Cyber Monday 2019 has arrived, hot on the heels of the Black Friday deals last week. But why do we love a discount, and when does our desire for a bargain go too far? Stylist investigates.
Where were you when the clock struck midnight on Friday 29 November? Pitching your tent up on your local high street? Hitting the ‘buy’ button on the multiple tabs you’d had bookmarked for days (OK, weeks…)? Or were you be in bed, asleep, dreaming of RRPs and ignoring the whole song and dance?
That’s right: the biggest sales bonanza, aka Black Friday and Cyber Monday, are upon us, meaning it’s time for the annual – literal – ‘handbags at dawn’ ritual that for many of us, marks the beginning of Christmas.
Some retailers put their own spin on the sales weekend this year, with Scottish hosiery brand Snag not participating in the discounts as it prefers to sell its products at a “consistently fair price”, and women’s health brand BEYOU donating all profits to the Sakhi project, an initiative that educates women and men on the importance of menstrual health.
Black Friday and Cyber Monday deals this year include a Samsung Chromebook down from £399.99 to £89; an LG TV for £1,099, saving £500; and more than 50% off Fenty Beauty by Rihanna products. It’ll come as no surprise to know that Amazon was the first to bring it to the UK masses, followed by the likes of John Lewis and other department stores. The birth of Cyber Monday brought with it the blurring of physical and online shopping discount culture, and in turn one day of bargains turned into four. And so the unofficial shopping holiday began.
As did Black Friday fever. A thread on Reddit is filled with horror stories from employees who have worked on this most hallowed of days. One simply writes: ‘I’ve thrown one punch in my life. It was on Black Friday.’ Others are of a similarly baffling nature: tales of fist fights breaking out over Furbies, trolleys being used as battering rams to get to the front of a queue, and even barcode stickers being ripped off low-cost items and stuck on already discounted products.
Photos of customers clambering over each other as shop doors open are, unfortunately, not uncommon as social media documents the Neolithic scenes to jesting spectators. There are even forums and articles outlining strategies to get the best deals and make sure you don’t miss a trick when it comes to preparing for ultimate deal victory.
It’s often amusing, sometimes unbelievable, but mostly frightening (reports claim 12 people have died and 117 being injured in relation to the day). So what makes seemingly rational people behave like this in the face of hyper-consumerism?
“Hyper-consumerism can increase any existing fear we have about missing out,” says psychologist Dr Rachel Allan. “When consumerism escalates… we can perceive the risk of missing out to be high. If those around us seem to be securing brilliant bargains, a hype is generated, and it is natural for us to want to be part of that.”
Fear of missing out (FOMO) can be two-fold. Firstly, the nature of Black Friday and Cyber Monday means products are only available for a certain amount of time. In a Salon article about fast-fashion, author Mark C Taylor noted that, “merchants introduce and remove stuff so fast that customers worry that the item they are thinking of buying won’t be available the next day. As fashion seasons give way to incessant ‘innovation,’ conspicuous consumption becomes constant consumption.”
Secondly, the fact that the FOMO acronym even exists proves that ‘fear of missing out’ is a phenomenon of our time. It was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013 with the definition: “the uneasy and sometimes all-consuming feeling that you’re missing out – that your peers are doing, in the know about, or in possession of more or something better than you”.
FOMO is no doubt fueled by social media. Data company Statista found that, as of 2018, the average time spent on social media was 136 minutes per day. If we spend that much time perceiving others to be having more than us, then it’s no wonder we get caught in a spiral of hyper-consumerism.
Ruth Engs, an applied health sciences professor at Indiana university, has spoken extensively about the release of endorphins and dopamine when making an exciting purchase. Allan puts this into the context of when we buy a bargain: “Securing a bargain is a great feeling!” she says. “When we witness that all around us, it’s natural to want to be a part of it. This could be escalated by the effects of social media, which fuels comparison, and anxiety about missing out. The more anxious we feel about missing out or measuring up to those around us, the more easily influenced we are by the messages surrounding us on Black Friday.”
Of course, the companies who partake in Black Friday have done their research when it comes to customer behaviour. Just as some restaurants use music to guide the speed that their diners eat at (yep, that’s a thing) supermarkets and shops use psychological methods to coerce their customers into buying things they didn’t go in for.
Many books and articles have been written on the subject. In an article for National Geographic, Rebecca Rupp sites everything from aisle design (such as placing dairy aisles at the end of the shop to encourage people to walk past as much produce as possible), to trolley size (the bigger the trolley, the more we buy) and even lighting (lit fruit and veg look their freshest), as significant factors in determining how much we buy (aka, more than we need). Even the bananas in America are grown to be a specific shade of yellow (Pantone 12-0752, Buttercup), as they sell the best.
Consumer propaganda is something perhaps most well-articulated by the linguist, philosopher and social scientist Noam Chomsky. In his 1988 book Manufacturing Consent he wrote: “All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume.”
Christmas is also a prime time for shops to ramp up the ante: “Black Friday and Cyber Monday create a combination of conditions that makes us more likely to spend,” explains Allan. “Firstly, advertising campaigns leading up to Christmas are created to elicit strong emotions, usually around themes of positive family connection, romance, enjoyment and indulgence.
“This means we are increasingly primed to spend money at this time of the year. On top of that, a central principal to Black Friday is that offers are time-limited. This creates an element of urgency for consumers which, combined with the emotional effects of advertising campaigns, can escalate and cause us to act impulsively.”
It’s a sobering thought. So, if you are partaking in Cyber Monday this year, perhaps remember these words from Chuck Palahniuk, author of the book (rather fittingly) titled Fight Club: “Are these things really better than the things I already have? Or am I just trained to be dissatisfied with what I have now?” Although perhaps remembering to pack a pair of elbow pads would be more practical.