The Shopping Addict’s Redemption (The Life Cycle of an Impulse Purchase)

Article and Illustration By Alisa Singer

When I was young my mother was infamous for her habit of constantly buying and returning things.

I sometimes answered the door when the man from our local department store made his weekly call to pick up packages. Once when I didn’t know where the package was he told me, “she keeps them in the hall closet on the top shelf”. (He was right.) Later in life my mother graduated to returning condominiums – putting down deposits one week and collecting them the next, before the cancellation deadline. At the time this compulsion of hers was simply puzzling. But as is the case with so many facets of our parents’ lives, we begin to understand them better over time and sometimes even find ourselves falling into the same idiosyncratic patterns we ridiculed as children.

Consider the following:

You make a quick stop at Macy’s to replenish your supply of foundation and pass a display of cashmere sweaters. You notice the sweater, invitingly arrayed with others of the same style, and you are drawn to it immediately. You pick it up, run your fingers over the luxurious fabric, take in the rich color, casually peek at the price. Eeek! But a classic piece – no doubt it could be worn for five, maybe ten years.

You take it to the dressing room and try it on. It looks great, maybe itches just a little (probably because the room’s overheated), but a perfect match to the subtle green stripe in your new brown pants. Not a shade that’s easy to find. This is some kind of destiny. You were meant to find this sweater and buy it.
You undergo the obligatory process of internal rationalization. “Alright”, you tell yourself, “ I know I swore after I looked at my last broker’s statement that I would give up shopping forever, and I know I could easily buy two ordinary sweaters for this price, but I’d hardly ever wear either of them and they’d both end up on a shelf until I donated them to charity. Besides, who says ‘forever’ has to start today. Weakness and vanity triumph over prudence and resolve; you head decisively to the sales desk to complete the purchase.

As you wait to checkout your sense of certainty and pleasure begins to fade, just a little. But it’s your turn in line. You step forward decidedly, credit card in hand, dismissing that little nagging voice that seems to be whispering, “spineless clothes slut”. Back at home you don’t rush to try the sweater on. Rather, you tuck it into a corner of your closet where it doesn’t demand immediate attention. It isn’t until later in the evening that you drag it out and try it on in front of your familiar bedroom mirror, the only one that really counts. It definitely itches, no mistaking that, and hits at a very unattractive point on your hips. You paid a fortune for a sweater that is both uncomfortable and unflattering. How could you have been so weak, so impulsive! Self-loathing begins to take root. (But the color is perfect – amazing that you matched it without even having the pants with you.)

For a moment you waver on the precipice, in doubt, but then the decision is made and it’s final. The sweater is going back. Almost at once a feeling washes over you that is difficult to define. Not like the pleasure of first finding the sweater, but still a very nice feeling. Relief? It takes a few seconds to identify the emotion and then you realize what it is – virtue. You have committed yourself to an act of self-sacrifice and you feel frugal, even Spartan, and invulnerable, as though you had resolutely pushed yourself away from the table even as the scrumptious hot fudge lava cake was being served. Never again will you be subject to the caprices and superficial cravings of your weaker nature. With smug satisfaction, you carefully fold the sweater up and put it back in the bag with the receipt. You’ve already checked it off your conscience.

The foregoing sequence, common to so many women, can be analyzed in moral/psychological/philosophical terms as follows: The pleasure that arises from the acquisition of a desired object (instant gratification) is overcome by the torment of the immediately succeeding remorse (instant guilt) (instant gratification + instant guilt = guilty pleasure). The only effective cure is to purge oneself of the corrupting object. The resulting relief from the pleasure/pain syndrome feels so good that the next week you do it all over again. (Perhaps at a different store, where the irritated salespeople won’t recognize us.) So what sort of phenomenon is this – some kind of shopping disorder? Retail bulimia? Maybe, but I prefer to think of it as a form of redemption. We humans are fragile. We stumble, we fall, we pick ourselves up again. The cycle of life, and shopping, goes on.

Moreover, there’s valuable wisdom for our times to be derived from these experiences. Thus, it has been said, “it is better to give than to receive” and, no doubt, that may well be true for some people. But I have come to understand, as apparently my mother did in the pinnacle of her shopping days, that neither giving nor receiving holds a candle to the exhilaration, to that sublime sensation of moral deliverance, that can only be achieved by the righteous act of returning. So fellow shopping addicts, I urge you – save your souls, save yourselves, and most of all, save your receipts.