3 Sneaky Things Retailers Don’t Want You to Know About Black Friday Sales

Don’t get tricked by fake deals and poor-quality items.
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Don’t get tricked by fake deals and poor-quality items.

With Thanksgiving around the corner, the biggest shopping day of the year is next in line. That’s right, we’re talking about the infamous Black Friday. According to CNNMoney, Americans spent $9.1 billion on Black Friday in 2014. Now that’s a pretty penny.

It’s possible to score a serious steal on Black Friday. But when the retail industry has figured out a way to pull families away from Thanksgiving dinner and the quality time that comes with it, one can’t help but wonder if the chaos is really worth it.

In the interest of spending your money, time, and energy wisely, try taking a step back instead of rushing into the madness this Friday. Before you lose out on sleep and quality family time this Friday (and Thursday!), consider these three retail secrets that the industry doesn’t want you to know.

01. ORIGINAL PRICES ARE FAKE.

When it comes to Black Friday, it’s all about the prices. Discounts are the life of the party, dressed up in sexy percentage signs and big red slashes. And while all of this is enough to make us do a double take, those discounts might not be as good of a deal as you are led to think.

According to an investigative piece in the Wall Street Journal, retailers set original prices with a predetermined discount “built in.” In other words, once promotions are applied, the final sale price yields the ideal profit. With a simple swipe of your credit card, you just paid exactly what the retailer wanted to begin with.

“Companies invent fake original prices to draw customers in,” says Leighton Bruno*, a store manager of three years at a popular retailer for designer jeans. “The customer subconsciously adds greater worth to the item, thus interpreting the markdown as an amazing deal.”

This common marketing practice is used for periodic sales throughout the year. Now imagine how much this tactic is amplified on Black Friday. Retailers will make it a point to highlight those “original” prices, reminding you how much you would have paid on a normal day.

The Wall Street Journal article also reminds us that consumers are after the feeling that they received a steal. Ask yourself if you would buy the item on any other day of the year. More importantly, would you buy it with the “original” price tag? If so, it can be worth the purchase—especially if you know that the item, such as a classic winter coat, will be in heavy rotation.

Another smart approach is to wait until another coupon or sale comes up at a later date. Unless the purchase is time-sensitive, waiting will give you time to shop around for better offers. If I’m curious about the cost of a particular item on the spot, I’ll do a quick Google search on my phone to compare prices at other outlets. It’s usually enough to deter me from making a hasty, last-minute decision that looks better than it tastes.

02. STORES PUSH LOWER-QUALITY ITEMS.

With all the deals and sales, one can’t help but wonder how retailers make a worthwhile profit. Surprisingly, it usually has little to do with the actual price slash. It comes down to the physical item and how it was created.

Often hiding behind that attractive price tag is an item of lower, poorer quality. Wondering how retailers get those products on our radar? According to CNNMoney, many companies will produce lower-quality merchandise just for big-ticket sales events such as Black Friday.

Let’s start with electronics, the star items of Black Friday. CNNMoney states that retailers will churn out products that look like their more-expensive counterparts but with fewer or worse features and shorter warranties. There’s a good chance that these products won’t last long, either. This practice is similar to the way most outlet stores operate. The Dallas Morning News says that the outlet locations of designer stores are likely to sell lower-quality items especially made for that store.

Bruno says, “The differences are minute but are definitely there. Unless a consumer has a solid thirty minutes to examine something, the differences are easy to miss.”

How can you tell if you’re getting a lower-quality version or not? A 2011 Time magazine article advises, “The model number is often a tip-off; it will be slightly different. Or just do an online search for the model number to see if distribution is limited to a single retailer, which could indicate that it’s a product made specifically for that company in order to meet a doorbuster price.”

Bruno suggests doing research by getting to know the merchandise at designer and department stores before shopping a sale. “Pay attention to the details, and ask questions about the product,” she says. “That way, you can make more educated decisions during a Black Friday sale.”

Instead of swooping in on the lowest price tag, do a bit of research—it may make more sense in the long run to go with the higher-quality item with the smaller discount. It may make your wallet cringe a bit, but your purchase is likely to last much longer.

Lastly, take into account the hands making these lower-quality items. If retailers are willing to take such huge shortcuts to offer low-quality products, you can bet people are being compromised in the process. Is that truly worth the “extra” savings?

03. TIME SLOTS ADD PRESSURE.

Human beings love feeling special. We’re talking everything from receiving undivided attention to exclusive, one-of-a-kind items. Basically, if we’re told that we’re lucky enough to snag it, there’s a good chance we’ll believe it.

Retailers know all about this social behavior. Surely enough, they’ll use it to their full advantage. Psychology Today says that the motivation of individuals to act on something depends on a “need for closure.” This closure, such as a deadline, forms a sense of urgency that one must act before the chance is gone.

“There’s a reason why so many people go shopping after Thanksgiving dinner,” Bruno says. “Black Friday is a time slot in itself, and consumers don’t want to feel left out.”

The desire to feel included directly impacts actions related to time pressure, according to researchers at Case Western Reserve University. If a time constraint is placed on a situation, the perception of how that time impacts your options will pressure your decision. This opens the door for hasty, last-minute choices. Hello, impulse buys!

In a shopping environment, time slots create a “limited time only” illusion. “Notice how specific deals are offered during a specific time of Black Friday,” Bruno says. “Typically, they take place around midnight and end early morning. Anyone that is actually sleeping will likely miss out on those sales.”

Fortunately, there are ways to work around the pressure of time slots. Bruno reminds us that there are holiday promotions year-round, some of which may be even better than Black Friday deals. CNNMoney also says that the best time to shop is actually during winter clearance sales. “During this time, stores want to purge their inventory more than anything,” Bruno says.

As a general rule of thumb, ask yourself if you would purchase a particular item without a deadline attached to it. Your answer will not only determine if the purchase is worth it but if you truly need it, too.

It all seems sneaky, doesn’t it? While we can’t transform the system, we can certainly control how we work with it. Remember, Black Friday can work in our favor, as long as we keep our expectations and our heads on straight. Now that you’ve got these retail secrets in your back pocket, you’ll be able to do just that with things you’ve been meaning to get anyway. More importantly, you’ll be able to focus on what’s most important this time of year: spending Thanksgiving with family and friends. At the end of the day, no sale in the world is worth taking your attention away from that.

*Name has been changed to protect this sources identity.

Photo Credit: Bella Ella Boutique