Shopping with a purpose!
While most Americans are content to enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday surrounded by family and friends, stuffing themselves with homemade foods and watching a rousing game of football, a group of inquisitive faculty and students at Eastern Illinois University have taken to shopping centers, far and wide, all in the name of research. The faculty researchers, Drs. Linda Simpson, Kathleen O’Rourke, Lisa Moyer, Katie Shaw, Jill Bowers and Deborah Reifesteck, MS, are faculty of the EIU School of Family and Consumer Sciences, and were joined by Dr. Jill Bowers, an instructor at the University of Illinois in their efforts. Alongside their undergraduate and graduate students, they fan out to area malls and retailers in an effort to observe the shopping habits of consumers on what has become one of the most important shopping days of the year.
Black Friday, as it has come to be called, is the day following Thanksgiving when the traditional holiday shopping season commences and retailers’ profitability moves from the red, to the black. Marked by large crowds brought out by heavily discounted merchandise, the day has also become synonymous with long lines and in some cases, aggressive behaviors.
The Black Friday research study began as a result of class discussions in which students related what they had observed during their shopping excursions over Thanksgiving break. The stories so intrigued the faculty that a research effort was undertaken. After five years, the project has taken on a following with students, with 20 to 30 undergraduate and graduate students typically volunteering to be a part of research observations each year.
Researchers are educated on the observational research process and instructed on expectations and responsibilities they have as observers. Given the hectic shopping conditions of Black Friday, special safety training is also offered. The training culminates with a practice observation at a retail store using the data collection instruments researchers will utilize in the study.
When Black Friday arrives, each researcher selects a retail location from which to observe, typically in close proximity to their hometown since the study takes place during the Thanksgiving recess. Observers document the emotions and behaviors of ten different shoppers, devoting 15 minutes to each shopper.
Dr. Linda Simpson notes that, “Empirical research had never been conducted on individual behaviors. The only documentation was through media footage which often focused on extreme aggression, often involving shoving and trampling, sometimes resulting in deaths”. However, the observational findings of the researchers noted that actual physical aggression is limited, a finding that was consistent for each year of the study. Observers noted some aggression on the part of shoppers, but not to the extent that the media reported.
Black Friday shoppers did express frustration, most commonly brought about by a concern that others were cutting in line at the check-out. Observers recorded a number of colorful accounts of shoppers expressing their frustrations, including, “I’ll knock them down if they don’t stop getting in front of me”; “Don’t think you are sneaking in here before us”; “Those girls better not be cutting in line”; and, “I am blocking these people. They just keep getting in front of me.”
Impatience was another behavior observers commonly noted. Again, shopper comments ranged from the exhaustive, “I am so sick of this”; to the more aggressive, “If this isn’t the line for electronics, I’m gonna kick that lady’s butt!” However, retailers take heed; the research found that shopper frustrations escalated the most when employees weren’t familiar with products, product location and warranties. Proper employee training and efficient check-out lines would likely nullify shopper anxieties.
Consumers also appeared to have deliberate shopping strategies they had developed in advance of their Black Friday shopping excursion. Researchers noted that many shoppers utilized lists that had been prepared from store ads with some assigning the acquisition of certain products to different people in their shopping party. Observers even noticed some shopping parties that operated with military precision, assigning individual members to coordinate specific shopping tasks, such as securing a shopping cart and a store map, while another immediately acquired a place at the check-out line while the others shopped.
Technology is playing a larger role in Black Friday shopping as well. Cell phones allow for near constant communication, both with other members of shopping parties within a store, but also with family or friends in other geographic locations. Examples most often noted by observers were shoppers calling others to inquire if a particular product that had sold out in their location was still available at another retailer. Consumers also called retailers directly to check on product availability before departing for that store.
Simpson feels the research is yielding positive results, “The study has been a lot of fun for the research team to conduct and the students have enjoyed their role serving on the observation team. The students have greatly benefited as they have had the opportunity to actively participate in a research study and present the findings at professional conferences”. She notes that when fellow faculty research coordinators hear from FCS alumni who participated in the study, the alumni often ask the question, “Are you still doing the Black Friday research?”
The Black Friday research study is gaining attention at the local, state, and national level through television interviews and newspaper articles, even a mention in the Washington Post. As for the future of this long-term study, Simpson feels that plenty of opportunities exist for it to expand, “The trend of Black Friday has changed over the years as sales are starting earlier in the week and the stores are now opening on Thanksgiving Day, rather than early Friday morning. Cyber Monday is also capturing a large portion of retail sales via the Internet on the Monday following Black Friday. With the many dynamics related to the marketplace during the holiday season, there will always be opportunities for future research”.