The psychology of shopping: how to avoid the slippery slope

As I mentioned in my last post, I had to break my January challenge to buy a pair of dress pants.  This confession has a Part II, though.  While I was there, I was severely tempted by a knee-length gray wool coat.

I’ve wanted a knee-length wool coat since high school.  It’s been nearly a decade and I’ve never found one that fit, but this one did.  Bodice, sleeve length, hips, knee length – it fit like a glove, flattered my body, had some fantastic detailing, and best of all, was on sale.

Ooooooh.  I hate it when this happens.  You walk into a store looking for one thing and come out with another.  Worse yet, you come out with several others, none of which are the item you initially sought.

I stood there in the dressing room, staring at the best-fitting pair of pants, which paled in comparison to this fantastic coat, and wanted to hit myself over the head.  In fact, I spent more time staring at the coat than at the pants.  I kept rationalizing to myself “Do you know how long you’ve looked for something like this?” “When’s the next time you’ll find something that fits so well?  You’ve been looking for ages!” “You’ll use this enough to justify the price tag!”

That’s the catch.  I don’t need the coat.  Here in the Northeastern United States, it is far more practical to use a waterproof down jacket in winter than a wool coat that soaks up sleet and snow and is weighed down by wet.  The potential times I may need a long coat for formal occasions are few and far between.  I can get by with what I have now, and it will be years before I may come to a place in life where I’ll need a more formal winter coat.  In the meantime it will just sit in my closet taking up space and inspiring guilt every time I see it.

It was with great regret that I returned it to the rack, and meekly headed to the cashier with one pair of pants in hand.

Advocates of the pantry principle first introduced by Amy Dacyzyn in The Tightwad’s Gazette recommend stockpiling necessary food items as they go on sale, rather than purchasing food items as the need arises.  This allows you to take full advantage of sale prices to supply food needs, and decreases time wasted on “emergency” trips to the store to pick up an essential (like that pair of dress pants).

The difference between the pantry principle and a “closet principle” is that our food needs and clothing needs are different.  We have to eat every single day, and the food we consume is not reusable.  Though we must dress ourselves daily, our clothing is reusable.  This difference is the ability to identify necessities.  I can only guess when, if ever, I will need a formal long wool coat.  Given my current thinking about post-graduation plans, the odds are it will be a long time away, if ever.  On the other hand, I am darn certain that next week I will still need to eat 21 meals.  Stockpiling makes sense when future needs are easily extrapolated.  This is what separates the immense practicality of the pantry principle from the dubious wishful thinking of the nonexistent “closet principle” that I made up for the purpose of comparison.

This also points to a subtle point about consumer psychology that I think I first read about in Predictably Irrational.  The decision that has the greatest sway over how much we spend is whether we commit to making a purchase.  Notice this is not the decision over what to buy or where to buy it.  The single factor that holds the largest influence over whether we choose to pick up four sweaters from Target is deciding to buy that very first sweater.   Once we commit to the first purchase we surpass a mental threshold, which creates lowered resistance to making the second, third, and fourth purchase.

I’ve certainly found this to be true.  It took the greatest internal debate to commit to the initial purchase (in fact, this is why it was a night-before-the-flight shopping expedition, and not an afternoon-before-the-flight expedition – I spend a lot of time coming to this decision).  Once I had decided I would purchase a pair of pants it was much less difficult to cave in to just try on the coat, and then to bring it into the dressing room, and then to come up with all sorts of reasons to let myself purchase it in addition to the pants.

This is yet another reason to remain firmly resolved to stay out of stores when attempting to consume less.  In addition to eliminating temptation, it lowers the likelihood of surpassing that threshold of commitment to the very first purchase and thus the subsequent purchases that sneak their way into the shopping cart.

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