There’s a Psychological Reason Sample Sales Get So Intense

When the doors open on that handbag, shoe, or wedding dress sample sale, it's a certain psychology that transforms us from civilized humans to wild animals.

This-Is-Why-People-Act-Crazy-During-Sample-Salesvgstudio/ShutterstockYou’ve heard it on the news: “Person gets stomped to death at sample sale.” DEATH. Over highly discounted material items? It sounds crazy, but it’s a reality. In their everyday lives, these are the people who know how to navigate a crowd with grace; who enjoy a good book curled up next to the fire; who have manners. They are not animals. And yet, when tempted by the prospect of a bargain, they start acting like captive beasts breaking out of cages.

Sample sales, or other bargain deals, are enticing because of the allure of cheap prices. “Any time people shop and they find a great deal, there’s that psychological hit of pleasure,” explains consumer scientist James Mourey, an assistant professor at the Driehaus College of Business at DePaul University in Chicago. According to Mourey, coming across something you like activates the nucleus accumbens, which is the brain’s reward center. But seeing an unfair price triggers the brain’s insula, which processes pain—and we’re all conditioned to want to avoid that.

There’s also the sense of allure with a sample sale, since the items featured and amount of inventory are typically kept secret until shoppers gain access and see for themselves. But it’s a bit of smoke and mirrors because once inside, people often find that the discounts are only moderate, and the majority of inventory is located in the back, so you must make your way through the new and non-discounted items first. The sample sale is marketing science at its finest.

Sample sales also make us irrational. Mourey explains that consumers are enamored by the idea that a deal is scarce, and so their logic that an item could be found at a comparable price elsewhere, and on another day, goes out the window.

Indeed our inner competitiveness, typically seen in sports, in job promotions, comes out, so scoring at a sample sale becomes some sort of game, complete with skills, strategies, and advance planning.

Additionally, there’s a control aspect people crave. Consumer psychologist Dimitri Tsivrikos says, “The bargain price is appealing to you because it challenges the status quo. The retailer appears not to be in complete control of the final price of the product, and this makes you feel that you are now in control.” Research has shown that decisions are emotional, not logical, which explains why excitement over a bargain fogs our ability to clearly judge whether or not it’s worth it.

Ultimately, many normally mild-mannered people turn into wild animals in such situations because they are seeking a release and reward. New York city retail consultant Mimi Irwin suggests there’s a high trigger in people. “The more urgent it seems, the more likely you are to make a spur-of-the-moment decision,” says Irwin. “Websites use this type of language to drive sales.” You should be asking yourself why you’re so driven to go to the sample sale. Do you love the company? Do you need new things? “If you don’t have good answers, you could be shopping for the adrenaline high alone,” Irwin concludes.

If you’re shopping for a retail high, consider perusing websites that support women’s causes around the world.

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