11 Simple Economic Lessons to Make You a Smarter Shopper on Black Friday

Getting the best deals starts with understanding the science of prices -- and the games retail companies play to fool us into paying more than we should

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The first and last rule of prices is that nobody knows what anything is really worth. Shoppers are guided by shallow clues ("this is cheaper than that") and latent emotions ("it just feels like a good deal") rather than knowledge and deliberate thinking. Smart shopping might be an oxymoron. But smarter shopping? That's a noble goal. Here are 11 tips from microeconomics, behavioral economics, and social psychology to guide you to successful and as-smart-as-possible Black Friday.

(1) Remember Why It's Called "Black Friday." No, not because it starts at 3 am. It's called Black Friday because it's the beginning of the season when many stores go from being in the red to being in the black. That doesn't sound like much of an economic lesson for you, but that's the point. Black Friday isn't for you. It's for the stores.

The biggest mistake that people make on Black Friday is that they assume that the most popular day of the year to shop is the best day of the year to buy anything. If you're walking into a store at 5 AM Thursday morning, you're probably expecting floor-kissing prices in every corner. But store-wide discounts aren't in the best interest of the store. It's more common that a few tantalizing items will be sold at a loss to lure shoppers through the door while smart floor design guides them toward more profitable (even full-priced) items. "Black Friday is about cheap stuff at cheap prices, and I mean cheap in every connotation of the word," Dan de Grandpre, a veteran deal expert, told the New York Times.

Stores know you're making this mistake, and they know how to manipulate floor traffic to their higher-margin stuff. As experts in "retail ergonomics" (it's a thing) have shown, counterclockwise traffic flows result in more spending; putting high-margin items at eye-level to the customers' right is most likely to motivate a purchase; and forcing you to walk around a display is an easy way to draw our attention to items the store wants us to throw in the cart.

(2) The Best Deals Aren't This Week (Probably). The two most common reasons for steep discounts are price discrimination and inventory pressure. Price discrimination is the store saying: "Hey you, cheapo, I know you won't buy this steel pot at $50, so we're selling it at $40. Buy it now!" Inventory pressure is the store saying: "You didn't buy our steel pot at $50, or $40, and now it's taking up overhead and costing us money, so how about $38?"

It's in the stores' interest to make you think prices will go up after Black Friday. But for many items, they probably won't. Instead, as inventory piles up, prices will stay low or go lower in early December. Still, it's better for the economy if more customers buy into the Black Friday hype and behave as though we're in a mini-inflationary cycle where prices on all goods are about to jump. The alternative -- everybody sits on their hands and waits until December 26 to shop for gifts -- isn't particularly good for anybody. Plus, predicting exactly when prices on your single favorite item will be lowest is like trying to buy a plane ticket at its single lowest price. Even our smartest algorithms struggle to do it.

(3) Two Words to Remember: Net Cost. The damage from Black Friday won't be found on your mall receipts. To appreciate the net cost of your shopping trip, remember to include the gas you use commuting from mega-sale to mega-sale, the shipping and handling costs, and the warranties and rebates (much more on those later).

We tend to ignore net cost when we shop because we're focused on the bargain story. Shoppers love stories -- "This skirt was 80% off, EIGHTY!!" -- precisely because we don't know what most items are really worth. Narratives fill the space where knowledge should be. If you drive 40 minutes to a super-sale and sit in a parking-lot line for another 20 minutes, that's an hour of your time and gasoline. That hour might not be part of the story you tell yourself and your friends later. But those are real costs counting against that magnificent 80% discount you found inside.

(4) Make a List. Check it Twice. Shoppers understand that spending a little money makes it easier to spend a little more money. We get a dopamine rush from buying the perfect thing. We also allow past savvy purchases to guide future (dumber) purchases. Making choice after choice depletes our good judgment. This effect, called decision fatigue, exhausts our ability to resist items that feel cheap at the end of a shopping trip.

Keeping track of how much you've spent sounds like sage advice, especially if you're keeping a budget. But be aware that that number will also frame prices in a negative way. Economist Dan Ariely has called this the "problem of relativity." Imagine you see a fetching $50 chair. Would you be more likely to buy it after a $5 lunch or as part of a $500 spending spree? Fifty dollars is $50, no matter how you cut it. But it's easier to swallow when it's "only" a tenth of your total haul.

The best way to overcome decision fatigue and "the problem of relativity" is to write a list and buy only what's on the list. That way you approach Black Friday not as an exploratory mission into the dark world of discounts and window shopping, but as a pure check-the-boxes trip.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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