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Retail Therapy: Trends in Shopper Rage

Marketing Researcher Says Retail Rage Has Shifted Online
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It’s the most wonderful time of the year … for retail rage.

If you’re thinking that the seasonal sight of shoppers brawling in the aisles might be a thing of the past, you’re only partially correct. Joshua Dorsey, assistant professor of marketing, says the rage is still real, and it’s gone digital.

“What we’re really talking about here is our levels of rage,” says Dorsey, whose research has prompted some to call him a consumer psychologist. “Even though it may appear on the face that some of those levels are being tempered, it’s because of the continuance to digital spaces. It’s actually just stretching the space.”

Dorsey’s research published in the June 2016 issue of the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services focuses on episodes of acting out in traditional retail spots. The triggers of customer-to-customer confrontations often are under the retailer’s control — crowds, long waits for service and hunger. But they frequently are paired with a shopper’s bad behavior — physical expressions, rage and revenge, says Dorsey. Today’s shopper is more likely to commiserate publicly with other customers, respond with humor or sarcasm, even boycott the service provider because of shame or regret about personal reactions, the article suggests.

His fixation on shoppers’ frustrations began in 2011 — the beginning of the Black Friday phenomenon — while Dorsey was working on his master’s degree in business from East Carolina University.  He’s never camped out for a Black Friday sale or participated in aisle rage. But he admits: for a limited release on a special pair of Jordan’s (shoes), he could be compelled to get up at dawn to beat an online rush.

Dorsey’s about a year into studying how and why retail rage has shifted to the digital realm with sour reviews, the proliferation of video blogs, venting on social media and rabid customer service responses. He’s also eager to study how rage is spilling into entertainment environments, such as amusement parks and athletic venues.

To gather the data, Dorsey interviews people involved in rage-filled incidents and surveys hundreds online. He also monitors bidding on Black Friday and Digital Monday to watch the market’s intensity. Dorsey’s goal is to publish his current research next year.

“I see marketing in a different way,” he says. “I tell my students the first day, they have to redefine marketing. They do it and then I tell them they’re wrong,” he says with a laugh. “It’s not just money and buying things. There’s people using marketing as a tool for war. We can use the same tools to stop war and to help consumers. I push my students to think differently.”

Students in Dorsey’s “Consumer Behavior and Professional Selling” class share his zeal for researching what makes shoppers tick and why some shoppers explode verbally or physically when engaged in, well, retail therapy. They examine not just what causes the crisis, but how the market responds and how shoppers can be mindful and curtail their urges to be confrontational.

Building competition in the digital domain plays on scarcity and urgency, especially when retailers like Amazon spark impulsive responses with countdowns and sales for limited times, he says. In a digital market, the response can be magnified or gain momentum publicly with the help of social media, like when Papa John’s stock slumped 9 percent after its CEO criticized how NFL leadership handled its player protests. Still, Dorsey says, unlike the aisle rage of the more traditional type, digital rage has less or no risk of physical harm to the shopper.

Gamification isn’t helping, Dorsey says. Retailers, restaurants included, create competitive environments with scratch-off games and limited giveaways that feed consumers’ desire to be first or win. It’s competition at its core, he says.

“Just like hunger or thirst,” Dorsey says, “You’ve got a basic need for life, and we’ve tapped into it. Tapping into that is the wrong thing. As long as we keep offering it, people are going to do these things.”