Advertisers spend billions of dollars honing techniques to urge us to buy stuff; it certainly behooves us to be self-analytic and better understand the many triggers behind shopping.
1. The most basic reason to buy things is simple: need. We do need food, shelter, and clothing. However, we do not “need” to eat at The Four Seasons, own 4000 square feet McMansions, or have as many shoes as Imelda Marcus. It is important to note that while we might opt to be frugal, to live is to consume. It’s not like we can stop buying things altogether, though some people do give themselves a moratorium and celebrate “no-buying” days.
2. Problem solving is perhaps the most straightforward motivation for purchases. You need a place to eat your at-home meals, so you acquire a table. You need a place to sleep, so you buy a bed. You need a place to put your clothing – in comes the dresser. If we didn’t have access tables, beds, or dressers, we would no doubt be inventive and create solutions to these problems, since these needs have existed since the dawn of humankind. But when readymade solutions are there, waiting to be purchased, it makes sense to avail ourselves of them. Frequently this sets off a chain reaction. You bought a table, so now you need table linens; for the bed, bedding. You acquire a pet, and pretty soon pet paraphernalia needs have required six trips to Petco. As any new parent can tell you, must-have infant items have proliferated. (The fact that previous generations managed without them is hard to believe!) You take up skiing, and pretty soon your garage is full of a whole bevy of equipment you decide to purchase instead of rent. And on it goes.
3. Wishful thinking and fantasy are also powerful drivers of consumption. Luxuries are marketed as life style purchases. Since we don’t need diamond necklaces or alpaca shawls, the need has to be created. We know when we buy an upscale car, a sexy date does not actually come along with the vehicle, but a lifetime of exposure to tens of thousands of commercials reinforcing the connection between sex appeal and most everything has reformatted our brains. We see images of fit, energetic, athletic bodies; if we buy a Nordic Track, we will become thin and athletic, too. If we buy a recipe file, we will file our recipes. To avoid these types of purchases, we need to discipline ourselves to think clearly and separate the marketer-created fantasy from the likely reality.
4. Affordability is another factor fueling high consumption. For today’s families the costs of big items like health care, housing, and college continue to spiral upward while at the same time the cost of many consumer goods has spiraled downwards. Our globalized economy is delivering clothing, electronics, and housewares at ever cheaper prices. (In fact, America is producing a world glut of used clothes.) Between discounters, outlets, wholesale clubs, constant sales, on-line stores, and incessant catalogues, we are constantly exposed to inexpensive merchandise. For many of us it takes a lot of discipline to resist these tempting prices and not over-buy. One of the classic jokes is the person who comes home laden with items bought on clearance, pleased because he (or she) has "saved" so much. With electronics, since they continually provide more power for less money, we are never done upgrading.
4. Shopping fills psychological needs, though more on a temporary basis than in the long run. We are continually told we “deserve” cashmere sweaters, fine cigars, or whatever luxury is promoted. We begin to believe that these things will make us happy. If we are bored or unhappy, the novelty of acquiring something new provides a pick-me-up. Shopping is considered by many in our culture a perfectly respectable recreational activity; for some, it is actually a hobby. Shopping is stimulating to the senses. If we’re feeling lonely in a culture ever more privatized, going shopping is a way to connect to the outside world. Advertisers may convince us to treat ourselves to luxuries, but we are the ones who pay! (And if you're paying off credit card debt, you're paying twice....)
5. Most of us feel a need to be in style, although we might differ on which style we embrace. Our professional image may require it, but just as often it is our own insecurity that fuels shopping. Alan Durning, author of This Place on Earth writes, “Fashion is an insidious form of planned obsolescence: things become useless long before they wear out.” Branding is more and more a strategy of marketing. We are all suckers together. My husband always wonders why consumers pay for logo clothing; the designers should be paying the customers to walk around looking like bill-boards.
For those trying to cut back on shopping, there are some wise strategies to adopt. Restructure your life with fewer shopping opps, and voila! Less stuff finds its way through your threshold. Keep a budget. Cancel all the mail-order catalogs which flood your house. Cultivate new interests and hobbies to supplant recreational shopping trips. Try picking up needed items by borrowing them or finding used ones through freecycle or Craig's List. Postpone purchases. If you’re on the fence, give yourself a day or a week to decide. Often the craving will have passed.
Shopper, know thyself!