Saturday, November 27, 2010
On Black Friday, Bargain-shopping, and Possessions
I woke up yesterday morning, coupons all organized, ready to hit the post-Thanksgiving craziness known as Black Friday. And then I read the an op ed in the Boston Globe—"Alice’s Adventures in Retail Land" by Joan Wickersham. In this piece, Ms. Wickersham describes through her fictional Alice several ploys used by retailers to sucker us into buying more. There I saw one of my recent retail pilgrimages described—buy $100 worth and we’ll give you an x% discount (or buy $100, and we’ll take $25 off your bill.)
My first foray into one of my favorite women’s clothing stores, I actually resisted because I couldn’t find anything I wanted to bring my $80 full price purchase up to $100 (and I was already getting a discount). But the more I thought about the things I tried on that day, the more I wanted them. When I returned home to no-tax-on-clothing Massachusetts, I succumbed to bargain #2. In this case, it was spend $150 and we’ll give you $50 off. Sounds like a 33% discount-not bad, especially if the goods have already been marked down—but that is if you buy exactly $150 worth. Otherwise, the percent discount goes down. However, for another $20, I could now enter the rarefied realm of a “special customer” (having shopped in this store previously over several years and racked up a certain number of points), and forever after would always get at least a 5% discount. Of course, the item I wanted and eventually chose was more than $20. At this point, without a calculator, it was difficult to figure out whether or not I obtained a better deal. But I was hooked, with no chance of being tossed back into the river.
The point is that this kind of bait (and I avoid using the word “scam” here because the conditions are all up front) lures us into spending more than we intended. Not that I wasn’t aware of what was happening at the time. But sitting in the comfort of my kitchen, away from the huge adrenaline rush of making the perfect purchase, I could see that braving the Black Friday crowds was essentially pointless, especially as I really didn’t need anything and had given up most gift giving a couple of years ago. The true bargains are few and available only to those ready to wait in line with 1000’s of others at 4am. There will be other sales, and some of them may be better. They will certainly involve fewer crowds. Of course, I knew that the editorial would prompt only a brief moment of sanity, not a sea change in my behavior.
Some people abhor shopping. Although I am not a shopaholic, I do not hate shopping. It’s genetic, I suppose. My mother, who successfully managed to downsize at age 60 for a move across the ocean, managed in the next 30 years to fill up her closets again. When she moved into a nursing home the last year of her life, we realized she had never given or thrown away a single item of clothing in all that time, including several hideous polyester pants and vest sets, from the 1970s, when she was a good 20 pounds heavier than her later in life weight. And these, kept by a person, who deeply cared about appearing fashionable until she was 90. When she could no longer shop in stores, she hit the mail order catalogues, and if she were alive today, no doubt she would enjoy the ease of on-line shopping.
As one of the people involved in cleaning out my mother’s apartment, I was inspired sufficiently to come home and clean out my own closets on a regular basis. But I fear there is still more incoming than outgoing. Staying away from sources of temptation is more difficult than it once was. The daily deluge of coupons in my email inbox can be deleted with the click of a button, but it’s not always that easy. What if this is the week I decide to buy that new computer, or the scarf to go with odd color winter coat I bought? I am capable of some rational thinking. Because my office is at home, and I have fewer meetings these days, I no longer allow myself to look at suits. (My last suit purchase a couple of years ago was a huge mistake. I went into another one of my favorite women’s clothing stores to buy a pair of pants in a particular color, and there happened to be a matching jacket—both were substantially reduced. I have worn the pants a number of times, but never the jacket. A bargain you never use is not a bargain.)
My husband, who is not much of a shopper, has come up with the perfect 21st century invention for today’s consumer, who may be concerned that they have run out of space for their purchases—rental storage rooms, like the U-Haul ones where we store our junk, except you can take your new purchases there immediately. Why waste time driving them home?
I hope it never comes to that. But old habits are hard to change. I think about a former colleague of mine, who each year would give away her small wardrobe and replace it with new items, each of which became well used over the course of that year. I admire that. I envy that. But as much as I long to rid myself of things, I can’t bring myself to behave that way. There is something thrilling about excavating through one’s belongings and finding a long forgotten item. Maybe one day ten years from now I will unearth one of those items I bought in my recent expedition, and it will feel fresh and new. And as much as I still dine out on the story of my mother’s 30 bags of clothes we gave to charity, I was delighted that she had kept her beautiful outfits circa 1960, both vintage and fashionable, thanks to the success of “Mad Men.”
I hope I can find some happy medium, where the incoming purchases are reserved for the needed or the special (regardless of whether or not they are bargains), where the outgoing starts to surpass the incoming, where my increasingly precious time and money are spent on activities that are ultimately more satisfying, and where Black Friday is just a day of rest after a large meal.