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Hunter-gatherer, bargain shopper

That drive to find great deals at all hours may be about more than rock-bottom prices -- a lot more.

December 04, 2006|Janet Cromley | Times Staff Writer

Once upon a time, holiday sales were quiet affairs, held a respectable time after Christmas in sedate stores with names like Lord & Taylor. Now they're launched the day after Thanksgiving, and conducted with all the civility of a wrestling smackdown, with pushing, shoving and warrior whoops as doors open before dawn.

And even before the doors open, bargain hunters waiting all night in the cold are hosting the equivalent of Super Bowl tailgate parties, complete with mini-TVs, crockpots and Smokey Joes.

For those desperately trying to stretch a dollar, standing in line to get a great bargain can truly make a difference in the quality of gifts they give. But for many others, the decision to dive into shopping madness almost before the giblets have departed the gullet is driven by more complicated motives.

Most are on a mission that can only be described as primal, say behavior experts and mental health professionals. In the truest sense, they are bringing home the bacon -- whatever it takes -- and in the process they are reinforcing a sense of personal mastery in their skillful procurement of coveted items. When they're successful, the feeling is similar to the triumph of a hunter bringing home the kill, even if the kill is actually a TMX Elmo.

Some too are drawn to the wildly unpredictable social scene of Black Friday. Like crashing a great party and talking about it the next day, showing up at an ungodly hour and rubbing wallets with strangers can generate adventures worthy of rehashing later around the water cooler.

And still others see the trials and tribulations of shopping on Black Friday as a means to strengthen family relationships or friendships -- nothing says "I'm there for you" like the shared experience of tag-teaming your neighbor for the last Nintendo Wii at the local big-box store.

Fueling this drive to shop early and shop often is the inevitable media attention -- and savvier-than-ever retailers pulling folks into their stores like carnival barkers. "This is the first year that we saw entire outlet malls open all night," says the National Retail Federation's Daniel Butler, vice president of merchandising and retail operations.

All this provides the perfect agar for crazed holiday shopping.

This year, more than 140 million shoppers hit the stores on Black Friday weekend, spending $360 per person, up 18.9% from last year, according to the National Retail Federation. More than one-third of shoppers got to their first destination before 6 a.m.

The growing willingness to do almost anything, publicly, for a deal and then talk about it afterward signals a cultural shift of sorts.

"It used to be that we celebrated what we purchased," says Paco Underhill, founder and chief executive of Envirosell, a research firm and author of "Call of the Mall: The Geography of Shopping." "Now it's a celebration of what we paid for it," he says. "People aren't bragging about how much they spent, but how little they spent."

Regardless of what brings them to the sales, nearly all the shoppers share one characteristic: Like tigers on the hunt, they are tracking down and pouncing on something of perceived value. In doing so, they are relying on an instinct as old as mankind.

In this case, the prey is a sale item. And, as savvy shoppers know, sale items are more precious than retail items, both at home and on the savanna.

Spotting an item of perceived value taps into a survival instinct, says Dr. Timothy Fong, director of UCLA's Impulse Control Disorders Clinic. "When things are perceived to have value, we as humans want it, whether it's a piece of meat or a good-looking girl or a nice car or a job opportunity," he says. And where once we might have sought out an antelope and a nice fire, "we're on the hunt for a PlayStation 3 or Louis Vuitton bag," Fong says. But the extent of the bargain isn't the only thing that determines the value of an item -- the pain and misery endured while procuring it count too.

"The more suffering that goes into the purchase, the more valuable the item is perceived to be," says Rajagopal Raghunathan, assistant professor of marketing at University of Texas at Austin and author of several papers on shopping. "This is enhanced even more when you see others suffering as well in pursuit of the product."

When it comes to suffering, camping outside a big-box store in the middle of a strip mall in November would certainly qualify. Although the less-driven may shudder at the notion of staying up all night for any reason, Fong gives such campers credit for moxie -- and for prioritizing.

"They're in touch with what they want and need, and they're willing to set out a plan to get it," he says.

A plan is key, of course, to not only surviving Black Friday but also triumphing over it.

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