How a great sale affects your brain

The science of sales 07:21

(CBS News)     'Tis the season . . . for a SALE.  Once a special occasion, storewide markdowns are becoming commonplace, and savvy shoppers know just when to pounce.  Our Cover Story is reported by Mark Strassmann:

Black Friday, retail's Super Bowl of super sales, has become an everyday mindset. In the great shopping bazaar of America, everything better be marked down.

Whatever we're buying, we're shopping for deals.

"You're an idiot if you pay full price for anything, ever," said journalist Mark Ellwood, "because everything goes on sale."

Ellwood is kidding about the word idiot, sort of. But the author of "Bargain Fever" is serious about helping shoppers find real bargains. 

"Ten years ago, retailers sold between 15 and 20 percent of their inventory at some form of promotion," Ellwood said. "Now they sell between 40 and 45 percent, and that number is rising. We are heading to a situation where a sale is more normal than a full price."

Shoppers used to be happy with sales of 10 or 20 percent off. No more. Shoppers' eyes light up when they see 50 percent, or more.

What really lights up is your brain. 

"We're chemically programmed to respond to sales," said Ellwood. "There are hormones in our brain that activate when you see a sale. The chemical that triggers that reaction is one of the biggest chemical rewards we have. The more you make someone feel good about a sale, the more they'll come back."

So merchants are trying to trigger a dopamine response?  "Exactly," Ellwood said.

In New York City -- a shopper's Shangri-La -- Shelly and Renee are the real deal. Their private, super-high-end sample sales are legendary, bringing in designer merchandise at "super discounted prices," such as Vera Wang's wedding dress event (Hurry! Tomorrow!).

Respectable socialites have elbowed each other aside for a $6,000 handbag at 70 percent off.

"These folks can afford to pay full price, so why?" asked Strassmann.

Renee replied, "It's a high, it's a rush. It's a great thing. You got a great deal."

"So even the wealthiest people in New York want the deal?"


Shelly said her customers feel it's very important they be the first to get the best deal possible.

"So they can tell their friends?" Strasmann asked.

"No, no, no, no!"  Shelly and Renee both replied."That's a little secret for them. It's their secret pleasure."

And the next shopping secret is as close as your laptop. Finding online bargains is such a way of life, this year's Cyber Monday after Thanksgiving was the biggest single online shopping day ever, with more than $2 billion spent.

"Instead of competing with the store down the street, you're competing with every single store on the Internet," said Izzy Grinspan, editorial director of shopping website "And you're competing with Amazon, with these giants.

"There's a phenomenon known as 'showrooming,' where you'll go into a brick and mortar store, you'll see an item you like, and then you're treating the store like a showroom. You look on your phone and you try to find a better deal."

The art of the deal in modern retailing began during the Industrial Revolution in Europe.

"There were no price tags," said Ellwood. "You didn't need them -- you haggled. But as we all know, the middle class is a little ashamed of not seeming rich enough. And just as the middle class was being smelted in all the Industrial Revolution in Europe, a very smart shopkeeper in Paris thought, 'Oh, I know how to take advantage of this.'"