The Shopping Sirens’ Sale Song

“Never again,” I said to myself.

But of course, I remembered I had uttered the exact same phrase to myself last year.

And yet there I was, back in the same place one year later, squeezed into a single black leather seat amidst dozens of open shoebox mounds, discarded shoes, and frantic shoppers and salespeople trapped inside the mess of the “shoe coral” at the flagship Nordstom in downtown Seattle.

Amidst the chaos, a well-groomed young sales associate in a grey suit announced into a hand held microphone, “BP shoes, next available please.  Number 43!  Please hold up your hand!”

The hand of the excited woman two seats from me shot up, her eyes beaming with anticipation.  I heard her exhale a tiny gasp of glee, and looked down at my card.  Number 46. Just three more numbers to go and then it’s my turn!  Hurry up!  I thought to myself.

Day one of Nordstom’s Anniversary Sale had just begun.  It was 3pm on Friday, which meant that the frenzy of the shopping day was nearing its peak.  My appointment downtown had ended at 2:30pm and I unconsciously decided to head into Nordstom to leisurely kill an hour or two to just “take a gander” while waiting for DH to get off of work so we could carpool back home together.

Big mistake.

As soon as I stepped into the store, I couldn’t help but be swept up into a large urgent wave of buying.  It was imperative that I buy something from Nordstom that afternoon, and I wasn’t leaving the store with empty hands, sale or no sale!  As time marched on, I was getting slightly more sweaty and hysterical because many of the items that caught my eye were out of my size, or had already sold out during The Pre-Sale for Nordstrom Credit Card holders.

Would I like to sign up for a Nordstrom Credit Card, the peppy sales associates asked me?  No, not this time, I don’t need yet another card in my wallet, even if it allows me less crazy Pre-Sale access to the Anniversary Sale.

What was happening?  Why had I suddenly subconsciously turned my leisurely free time into a frenetic mission to buy something I didn’t need?  And I don’t even consider myself a huge shopper.  Before stepping into Nordstrom, I hadn’t even been inside a department store for at least three to four months.

Aside from weekly groceries and the drugstore or Target, I actually don’t shop in stores anymore.  I prefer the ease and comfort of online shopping, zero human interaction, and free/flat rate shipping.  (Tree-huggers: I break down and recycle EVERY cardboard box that comes my way, so chill.  I live in Seattle, for goodness sake!)  Easily more than 50% of my purchases on clothes and household items are online.  In addition to the big, bad, free-shipping behemoth Amazon/Zappos, my favorites are J.Crew, Gilt, and Nordstrom.

And of course, I will normally only buy discretionary items when there is a sale.

Despite this profile, I was still willing to tolerate almost three hours of lining up for a dressing room, fighting off other enthusiastic shoppers, and waiting a dozen turns to try on shoes.  I finally left Nordstrom with my Anniversary Sale bag relatively full of sale items, one non-sale item, and most importantly, no black eye.

What just happened?

Well simple, I had succumbed to the Sale Song of the Shopping Sirens.  And for the second year in a row!  Nordstrom is brilliant with its “Next Season NOW” campaign. What makes the Nordstrom Anniversary Sale so potent is the fact that they discount the upcoming Fall/Winter season items (and not the current/past Spring/Summer items) amplifying our emotional buying levers to another level.

It’s quite clever because I as a shopper get to enjoy a double-hit of instant gratification because the sale items I’ve just purchased cannot be found on sale anywhere else.  I know it’s true.  I’ve done my research.  After I got home, I looked up the items and the online prices of my fall season purchases, and my Nordstrom price was by far the best.  What a high!

After a few more days, I was still mulling over my purchases—tags intact, receipt in hand.  I was a little curious about my behavior, and decided to do a bit of online research into what people are thinking when they buy.  I stumbled onto a very helpful column called The Why Behind the Buy from Psychology Today by Dr. Kit Yarrow.  One of her articles was entitled “6 Sneaky Ways Sales Spur Spending,” and made sense of the range of emotions I felt on the day I was at the Nordstrom sale, and why I ended up spending more time and money than I had previously anticipated.

Dr. Yarrow states that there are six main reasons why sales play on our emotions:

1)   Fear:  Sales inspire the fear of missing out

2)   Emotional Investment: An item’s value increases when we’ve already made a commitment of time searching for the perfect item/size/brand/color, etc.

3)   Competition: When shoppers get the sense that they’ve “won” rather than “bought” an item

4)   Assumed Value: When things go on sale, they’re instinctively “a deal” and the analytical process of evaluating a product’s worth is often overshadowed

5)   Easy Shopping: Sales narrow choices as we shoppers are overwhelmed by choice and many of us shut down when faced with the number of options (analysis/paralysis: see Dr. Barry Schwartz’ video below)

6)   Saving not Spending: Sales make us feel like we’re saving rather than spending

After reading the article, I ran through the series of thoughts in my mind at the time I was at the downtown store.  Amazingly, I realized that I had felt every single impulse listed in the article, and that I had rationalized my “need” for many of my purchases via any number of the six reasons above.  After all, I had a bagful of perfectly selected purchases to prove it.  But as I thought about it more, I didn’t feel as good.  As Dr. Schwartz discusses in his terrific TED talk on the Paradox of Choice, “I did better, but I felt worse.”

There is a growing scientific field of consumer behavior and behavioral economics dedicated to looking at how we make decisions and specifically, how and why we buy things.  Much of it discards the assumption that we as humans are always totally rational when we make decisions.  Rather, these disciplines argue that instead of operating as “rational beings” we often unknowingly operate as “emotional beings” when we make certain decisions.  How else do companies get us to buy things we don’t really need?  And we haven’t even touched on the whole experience of buying and layout or even marketing.

So now it’s been exactly two weeks since my initial purchase and because I’ve been taught that delayed gratification is almost always better than instant gratification in the long run, I’ve had time to think about my purchases and to experience a little buyer’s remorse.  I feel less enthusiastic, and I’m actually getting ready to return almost everything I purchased during the sale (not exactly the right size, not a favorite color, no real or perceived need.)

But the one item that I’m hanging onto from this year’s Anniversary Sale is the piece that I bought at regular price: a pair of jeans that fit.

Ironic, isn’t it?

I should know better, but I guess my “rational” mind works better when I stick to buying things in the store at regular price.  In my book, finding a pair of jeans that fit you is definitely worth paying regular price for.

But I seriously doubt I’ll be able to resist the Siren Song of Nordstrom’s Anniversary Sale next year.