The Economics of Black Friday

This year’s Black Friday was much more peaceful than last year’s. No tramplings were reported. There was a fight at a Wal-Mart in the wee hours, unfortunately. The store was temporarily closed, which led to this lovely scene:

[P]eople began “yelling and screaming,” pounding on the glass doors and trying to sneak into the store through the lawn and garden section. Store managers had to be sent outside to try to calm the crowd, workers said.

Which brings us to Black Friday’s most important economics lesson: not all costs are measured in money. Yes, the discounts to be had can be great. But you pay a price for them. The price can be waiting outside in the cold. It could be the crowds, the parking, or the long checkout lines. In rare cases like today’s Wal-Mart near-riot, safety becomes an issue.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Suppose the people who camp out all night end up saving $40 on their purchases. If they spend eight hours suffering in the cold, that’s a savings of only $5 per hour. Less than minimum wage. Some people don’t place much value on their time, it seems.

Or, for some people, Black Friday’s pomp, circumstance, and sales are a cultural experience. They’re worth all the trouble. For other people, they’re not. Wherever you stand, non-price costs should be factored into your shopping habits. Otherwise you just might be getting ripped off.