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Holiday Shopping: Methods and Madness

SMG’s Frederic Brunel on Black Friday, ad traps, and last-minute purchases

Frederic Brunel, a SMG assistant professor of marketing, shares shopping psychology.

For many, the month of December is more often associated with crowded malls and credit card bills than with caroling and cheer. Shopping for presents can result in a manic month of stress. But waiting until the last few days before Christmas also often leads to less meaningful gifts and higher prices, says Frederic Brunel, a School of Management assistant professor of marketing. What’s a shopper to do?
BU Today: What are some of the advertising traps people fall into during the holiday shopping season? What can be done to avoid these traps?
I don’t know if people fall for these traps just at this time of the year. For instance, a lot of people in general go to the stores for the tax-free days in the summer. What amazes me is that people flock to the stores to get essentially a 5 percent discount off their merchandise, but they would never do that if the store had a 5 percent sale. What is interesting is that as decision-makers and consumers, we have very peculiar ways of accounting for our money and our resources and how we spend them in general. Some people think that money saved from sales, rebates, or discounts become free money. Instead of thinking of it as savings, they think of it as a license to spend more. People don’t always think about these things in rational ways.

Also many people don’t always realize that the items that are advertised and appear to be a good deal are designed to get you into the store so that you will buy a lot of items that are fully priced. If you are going to be a good shopper, you need to be a cherry picker and not buy all those full-priced items in order to get a good deal.

Who’s more likely to find better deals — shoppers who start on Black Friday or those who wait until December 23?
It remains to be seen whether people who go out on Black Friday get better deals. People who do get good deals are the ones who have done their homework, who know what they need to buy and where to buy it.

Research shows that people who wait until the last minute spend more per item because they are under the gun and need to get the shopping done. Last-minute shoppers don’t get very good deals. But there is always the exception. Every year there is an item that is supposed to be a hot seller, so the retailers stock up on it, but if it hasn’t sold like it was supposed to, there may be a good deal as the holidays get closer. Last-minute shoppers tend to not buy the best gift because their gifts are purchased more hastily and may not be as meaningful as the careful gift-giver’s. Men are also much more prone to be last-minute shoppers — statistical results confirm this.

What are businesses doing to compete with online retailers, especially around the holidays? How has the rise in online shopping affected what brick-and-mortar stores are willing to offer consumers?
The line between online and off-line is getting more blurred because a lot of off-line stores have gone online and online sites have developed brick presences. There seems to be a trend of seamless integration between off-line and online.

If you are shopping for a present that needs to be shipped, then online is easy because you don’t have to take possession of it, package it, ship it, etc. Online has a very nice advantage because of the convenience. But the bigger trend is the seamlessness. If I buy something online, most times I can return it to the store in person.

Over time, besides this integration, we see that brick-and-mortar stores have also done a lot more in terms of extended hours. If you are open limited hours, it is not enough, because people have unlimited hours to shop elsewhere, such as online. These establishments are also offering online kiosks in the store, where you can browse their online catalog. Online stores are trying to compete by offering free shipping, delivery date guarantees, and nice packaging. So it goes both ways.

Do people choose to shop online or in person when they have both options?
It depends on the gift, the person, and where you live. If we look at the number of people who go out on Black Friday, it seems that a lot of people do take joy in being out shopping. That is quite indicative, otherwise they wouldn’t be there, because there are a lot of unpleasant aspects of shopping that day. But on the other hand, retailer Web sites like Walmart.com crashed on Black Friday because of traffic, so people are going online in big masses as well. They are going everywhere.

Tell us how much of your holiday shopping you do online in today’s Quick Poll.

Meghan Noé can be reached at mdorney@bu.edu.