IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Black Friday parking psychology: How to find a spot every time

Should you just pick a row or sit and wait for someone to come out? When it comes to finding a parking space, some strategies are better than others.
Shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, so called Black Friday, in Wheaton, MD.
Shoppers make their way through a packed parking lot at Westfield Wheaton Mall in Wheaton, Maryland.Bill O'Leary / The Washington Post/Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Wherever you go, you must first park your car.

Easier said than done — especially on a huge shopping day like Black Friday — but when it comes to finding a space, some strategies are better than others. It’s something Andrew Velkey, an associate professor of psychology at Christopher Newport University in Virginia, saw over and over again when he observed people’s behavior in parking lots.

What's the big deal about Black Friday parking?

Why do we devote so much energy to finding a good parking spot in the first place? We’re obsessed even when the weather is nice and walking a short distance would be good for our health.

“When we get a good parking spot, it does activate reward pathways,” Velkey told TODAY. “There is a sense of accomplishment, a sense of satisfaction, maybe a little bit of victory because you know you’re competing against other people — ‘I got the space, you didn’t.’”

Little changes can bring big results. Sign up for our One Small Thing newsletter here

We also tend to misjudge the availability of good spaces. When you do find a perfect spot, it’s a memorable event and makes you overestimate the likelihood of getting one the next time around, so you keep searching, he noted. For some of us, it’s also a habit.

Here's what you need to know for parking success:

Just pick a row

When people enter a typical shopping center parking lot — where there are plenty of empty spaces, but not close to the entrance — they use two strategies:

1. The active search: Drive up and down the rows, and look for a spot closest to the door.

2. Pick a row, closest space: Enter any row and park in the first vacant spot you come across.

And the winner is: No. 2 — Pick a row, closest space. You’ll get to the store quicker.

“People who drive up and down the rows looking for a closer space… spend a lot of time looking, but when they actually park their car, they’re no closer to the door, on average — distance wise or foot travel time wise — than the people who use the other strategy,” Velkey said.

“They’re incurring a time cost, but without the benefit. They don’t get closer.”

Men were more likely to use the “pick a row, closest space” strategy, while women were more likely to actively search, he found in his observations of a suburban Wal-Mart parking lot.

Sit and wait

When a parking lot is completely full, say on Black Friday or during the Christmas shopping rush, the goal shifts from finding a good spot to finding any parking spot, so drivers use two modified strategies:

1. The active search: Drive up and down the rows, and if you don’t find a spot, go on to another parking lot.

2. Sit and wait: Drive into a parking lot, then sit and wait for someone to come out of the store and vacate a spot.

And the winner is: No. 2 — Sit and wait. It takes more time, but there’s a greater chance of success.

“People who use a sit-and-wait strategy were investing 8-12 minutes, typically, waiting for a parking space, but they almost always got a parking space,” Velkey found after observing a chronically overcrowded university parking lot.

Active searchers were successful in finding a spot only about a third of the time, but they only spent two or three minutes in the lot before trying their luck elsewhere, he added.

Look beyond the main entrance

Most people will park in the row directly in front of the store door, no matter how far away the space is. Consider the next row over, or park in the periphery of the lot and you’ll likely be closer.

Be nice and stay calm

When you’re waiting for someone to vacate their space, don’t be too insistent. One study found people who saw someone waiting for their spot took longer to pull out, and were even slower to leave if someone honked.

People can treat a spot as their territory, Velkey noted. They’re also a bit like animals foraging for food. Tensions can arise when there are lots of individuals competing for a limited resource. Parking rage is real and thinking “I’m going to win, I’m going to get this space” may lead you to make bad decisions, he added.

“Try not to make it a competition. Realize that good parking spaces don’t happen very often and quit trying to find them so much,” Velkey said.

Follow A. Pawlowski on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.