Wal-Mart, perhaps the prototypical symbol of mass American shopping.  After a 2008 Black Friday riot ended in a sales associate’s death in New York, Wal-Mart was fined $7000, only to spend $2 million fighting the regulations in court.

What all these discussions seem unable to fathom is that consumption is fundamentally driven by emotion and imagination, whether it is among a crowd of Apple shoppers, a mob in the Target toy department, or an individual in their pajamas scrutinizing the online sales.  Attributing violations of consumer discipline to a deterministic economy or scheming marketers who lead us all to a Wal-Mart slaughter is perhaps appealing, but it risks ignoring all the powerful if inchoate desires consumers project onto things.  Black Friday is probably fueled more by imagination than it is fueled by desperation; that hypothesis would require some genuine ethnographic evidence with shoppers instead of the impressionistic moralizing that characterizes nearly all of the Black Friday coverage.


Apple Store NYC Black Friday image from jardenberg

Best Buy camping image from Mahat Tattva

Best Buy Black Friday line image from

Kansas City Black Friday image from NY Daily News

Kentucky Target image from

Posted on November 24, 2013, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. I think you’re right that most of these theories blaming class differences among consumers for the riots and stampedes are just bunk. I’ve spent the night in the cold for a cheap xbox and it was kind of fun. Early in the night there was a camaraderie between shoppers, people held each others place in line when they needed breaks. It was only when the doors opened, and all the idiots that showed up late started pushing their way to the front, that there was a problem. This was just typical crowd behavior and I don’t think research has shown any class distinctions when it comes to the behavior of individuals in a mob. I could be wrong, because it’s been a long time since I was in college, but these mainstream media hacks are always trying to hype up situations like this and all the experts love to come up with their pithy sound bytes and in the end it’s all just BS.

  2. In an effort to hypothesize, I do believe one would also need people to be completely honest with themselves about exactly why they consume. Most aren’t even aware of their emotions.

  3. Midwestern Plant Girl

    Great post. IMO, the world would be better off without money. If people were driven to better themselves and not think they were being judged on their possessions, this planet would be a much better place to live. On Friday, I will be snug as a bug in my bed, not worrying about monetary things.
    Congrats on getting pressed!!!

  4. It’s an interesting marketing scheme to study. Living in Canada, in the last five years our retailers have attempted to tap into the ‘Black Friday’ brand, without actually offering any of the smashing deals that are found south of the border. The result for us? It’s hard to say, but it’s interesting how turning shopping into a branded experience changes the game and reverts humanity to uncivilized actions. Same stores, same deals, 1000% more chaos. 🙂 Oh, and good luck out there on Friday!

  5. I understand wanting certain technology, like an iPod, but I don’t get why it’s so important to have it NOW. It’s not a pacemaker, you’re not going to perish in the night without one.

    I’ve saved thousands upon thousands of dollars by simply waiting a month or a year for things to die down, get cheaper, and have their inevitable bugs worked out.

    Case in point: I haven’t paid to watch a movie in almost a decade. Everything winds up on DVD at my local library within a year, anyway, so I just make a list and wait.

  6. What an interesting perspective.

    I hope you have a beautiful day! ❤

  7. No amount of money is worth the losing of ones dignity.
    All this for something plastic is beyond me.

  8. I’ve never understood the appeal of these sales or why people will willingly put themselves through this when they should be spending quality time with their families… :-/

  9. Everything is on sale including are emotions and time . Sight!

  10. If you don’t buy things on Thanksgiving, people won’t have to work on Thanksgiving.

  11. Just watched a few Youtube videos of black Friday shopping stampedes. What are we, sheep? It just seems so mindless. If I were an alien, I wouldn’t bother contacting us.

  12. Here’s the problem — there *are* mobs and some people in them behave like crazed animals. Are you aware that a sales associate on Long Island was trampled to death by them? He was working at Walmart, which has since spent millions fighting OSHA, whose job it is to protect workers from such mayhem. I loathe BF and the BS surrounding it; I worked retail for 2.5 years and wrote my book “Malled” about it.

    Walmart still hasn’t coughed up the $7,000 fine for his death…

  13. Great article! I live in Canada but close to the border. There is a percentage of crazies, here, poised to go to the frenzy tomorrow. Insanity and definitely mob mentality. They are like orcs.

  14. Reblogged this on sixty, single and surviving and commented:
    “If people will go this wild just to save 40 percent on a television set, then what in the world are they going to do when they have been without food for a couple of days?”

  15. I have never gone shopping on Black Friday and have 0 interest in doing so. People are crazy!

  16. Interesting how many of these comments reproduced one side of the moralizing discourse.

    I thought this was a good piece, leaving the meaning of the experience open. One thing I’d add — capitalism is also a discourse about morality and what is best for humans and how they should seek to behave (as Smith put it, the “system of natural liberty”) so that somehow implying that people who queue for Black Friday deals are either stupid or clueless about their consumerism or victims of the capitalist cabal or whatever ignore the reality that in capitalism consumerism is also a kind of morality that we learn how to navigate. The appropriate exercise of frugality is one piece of capitalist morality that has to be balanced with consumption. To me, Black Friday seems a sort of demonstration of that issue.

    • Yes, you hit the nail directly on the head, and possibly more clearly than I did, which I think is reflected in folks’ honest responses to how they feel about BF in particular and possibly all consumption. I agree this is infeasible to reduce to good or bad materialism and consumption. Thanks

      • There’s a comparable issue in Germany — the problem of Ladenschlußzeit (the hour at which the shops are closed). This was laid down in united Germany during WWII; stores were to be closed because there wasn’t much to sell and it was a way to curb consumption. After the war in West Germany the inflexible shop closing times (6:30 every weekday evening except on Thursdays; 2 p.m. on Saturdays except once a month; and all day on Sundays) were recast as the achievement of the welfare state (leisure is for everyone) even as they made life difficult for working mothers. (I’m not sure how it was in E Germany, frankly.) Since 1989 various municipalities and federal states have been chipping away at the laws in the name of “more freedom” and the major opponent of this initiative has been the Protestant territorial churches, which argue against it on sort of philosophical / religious grounds. They’re afraid to say the sabbath should be remembered to keep it holy, because that discourse has as good as no cultural hold anymore, so they usually say something about how it’s good for people to have time off to think, relax, separate from the quotidian, etc. As far as I know the Sunday has been preserved for the time being but in Advent especially and a few times a year there’s something called “Verkaufsoffener Sonntag” (open for business Sunday) that is a sort of festival in municipalities that have it — sausage stands and bands in the street and so on …

        This as opposed to the situation in the US, where as far as I know many cities have always had relatively strong flexibility about when you can buy things (and now with many stores open 24 hours). Some exceptions of course (blue laws and such).

        I muse on this because I also think there are cultural issues involved that evolve out of these divergent histories of consumerism, which would probably also support your point.

  17. insane and makes no sense playing into the hands of the corporate world

  18. I agree with you #sdobie it really is insane how these mega corporations dictates what and when people buy, they all fall for it then criticize those same corporations for being unfair. I remember when thanksgiving and Christmas was about family time not black Friday’s best deals.

  19. Reblogged this on Akingstruth's Blog and commented:
    great post!!!!!!

  20. One needs tablet to study his books, but he can’t afford it. Other need it for fun and he has several ones. The world isn’t fair. This is what I learn in my 24 years of life.

  21. Great article not only summing up the insanity, but I wholeheartedly agree about the conclusion that emotion and imagination are probably much more driving than all the other glitzy factors the media would focus on. The whole Black Friday thing has bothered me so deeply, I just try to ignore the whole thing now. But I’m really glad I read this. You put into eloquent words a lot of the thoughts my brain couldn’t form about the situation. Great read!

  22. It’s actually terrifying the ‘mania’ that decent deals on Black Friday will cause… I’ve watched a video where people actually come to blows over a television set… It’s a sad day when people are actually fighting over anything so pointlessly material as a TV

  23. This Black Friday shopping frenzy is just horrible!

  24. It’s deplorable! Why should anyone be hungry tonight?

  1. Pingback: Irrationality and Frenzy: Desire and Shopping on Black Friday | Just One Consumer

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