What really draws people to stores on Black Friday, the sales or the excitement?
The sales may be an incentive to brave the hordes, but just about any featured sale in a bricks and mortar store is matched or beaten somewhere online. In many cases the very same stores pushing products in physical outlets offer better sales on their websites.
Even the so-called “doorbuster” sales aren’t all that special, especially since most stores have less than five of the doorbuster sale items in stock (that’s in the small print). Chances of scoring one of those items are slim unless you camp out overnight or are willing to risk your life storming the doors of a Wal-mart at midnight.
Contagion theory of group behavior suggests that what really gets us out into the crowds are the crowds themselves. The excitement of being in the buzzing wave of frenzied shoppers is a self-feeding phenomenon. The buzz is contagious. Crowd thinking overrides individual rationality.
That’s probably partly true, but it gives too much credit to the crowd and not enough to the individuals who compose it. Which is why I prefer convergence theory to explain shopping mania. In the convergence framework, every person who joins the crowd brings with him or her a desire to be a part of the action, for whatever reason. Collectively, these desires spawn a frenetic swarm of people all wanting to jump into the middle of things, all with individual motivations feeding into a collective motivation.
That’s where the online shopping experience falls flat. Without the serendipity of a like-minded crowd, there’s no “middle of things” to jump into. Online shopping is utilitarian. Crowd shopping is emotional. Online shopping is about decision-making in an insulated mental silo. Crowd shopping makes your decision part of an energized movement.
There’s something strangely reassuring about that. No matter how enamored we become with social media and the living-online experience, we’re still willing to deal with the inconvenience, time-drain, exhaustion and risk of H1N1 infection that comes with crowd immersion. It’s not rational, and that’s ok. A little mania now and then is good for the soul.