The Stupid Things You Do When Shopping (And How To Fix Them)

The Christmas shopping season has arrived and retailers are counting on your consumer impulses to drive you to buy everything your lustful heart desires. If you’ve ever ended up with a cart full of fishbowls, bedazzlers and life-size giraffe statues, you know shopping fever can cause you to make some pretty stupid choices. Here’s a look at some of the most common and what you can do to put a stop to them.

Photo remixed from an original by Jason Aron/Shutterstock.

Stupid Thing #1: You Love Free Stuff, Even When It’s Bad For You

The power of free can be very compelling, so much so that you feel inclined to take any free item just because it’s offered. This may not seem like such a bad thing, because a free gift seems particularly harmless. The problem is, just because you’re not paying with money doesn’t mean you’re not paying at all. The power of free can cause you to make choices you wouldn’t otherwise make, and the consequences can be worse than letting go of a few precious dollars.

Dan Ariely, the author of Predictably Irrational, conducted an experiment where he and his team offered free tattoos to people at a nightclub. Seventy-six people wanted to take advantage of this free offer. The crowd were an average age of 26 and were essentially sober (rating an average of 2.64 on a drunkenness scale of 1 to 11), and most of them only wanted a permanent tattoo because it was free:

When we asked the people in line for the free tattoos if they would get the tattoo if it were not free, 68 per cent said they would not. They were only getting it because it was free. We also asked the participants if they knew that there were free tattoos being offered at the party. The 90 per cent that knew they would be giving away free tattoos were asked two follow-up questions. First, when asked when they made their decision to get a tattoo that night before or after arriving at the party, 85 per cent said they made their decision before arrival and 15 per cent made the decision after arriving. When further asked, on a scale of 0-100, how likely did they think they were to get a tattoo that night, people were on average 65 per cent sure they would be getting a tattoo.

A handful of participants didn’t even know what kind of tattoo they wanted, but simply that they didn’t want to pass up this opportunity. We do this frequently when free offers are made, and the easy way to solve the problem is to ask yourself a simple question: if this free thing was simply half price, or lightly discounted, would I still want it? If you answer yes, it might be worthwhile. If not, you should urge yourself to take a pass. The problem with free stuff is that there’s often another form payment involved, like the sacrifice of personal information, and having your address sold to other companies who will send you a torrent of junk mail isn’t necessarily worth what you seemingly gained for free.

Stupid Thing #2: Your Brand Loyalty Is Just A Bad Habit

If you’ve ever been called a fanboy/girl or consider yourself brand loyal, you might just be lazy. Some companies will treat you better than others, and often times you’ll stick around for that reason, but consider all the options you haven’t tried. People tend to judge products they don’t use as inferior simply because they’re comfortable with what they’ve got. This results in missed opportunities and, often times, wasted money.

The problem occurs when we develop a brand habit that we confuse with loyalty. You’ve probably used the same brand of toothpaste, sandwich bags or writing implement for most of your life. You also probably haven’t tried many of the other brands. You found something you liked well enough, got used to it and continued to buy it without really considering any alternatives. Once this habit has been built, you also develop a resistance to change (like with most bad habits). This resistance causes you to defend your choices, even if you might be wrong. We call this brand loyalty, but it’s really just defensive behaviour and being too lazy to try something new. Science Daily suggests a possible solution:

When companies get consumers motivated about their products, they are just as motivated to protect the brand as they are themselves. So it’s really more about the self than the brand. When people can self-affirm through other means and activities, they’re not defensive at all.

For example, if you’ve developed an obsession with gadgets and consider yourself a go-to person for purchasing choices, you’re self-affirming through the brands you like. There’s nothing wrong with having your opinions on a few products, but if you can feel like an expert about something that doesn’t involve consumption you’ll have an easier time shedding your brand loyalty habits. This will help you keep an open mind and not ignore possibly better and cheaper products you’d have otherwise have ignored.

Stupid Thing #3: Your Desire For Greater Social Status Affects Your Choices

You might think you’re always out to buy the best possible product, but most of the time your purchasing decisions are just a means of competing for social status. In a consumer society, you do this because your product choices are a means of expressing yourself. With the massive amount of choice, it’s easy to convince yourself that what you buy strongly conveys your personality in a way that makes you appear trendy and more attractive. In reality it helps you fit into a stereotype and dump money into a series of purchases that are ultimately pretty meaningless.

This is because everything is capable of becoming a product, whether it’s a part of popular culture or belongs to a group trying to defy it. David McRaney, writer of the book and blog on self-delusion You Are Not So Smart, explains how the system works:

In the 1960s, it took months before someone figured out they could sell tie-dyed shirts and bell bottoms to anyone who wanted to rebel. In the 1990s, it took weeks to start selling flannel shirts and Doc Martens to people in the Deep South. Now, people are hired by corporations to go to bars and clubs and predict what the counter culture is into and have it on the shelves in the cool stores right as it becomes popular.

While something may start out as authentic, it quickly loses that status as it grows in popularity and becomes a product. People then seek out new, more authentic experiences and the cycles repeats. There’s little we can do about this, and it’s not necessarily a problem. The thing we have to accept in a consumer society is that the choices we make about the stuff that we like is not really that important. You should dress in clothing that you feel makes you look your best and you should own the computer, toaster or toothpaste you enjoy. What you shouldn’t do is believe that those decisions make you special or more authentic, because then you’re playing into a system whose only interest is winning your money. Real authenticity has to come from you.

Stupid Thing #4: You Set Yourself Up For Buyer’s Remorse

You’ve heard that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and you’ve probably also applied it to your shopping experiences. Perhaps you bought an iPhone and wished for an Android, then switched and realised Android wasn’t so great after all (or vice versa). Or maybe you’ve rushed into a decision to grab a limited-time offer only to find you spent a bunch of money on something you didn’t want. With all the choices available, and all the manipulative advertising surrounding them, it’s easy to make mistakes — or at least think you’re making them — when choosing a product.

You might think that the solution to buyer’s remorse is weighing all your options carefully, but you’d be wrong. We are terrible at predicting the future, especially when it comes to our happiness, and we’re generally happier when we just make a choice — even if that choice might be a bad one. Near-endless deliberation just stresses us out and causes us to wonder if we made the right decision after the fact. You can avoid that by just not thinking too much and going with your gut.

Of course, you don’t want to end up buying a bunch of stuff you don’t need or really want as much as you might initially think. Doing that can incite buyer’s remorse as well. It’s common to make a quick buying decision because of a good deal and then find yourself regretting that choice soon after. The best thing you can do to combat this problem is to enforce a mandatory holding pattern of 24 hours or more before making any medium or large purchases. This way you won’t purchase on a whim, and if you do end up with buyer’s remorse you’ll be able to undo the damage.

This post was delightfully illustrated by Dana Zemack. Check out more of her stick figure comics on her website and follow her on Twitter.

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