The Psychology of Shopping: What’s Your Retail Personality?

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For me (and my ancestors before me), the day after Thanksgiving has always meant jumbo turkey sandwich, nap, movie, repeat. More ambitious Americans evidently embrace the busiest shopping day of the year, when sale prices are killer but so might be the crowded superstore.  Black Friday has always struck me as the kind of activity that slightly neurotic, type-A morning people pursue.

Whether you passed on Black Friday or not, the busiest shopping season of the year is upon us and Mary Ellen Brown, personal shopper (via her service The Witch and The Wardrobe), counsels us to reassess our long-standing shopping tendencies, reevaluate strategies, and exchange bad spending habits for smart ones, to become grounded and thoughtful consumers.

Habits can be hard to break. For me, the words Black and Friday serve mostly as a bleak reminder I’ve failed to begin my Christmas shopping entirely, and won’t for another two weeks. Why do I wait so late year after year? Well, thinking about shopping for everyone on my list is stressful enough. I want to buy my sister’s four kids totally surprising and ingenious expressions of my love, to make up for almost never seeing them. Instead, I freak out, freeze up, and don’t begin. My lame gift solution is often iTunes certificates for all family members under 60.

At least I’m not alone. Psychotherapist Mikita Brottman says America’s relationship with holiday shopping is downright “anxious, stressful, complicated, ambivalent, and tied up with all kinds of complicated emotions going back to childhood.”

Shopping Personality Types

According to Brown, typical shoppers are either mindful and mature or basically fearful: Some* are post-Turkey-Day early-bird Bargain Hunters who make the money-saving most of Black Friday’s markdowns (of course, if you prefer to shop online, you can roll out of bed today and shop Cyber Monday deals in your PJs); some are Finders who pace themselves and buy precious/thoughtful/glowing gifts all year long, when the right inspiration strikes them; others, like my people, are Procrastinators, pure and simple. Procrastinators may become Binge Shoppers as well. Depending upon our budgets, Bingers will last minute load up on random clearance items (e.g. an extra large neon green hoodie, recipient to be decided) or expensive jewelry or electronics intended mainly to impress, rather than express our heart’s least selfish wishes.

Good-Shop/Bad-Shop

When we Procrastinators prepare to buy a gift for someone we care about, we feel a mixture of excitement and intimidation, not to mention pressure. “We [feel pressure] because the identity of the giver is totally bound up with the gift,” Brottman says. “This gives it a kind of magic power that compels the recipient to return the favor. What we’re really giving is part of ourselves, so we don’t want it to seem cheap or cheesy.”

We may also feel pressured by the salesperson waiting on us.

If you’re of the Procrastinator variety, pressure rules your mind. But Brottman confirms there’s a second sort of unhealthy/anxious shopper type to add to the list, the Addict — the person for whom anxiety prompts purchase (on location and online) of so many unneeded goods on a regular basis that he or she can’t be certain what lies in wait in the closet. When it comes to holiday shopping, chaos ensues. (The Addict a close cousin to the less regular Binge Shopper.)

“You should be worried if you go shopping as a way to self-medicate, as a response to anger or stress — when you find yourself with closets full of unopened and unworn merchandise, when you buy multiple copies of the same item, when you find yourself fantasizing about shopping, planning your next opportunity to go shopping…feeling guilty or ashamed of your shopping behavior, feeling anxious if you haven’t shopped in a while,” Brottman explains. (The chick in L.A. with the pepper spray, who had to get her discounted-Xbox fix, just might fit the profile.)

Encouragingly, Brown says everyone can learn to morph into the mindful, well-paced Finder, who buys thoughtfully and creatively for herself and others, whether or not childhood baggage weighs down her shopping sacks. Brown, who serves as personal shopper to some of the busiest people in Baltimore, believes it’s easiest to learn how to shop well under the guidance of a pro for hire. But since many of us can’t afford the luxury, she hands over an early present now, a smart, doable checklist for becoming our most effective shopping selves. Read, memorize, shop.

Make Lists of Things You Need and People for Whom You Intend to Buy

When you shop for yourself, make a careful list of what’s missing from your closet and, like a marksman, take aim. “With Christmas shopping, make a list of who you’re buying for. Names alone will conjure up enough ideas when you’re in the stores.” Look at each friend’s name, reminisce and free associate about the person as you browse.

Leave Enough Time to Shop and Shop Again

“Set aside a whole day and know that you can go another time. This way, if you don’t find it, you don’t buy it.”

Keep Your Eyes Peeled for Meaningful Items All Year Round

“A lot of the good stuff is gone by December, the stuff that reflects your personality. Be out there and let the stuff find you! I have a friend who buys for her boys in summer.” Another tip: If you’re traveling for business or pleasure, window-shop with the holidays in mind, no matter what time of year it is. In a new city, your eye will be especially alert, and you might find the rare gift of a lifetime.

 

Be a Finder Who Braves The Sales

“In the department stores, a lot of merchandise will go down in the first markdown by 40 percent. You hit Saks at 8 a.m., you can get some great stuff that might be gone by the afternoon. Two and three weeks later, it’s down another 20 percent, but by then you’ll be left with items nobody wanted.”

Broaden Your Shopping Horizons; Strategize New Locations According to Budget

Look beyond the mall, beyond the department stores. “Go to great alternative places, shop the locally owned boutiques.”

Work Out/Eat Breakfast Before You Shop

When you’ve had breakfast you think clearer; when you’ve worked out, you feel better about your body, in case you spy something you need that you’d like to try on. Which is A-okay any time of year.

Buy for Yourself at the Holidays Guilt-Free

“Yes, it’s really okay! If you rarely shop for yourself, kill two birds with one stone. If you’ve got nice black velvet pants, buy a new blouse. Don’t feel guilty. It’s good time management.”

Listen to Your Inner Voice, Not the Salesperson

“It’s a real mental game. Don’t trust the salesperson — don’t buy something if you feel uncomfortable or don’t like it.”

Remember: Every Gift is a Personal Expression

“When you open something it says a lot about the person who gave it to you,” Brown says. And while she does occasionally purchase gifts for clients to give their friends and family, she draws the line at ultra-personal presents. “I don’t like buying for [clients’] husbands at the holidays. I won’t. It’s too personal.”

To Become a Self-Actualized Shopper, Replace Retail Therapy with Real Therapy

Brottman adds, “It’s so easy to click on a button and send someone an automatic gift rather than taking the time to write a letter, make something by hand or actually to go and help somebody out. Buying a new dress or getting a new haircut is a quick fix, but a poor substitute for actually making real, lasting changes to your life. Objects seem more concrete, more real than ‘inner’ changes that might be far more substantial but can’t be seen to the outside observer or in the mirror.”

(*Shopper type nicknames were devised by reporter not professional shopper.)



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