The Origin of Black Friday

Writing in The New Yorker, Amy Merrick profiles the origin of “Black Friday”:

Beginning in the nineteen-thirties, thousands of fans thronged Philadelphia’s Municipal Stadium for the Army-Navy football game. As festive as the mood was inside the stadium, it wasn’t nearly so cheerful for the Philadelphia police officers who had to herd the crowds. The game was frequently held on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and just as visiting fans were showing up the day before, holiday shoppers also would descend on downtown. On those Fridays after Thanksgiving, the late Joseph P. Barrett, a longtime reporter for the Philadelphia Bulletin, recalled, even members of the police band were called upon to direct traffic. The cops nicknamed the day of gridlock Black Friday, and soon others started to do the same.

Retailers worried the phrase would scare people away. A few weeks after the 1961 game, which President John F. Kennedy had attended, the P.R. pioneer Denny Griswold described in her industry newsletter, Public Relations News, the efforts by Philadelphia merchants and city officials to rebrand the day Big Friday, in reference to the start of the holiday shopping season. (“The media coöperated,” Griswold wrote.) Big Friday didn’t stick, but the idea behind it did, in Philadelphia and, eventually, beyond. A few decades later, when the term came to describe a day when retailers’ ledgers shifted “into the black” for the year—a connotation also pushed by marketers—people assumed that had always been the connotation.

How is your Black Friday shopping going? Or is it?

Naughty in Name Only: Sophia Amoruso’s Nasty Gal

I don’t really follow fashion trends, but I appreciate great stories when I read about the industry. The New York Times profiles Sophia Amoruso and the fashion company she founded, Nasty Gal:

“People say: ‘Nasty Gal? What’s that?’ ” Ms. Amoruso, now 28, said in an interview at her new headquarters in downtown Los Angeles. “I tell them, ‘It’s the fastest-growing retailer in the country.’ ”

Back in 2006, she toyed with the idea of going to photography school, but couldn’t stomach the debt. Instead, she quit her job and started an eBay page to sell some of the vintage designer items she found rummaging through Goodwill bins. She bought a Chanel jacket at a Salvation Army store for $8 and sold it for $1,000. She found Yves Saint Laurent clothing online on the cheap by Googling misspellings of the designer’s name, reasoning that anyone who didn’t know how to spell Yves Saint Laurent probably didn’t realize his value.

She styled, photographed, captioned and shipped each product herself and sold about 25 items a week. She named the eBay page “Nasty Gal” after the 1975 album by Betty Davis — not the smoky-eyed film star Bette Davis, but the unabashedly sexy funk singer and style icon Betty, whose brief marriage to the jazz legend Miles Davis inspired the song “Back Seat Betty.”

Now this is an example of a loyal fan base:

That constant conversation with customers created a loyal following. Nasty Gal has no marketing team, but fans comment on its every Facebook, Instagram, TwitterTumblr, and Pinterest post and regularly post pictures of themselves in their Nasty Gal finds. A quarter of Nasty Gal’s 550,000 customers visit the site daily for six minutes; the top 10 percent return more than 100 times a month.

Pretty incredible to start from a small eBay store and mature to a $100 million business in a few short years.

Do People Secretly Love Black Friday?

Why will millions of people brave long lines this Friday (Thursday evening if you’re shopping at Wal-Mart) in order to score some Black Friday deals? Do people secretly love Black Friday? I am not buying this research, summarized in The Atlantic Wire:

For all the stress of the waiting, the Black Friday deals have a physical—and positive—effect on our brain. In the age of the smartphone, retailers lure customers with mobile coupons to get cell-phone shoppers to buy at the store, rather than online. And so even if discounts will get deeper in-store or on Cyber Monday, Black Friday-specific coupons can offer an immediate sense of relaxation. All of which makes consumers happier, found a recent Claremont University study.

Measuring the oxytocin levels of a group of female shoppers after giving them a coupon,  neurologist Dr. Paul Zak found that the deal increased this hormone’s levels in some shoppers. As this hormone (not to be confused with Oxycontin) has been linked to feelings of love and trust, Dr. Zak concluded that the positive mental reaction to it has become one of the reasons we love coupons so much. We view it as a social gesture, he says. “We’re so engrained to being social creatures that even receiving a coupon online is viewed by the brain as a social experience,” Zak says. “We’re building a relationship with an online shopping site like it’s a personal relationship.” The same study also found the coupon reduced stress and increased happiness in some participants. Ergo, on Black Friday, the biggest coupon day of the year must make this hormone go wild in some shoppers’ brains, making it a very relaxing and lovely experience.

At certain levels, consumers enjoy arousal and challenges during the shopping process,” researcher Sang-Eun Byun told The Washington Post’s Olga Khazan. “They enjoy something that’s harder to get, and it makes them feel playful and excited.” Given that bit of science, it’s no wonder that shoppers have acted quite aggressive in recent years, as this Christian Science Monitor article notes

The people who choose to partake in Black Friday, will likely associate many of its aspects with positive feelings. In fact, the day doesn’t evoke angry or related emotions for many of its participants, found an study from Eastern Illinois University. The researchers observed consumer behaviors and emotions on that day and… calmness, happiness, and courteousness ranked higher than anger and anxiety. 

As for me? I am staying on the sidelines and not stepping a foot within brick-and-mortar stores.

Snap, Crackle, Pop: Sounds that Sell

If you’ve ever opened a Snapple bottle, you’re no doubt familiar with the “pop” (or “click”) sound the cap makes when opened. The Wall Street Journal, in this piece, investigates how firms are doing research for pleasing sounds. Turns out, product noises are a big deal in market research.

The most interesting bit was about Mascara making a sound:

Last month, Clinique introduced High Impact Extreme Volume mascara, which produces a soft, crisp click when the top is twisted shut. The click reassures users that the package is closed and the liquid mascara won’t dry out. But more subtly, Mr. Owen says, the click conveys the elegance of the $19.50 formula.

Mr. Owen and his team fiddled with some 40 prototypes of inner parts of the mascara tube, paying particular attention to the tiny, curved plastic tab, called a “nib,” that emits the click when the top twists over it. By adjusting the slope of the curve and a corresponding tab located inside the top, designers could alter the click’s tone. A steep curve made a high-pitched click, which the team thought sounded cheap. A flatter curve made a dull sound. “We sweated that detail,” Mr. Owen says. “You have to pay attention to it and manage it through all the materials you consider and all the manufacturing steps to be sure you get it right.”

One of the largest companies in the United States, General Electric,

[W]orked with a sound designer who composed a “soundtrack” for each of its four major brands. Instead of beeps, rings and buzzes, the appliances play snippets of their song. Turn on a machine and hear the music crescendo; turn it off, and the same snippet decrescendos. For time-sensitive alerts, like a timer, the music becomes increasingly urgent.

Each brand’s music is meant to appeal to the target customer. Hotpoint, a budget-friendly line, will have a grunge-rock tune. The Monogram line, GE’s priciest, will feature light piano music. “This is more Aaron Copland,” says David Bingham, GE Appliances’ senior interaction designer. “Very forward-looking and elegant-feeling.”

Interesting throughout.

How Companies Learn Your Secrets

As the ability to analyze data has grown more and more fine-grained, the push to understand how daily habits influence our decisions has become one of the most exciting topics in clinical research, even though most of us are hardly aware those patterns exist…

This is a fascinating New York Times piece that explores how stores monitor shoppers’ behavior and then market to them accordingly, with the hope they come back to the store and spend more money. The NYT piece focuses on Target, and in particular, pregnant shoppers… The central question: how could they get their advertisements into expectant mothers’ hands without making it appear they were spying on them? How do you take advantage of someone’s habits without letting them know you’re studying their lives?

First, the background of how Target monitors shoppers in stores using a unique Guest ID:

Also linked to your Guest ID is demographic information like your age, whether you are married and have kids, which part of town you live in, how long it takes you to drive to the store, your estimated salary, whether you’ve moved recently, what credit cards you carry in your wallet and what Web sites you visit. Target can buy data about your ethnicity, job history, the magazines you read, if you’ve ever declared bankruptcy or got divorced, the year you bought (or lost) your house, where you went to college, what kinds of topics you talk about online, whether you prefer certain brands of coffee, paper towels, cereal or applesauce, your political leanings, reading habits, charitable giving and the number of cars you own.

Much of the piece focuses on human behaviors, and how these behaviors become habits if they’re consistently repeated:

The process within our brains that creates habits is a three-step loop. First, there is a cue, a trigger that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use. Then there is the routine, which can be physical or mental or emotional. Finally, there is a reward, which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. Over time, this loop — cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward — becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become neurologically intertwined until a sense of craving emerges. What’s unique about cues and rewards, however, is how subtle they can be.

My favorite part of the piece is about Febreze, a product that P&G initially marketed to combat orders. Unfortunately, it was a dud. Turns out, P&G was marketing Febreze as a *way* to remove odors, but what made it more effective was convincing people to use the product as a reward after the routine of cleaning (i.e., it was re-marketed as a reward):

And so Febreze, a product originally conceived as a revolutionary way to destroy odors, became an air freshener used once things are already clean. The Febreze revamp occurred in the summer of 1998. Within two months, sales doubled. A year later, the product brought in $230 million. Since then Febreze has spawned dozens of spinoffs — air fresheners, candles and laundry detergents — that now account for sales of more than $1 billion a year. Eventually, P.& G. began mentioning to customers that, in addition to smelling sweet, Febreze can actually kill bad odors. Today it’s one of the top-selling products in the world.

A note on how Target sent ads and coupons to expectant mothers without making them upset:

“We have the capacity to send every customer an ad booklet, specifically designed for them, that says, ‘Here’s everything you bought last week and a coupon for it,’ ” one Target executive told me. “We do that for grocery products all the time.” But for pregnant women, Target’s goal was selling them baby items they didn’t even know they needed yet.

“With the pregnancy products, though, we learned that some women react badly,” the executive said. “Then we started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random. We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. We’d put a coupon for wineglasses next to infant clothes. That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance.

The conclusion is startling: your favorite department store will be (if it isn’t already) sending you coupons for products you desire before you even know you want them…