This past Sunday I let my guard down. I told the family to saddle up. We were going shopping. Time for a little retail therapy. Why does shopping feel so good? Let’s explore how a frugal minimalist rationalizes THIS one…
My spark was lit by the realization that we didn’t have enough Christmas decorations. Bizarre. Here I am, a supposed minimalist and the first thing that pops into my head after decking out the living room is to go buy more crap. Tsk tsk tsk!
Here’s what’s interesting: We got out of the house and enjoyed our little family adventure. After spending most of Saturday sitting around watching football on TV (not good Hygge, by the way, even with the fireplace going), I’d had it.
Time to get out of there. The transition from turkey to tinsel and eggnog was ON. $100 on a stuffed reindeer, twinkle lights, a “fa la la” pillow, two craft beers, and two mochas later, we called it a day. Score one for shopping, zero for frugal puritanism.
The Statistics on Shopping Tell Us a Lot
Getting out to physically go shopping at a brick and mortar destination almost seems quaint these days. Online shopping, once seen as a fad, has become a primary channel for purchasing just about everything. “Online shopping: mankind’s solution for putting an end to shoplifting and parking lot road rage.”
Some fancy figures culled from V12 Data:
67% of Millennials and 56% of Gen Xers prefer to shop online rather than in-store. (Big Commerce)… Hey, I’m a Gen Xer and I LOVE to shop online vs. shopping at a store. I must be on to something big here…
75% of consumers are more likely to buy from a retailer that recognizes them by name, recommends options based on past purchases, OR knows their purchase history. (Accenture)… Oooh… Big Brother is watching us. And we kinda like it! Perverted, but true. (And oh, so convenient!)
49% cite not being able to touch, feel or try a product as one of their least favorite aspects of online shopping. (Big Commerce)… This is one of the reasons I like to, on rare occasions, get out and stroll the aisles in a real store. In a Minnesota winter, it’s nice to get out of the house. The Mall of America capitalizes on cabin fever quite well.
The top reason consumers shop online is the ability to shop 24/7 (KPMG)… Now, you won’t find me shopping for lightly used sweaters on eBay at 2 AM, but it is nice to not be constrained by time when buying an item. The trick is how soon you get that item delivered. Amazon Prime members have it best with 2-day delivery. But if you need a Christmas fruitcake to take to a holiday party tonight, you’re walking your butt down to Walgreens.
Only 23 percent of consumers said they prefer visiting shops to enjoy the shopping experience. (KPMG)… LAME! C’mon, kids!! In fairness, I think it comes down to seasonality. The winter months are the prime time to get out at least a couple of times, even if it’s nothing more than to window shop and get out da house!
53% of buyers say Facebook informs their purchase decisions. (VWO)… Facebook? What’s that? Oh yeah, the Devil’s slambook. Meh. Count me out. I don’t need a service that promulgates death and destruction to guide my purchasing decisions. Pass.
What is Retail Therapy? Your Brain Wants You to Shop Til You Drop!
A telling article from the BBC a few years back exposes our behavior in primitive terms: Ryan Howell, an associate professor of psychology at San Francisco State University in California in the US, said the impulse to buy, in part, is a survival instinct. Back in our hunter and gatherer days, when people saw something they wanted, they’d grab it, even if they didn’t need it because it was likely they wouldn’t come across that item again.
That’s why when you’re strolling the aisles of Macy’s, you can’t help yourself when you spot a cashmere cardigan sweater that’s soft as a llama’s backside. You may already have that sweater in Orange, Pink, and Brown, but this one is Red and you don’t have red!
There’s another aspect of retail therapy that makes it, er, therapeutic? Shopping feels good because it gives you a feeling of control. You get to compare, peruse, select, and pull the trigger on a purchase. What’s interesting here is that the same level of control and contentment can be found by organizing your closet and getting rid of sh*t you don’t need (via donations of course).
As for that monkey brain part of us? Some interesting studies reveal how the unpredictability of the shopping experience can trigger LOADS of dopamine (our naturally occurring “anticipation” brain chemical). If there’s uncertainty whether the item will be on the shelf, whether the item will be in your size or fit you, or whether that special coupon applies at the register… It’s all feeding into your monkey brain and its primitive reward centers.
Now you know why people are crazy enough to rush Walmart’s doors at 5 AM on Black Friday the day after Thanksgiving.
As for how this dopamine stuff works with online shopping? The Psychology Today report linked above shares that Seventy-six percent of people in the US, 72 percent in the UK, 73 percent in Brazil, and 82 percent in China say they are more excited when their online purchases arrive in the mail than when they buy things in store.
I don’t know about you fine readers, but I get hives thinking about all of the cardboard I have to break down for recycling. And then I get heartburn from all the little packing bubbles I have to pop and throw in the garbage. Madness. Maybe if we doubled the gasoline tax, we’d think twice about how our newly beloved conveniences are shellacking the planet…
A Minimalist’s Love/Hate Relationship With Shopping
I’m not a fan of accumulating things. Plain and simple, I do not like clutter. Hoarding makes my skin crawl. So shopping is about the most anathema thing for this so-called minimalist.
My favorite tactic? I play the one-in, one-out game. The trick is to find items with high utility that last, so you’re not constantly jettisoning possessions to thrift stores and recycling.
The brand of minimalism I aspire to has a reasonably strong environmental preservation twist to it. It should be painful to discard old wares in the trash.
We donate as much as we can, but again, the priority is to avoid buying short-lasting items, to begin with. For example, cheap and trendy H&M clothes, where the stitching comes loose after four wash cycles. CRAP.
With the kids, we’re hoping to stick with more timeless toys like Legos. You know, fantastic plastic that you hang on to? I’ve added my 30-year old childhood collection to the mix, and you’d never know it.
The problem? We seem to be adding LEGOs (and LEGO Death Stars!) at a fast clip. Two kids with two doting sets of grandparents, a generous nanny, and pushover parents are effectively two kids with a Lego hoarding problem…
Retail Therapy Without Short-Circuiting Your Frugal Brain
I’ve learned through the course of writing this piece that the act of touching or trying a product can trick your brain into feeling ownership, even before a purchase. Talk about sticky fingers! But I believe that window-shopping and trying-without-buying can be a rewarding (and money-saving) experience.
The catch? Moderation. And seasonality. I avoid mall-shopping like the plague in good weather months. I’d rather be on my bike or doing yard work than strolling the aisles looking for bargains. Give me a shopping trip (or two) during the holiday season, and then again in the depths of winter. That’s enough to get my fix for the entire year.
There have been plenty of times I’ve gone shopping and looked at a bunch of books, gag gifts, board games, or albums. I’d pick them up off the shelf, read a page or just thumb the pages and smell the newness along with the tactile sensation of imaginary time for reading…
After a few hours of just simply walking around and “checking out the scene”, I feel content coming home empty-handed. I may have dropped a few bucks at Starbucks, but it sure beats dropping a few hundred bucks on credit for stuff I’d wind up donating in a year or two anyhow.
It’s not unlike how I enjoy eating meat these days. Most days I don’t eat any meat at all. When a random happy hour or date night comes along, I’ll then indulge. And lo and behold, I seem to enjoy it more. The same thing happens with shopping. I shop so infrequently, that when I do, it feels like I’m at the World’s Fair.
That’s a bit of an exaggeration. The parking and commotion and commercialism do grind on me eventually. But when you get out to the mall to shop for fun just twice, maybe three times a year? It can be a novel experience.
My Evolving Consumer Philosophy
This leads to the conclusion for today: Moderation in all things is a noble aspiration. At least, it’s noble in as much as yours truly is an adherent. (Now to work on that ego…) At any rate, I’ve grown from a childhood of indulgence in candy, baseball cards, and video games, into a grown-up living moderately on average cars, small houses, and a lack of motorboat.
I’ve indulged in other things, like a fascination with The Beatles, Star Wars, French culture, World War 2 history, and Fogo de Chao. If only I’d kept that guitar and practiced… Think of the many campfires that’d be compromised.
Shopping and dining out and traveling with reckless abandon won’t help you reach long term financial goals. These are indulgences to avoid. Instead, apply artful moderation. The trick with moderation is that it’s not black and white, and therefore out of fashion.
We’re living in a black and white world today. And moderation is nowhere near as attention-grabbing as say, living off $24,000 a year.
Take a look at this insightful write-up on writer Hermann Hesse. My philosophy has evolved to align somewhat with Herr Hesse. This particular summation in the piece squarely hits the target:
Moderation is the source of love, joy, and poetry within our busy lives. Regarding the truly grand pleasures, Hesse recommends saving them for holidays or appropriate moments.
There you have it. It IS the holidays after all. Go enjoy a little shopping. Use your phone and download apps that pay you real money in return for your good shopping deeds.
After that, enjoy a coffee at Starbucks or better yet, a locally owned coffee shop. Order a steak. And make it medium-rare. I’m not going to tell you to stop saving 50% of your income and improving yourself to earn more pay, but I am going to suggest that you pause to enjoy life – even just a little.