Cheap Thrills: Our Addiction To Bargains (And How To Resist)

Necessity never made a good bargain.

                                                                      –Benjamin Franklin

“Need” is not a word that retailers want us to contemplate too seriously. (“I NEED those new Isabel Marant Sneakers! Wait…”)  From a purely practical perspective, we “need” very little.  But life is more nuanced than that, and societal expectations and aesthetic standards ask us to expand our definition of “need” to include goods and services that give us an edge.  (Yes, you can repeat that to yourself next time you need to justify your custom suit.)

Everyone loves a bargain — and deals have an interesting affect on our definition of “need.”  Suddenly those Louboutins are catapulted to a new level of desirability (and irresistibility) when they’re also on sale.  Every time you wear them, you not only admire their perfect heel, you also admire yourself for being savvy enough to find them at such a “great” price.  You get high from your heels — in more ways than one.

Research indicates that we experience a release of dopamine (which is connected to emotional response and pleasure/pain) when we pay a low price for a desirable item — what we might call “smartshopper feelings.” However, paying full price for something you love, while usually at least mildly satisfying, does not trigger the same sort of dopamine release.

Dopamine can also put you under a sort of retail spell, as your emotional response surges, and your judgement becomes clouded and your financial planning goes out the window. So, in other words, bargains are  more satisfying and physiologically harder to resist — meaning, they pack a powerful consumer punch. (Newsflash:  Retailers understand this!)

This is why we continue to shop at discount stores like TJ Maxx, DSW, or Century 21.  They’re  less efficient and take up more time — without a guarantee that you’ll find what you’re looking for.  But we flock to them anyway, because bargain hunting gives us pleasure (at least initially).

We’ve been getting our bargain fix for over a century, beginning with the now defunct Filene’s Basement.  Starting back in 1908, Filene’s would move its excess merchandise to the basement and continue to reduce the price. Soon other retailers followed, and the consumer addiction to “basement” bargains began.

With a combination of a price-driven allure and a time-sensitive nature (“I must grab these now or some other shopper will snatch them up.  No time to think!”), discount shopping is fast and furious — and that immediate high can soon settle into a retail hangover and a closet of items whose greatest long-term appeal is their price tag.  So how can you out-smart the bargain-induced dopamine seduction and avoid buyers’ remorse?

Here’s a 4-step plan to keep your head clear and your purchases on track:

  1. Create a specific wishlist of items you need/want (you should have this anyway) and stick with it.  In other words, don’t buy random stuff. If it’s not on the list, take a day to think about it before making the purchase.
  2. View the item without the discount.  Would you still consider buying it at full price? If not, walk away.
  3. Don’t buy the trendy stilettos simply because they’re on sale, before you’ve invested in the classic black heels you need for everyday use.  Be strategic about buying basics vs. buying fashion trends.
  4. Count to 1,200 — or just carry the item around the store for 20 minutes. (It takes your body 20 minutes to snap out of a high shopping-induced mental state.)  Still feeling weak? Try the “rubber band technique” and wear a rubber band on your wrist to literally snap yourself out of it.


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Anna Akbari

Founder / Editor at Sociology of Style
Anna Akbari, Ph.D. is a sociologist, entrepreneur, and “the thinking person’s stylist.” She is a former professor at NYU and Parsons and the founder of Sociology of Style, as well as Sociology of Style services, its image consulting division. A prominent thought leader, she can be found speaking or writing for such outlets as TED, CNN, The Atlantic, Daily Worth, and the Financial Times.
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