The New York Times

December 5, 2004

The Dry Goods Frenzy, Updated


AS the angry lady with the stroller grabbed the last $7 DVD player away from you at the Best Buy on Thanksgiving weekend, did you, perhaps, take a moment to reflect that such frantic shopping is hardly a new phenomenon?

Of course, people have been killing each other for food since time began. But in the mid-19th century - at the start of the great era of American retailing - people were still shocked and amused by descriptions of crowds lining up and shoving for anything so mundane as ribbons.

"In 1846, Harper's Weekly coined the term 'the dry goods epidemic,' " said Thomas Hine, author of "I Want That! How We All Became Shoppers" (HarperCollins, 2002). That newspaper, which often ran cartoons of women running, shouting and grabbing, wrote of "a willingness to crowd into the stores at the beginning of the season when the newest lines arrived."

In December 1874, Macy's put $10,000 worth of dolls in its windows, Mr. Hine said, and in one masterstroke of marketing began several important trends, including lining up to see holiday window displays and panicking that your child's most desired gift will be sold out.

The hordes of bargain hunters, of course, are engineered by the retailers, said Julie Downs, director of the Center for Risk Perception and Communication at Carnegie Mellon University. Retailers, she said, "want to create physiological arousal because shoppers in an aroused state are not as deliberative, they are more apt to buy stuff they don't want."

Holiday sales represent a very old technique, said Robert H. Frank, who is the author of "Luxury Fever" and an economics professor at Cornell. The trick, he said, is to lure different people into paying different prices for the same thing. "If you just sell it at a low price, you defeat the purpose," he said, "because you've missed all the people who would have paid full price."

The solution? "To put a hurdle between the buyer and the discount," he said. That way, a distinct group - the frenzied ones - will line up at 5 A.M. for the dirt-cheap iPods, and the rest of the shoppers will say "the hell with it" and pay full price.

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