If you're a normal person and happen to find yourself lined up in the early morning hours after Thanksgiving waiting for a store to open, you may ask yourself, “what am I doing here?”
It turns out a lot of other people are asking the same thing. Among them is Laura Brannon, a psychology professor at Kansas State University who has studied people who are willing to wait in line for the latest iPhone or for a store to open on Black Friday.
"People who are very motivated to have scarce items tend to have a high need to be unique," Brannon said. "On the other hand, people who are motivated by social proof tend to want to fit in with everyone else. You might see a bunch of people waiting in line, but different things might be going through all their minds. It's a little more complicated than it might first appear."
Why people wait
From Harry Potter midnight shows to smartphones and video games, waiting in line for the latest product or experience is not a new phenomenon. Brannon traces the most famous waiting incident back to the mid-1980s, when the Cabbage Patch Kids doll frenzy occurred.
Parents promised the dolls to their children, but the demand greatly exceeded availability, she said. Although the dolls were fairly inexpensive, people still paid hundreds of dollars to obtain them.
People lined up a few weeks ago for the release of the iPhone 5, and the lines will happen again with the arrival of Black Friday on Nov. 23. Although Brannon said there might be good deals on Black Friday, there is also a lot of clever marketing involved because marketers are aware of social influence practices on the consumer.
"I think the quality of the deals offered will obviously vary by store," Brannon said. "Many stores have a few very good deals to get consumers into the store, hoping that they'll buy other things as well."
Wanting things that are rare
It's true that people naturally want things that are rare and hard to get. Brannon says marketers know this and play it to their advantage with Black Friday. That why a retailer may only have a limited number of computers or big-screen TV sets at a “door-buster” price.
"Marketers create a demand by imposing an artificial scarcity on an opportunity," Brannon said. "Research shows that people tend to react against limits on opportunities and reassert their freedom to have and do what they want."
Even though people could wait an extra week for a new smartphone or a few extra days to see a movie, the scarcity principle motivates people to buy the smartphone or see the movie because they are difficult to obtain.
Taking a cue from the crowd
The other reason you may find yourself standing in line, shivering in the cold, is something called “the social proof principle.” That's the concept that if other people are doing something, we use that as evidence that it must be good, Brannon said.
Advertisers emphasize when their products are the best-selling or leading brand. It is usually the case that the reason a product or experience is very popular is because people realize it is of good quality or value.
"Once the lines form, there's a tendency to assume that's a cue to the value of the experience or opportunity, and people want to join in," Brannon said.
With the social proof principle, there also is an element of normative influence. That's when people want to fit in with what other people are doing.
And not all waiting is the same, Brannon points out. You might complain bitterly about waiting in line for two hours at the DMV but not complain about waiting for Target to open its doors.