The psychology of standing in line on Black Friday, explained

The behavior of people in lines has inspired decades of research.

Black Friday shoppers
Shoppers wait in line during the Thanksgiving holiday on November 28, 2013, at the Toys-R-Us store in Fairfax, Virginia. –Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Standing in line is a pain. At the post office. At the box office. At a restaurant.

But on Black Friday, it’s an experience.

The first spot outside some Best Buy stores is usually claimed weeks in advance, often by a person in a tent. Shoppers at Walmart will print out maps of the store, with circles around their primary targets. Someone, somewhere, will try to cut in line at a Target, arousing the wrath of the cold, cranky people who played it fair.

At stake are both bargains and bragging rights, turning what would otherwise be a miserable experience into an adventure.

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“These queues are quite different than the usual annoying ones we encounter day to day at the ATM or in the subway,” said Richard Larson, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has spent years studying line behavior.

Larson, whose nickname in academic circles is Dr. Queue, said he would never wait in a line on Black Friday. Research is sparse on the lines that form during the post-Thanksgiving retail extravaganza, he said, but he acknowledged that the habit “makes sense, in some weird way.”

The lines, he said, are “once a year, they’re exhilarating. They’re the kind you might tell your grandchildren about.”

Not that Larson personally sees the appeal. “It confuses me,” he said.

Lines test patience, personal space and principles of fairness and rationality, especially on Black Friday, when the crowds can be overwhelming. Still, the promise of a once-a-year score lures hordes of shoppers to queues that start before sunrise — or in some cases, the night before.

So why do people wait?

J. Jeffrey Inman, a veteran of Black Friday lines and president of the Society for Consumer Psychology, said that many families treat the hourslong experience as a bonding ritual and a cherished tradition.

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“It’s not a chore,” said Inman, who is also a professor of marketing at the University of Pittsburgh. “And there’s this layer of competition to it, with people edging forward, getting in their ready stance, because there are only so many of those big screen TVs inside the door.”

The behavior of people in lines has inspired decades of research.

So-called queuing theory examines why lining up by yourself induces more anxiety than being in a group, why choosing between multiple lines is more aggravating than standing single file and even how music and scent can improve the wait.

The Black Friday shopping event generates unique circumstances for lines. Preordained opening hours mean that the time the line should start moving is predictable, which can sometimes cause customers to become more agitated as the end approaches.

Sometimes, the behavior of the queue turns violent. In 2008, a crowd of more than 2,000 shoppers waiting at Walmart store on Long Island, New York, began pounding and pressing on the glass doors a few minutes before the scheduled 5 a.m. opening time. The doors shattered and shoppers stampeded through, fatally trampling a worker, Jdimytai Damour, 34.

The “gotta have it” atmosphere resembles the one that arises when a new iPhone or Beyoncé concert tickets go on sale, and that most likely amplifies excitement and makes the wait seem shorter, Larson said. The limited supply of discounted merchandise can also inspire the same mentality that is common when there is a shortage of any other supply — people may actually gravitate toward longer lines, so they can feel a greater sense of accomplishment once they finally make a purchase.

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“People’s willingness to wait is, in some sense, proportional to the perceived value of whatever they’re waiting to acquire,” Larson said. “Even if they don’t know what the line is for, they reason that whatever’s at the end of it must be fantastically valuable.”