Save, splurge or spree: the psychology of sale

Journalist Grace Cook discusses the psychology of sale on The Birdword.

“Get in losers, we’re going shopping.”

Just like many other spirited pop culture queens gracing our television screens — think Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods, Clueless’ Cher and Dione, or Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman — Mean Girls’ Regina George knew a thing or two about the cathartic benefits of shopping. On TV at least, a spree is proffered as a way to decompress after a slog of a day; the thrill of the find in the mall releasing a rush of endorphins and dopamine akin to that of an extra-shot coffee.

During sale times, the buzz of a bargain is even more apparent. Finding something you love in your size feels like a win — a combination of fate and a personal triumph over other bargain hunters at the ability to sleuth down something so stylish for a snip at its RRP. As we swipe our cards at the checkout, we feel like our favourite sports team has just won the league — waiting for our tissue-wrapped goods like waiting to be handed the medal.

The psychology of sale shopping is an interesting one to ponder; what is it that we find so alluring about even the smallest of discounts? Perhaps that 10 percent off is what nudges us towards a purchase — a pair of kitschy kitten heels, say — that aren’t exactly suitable for everyday wear but are a fun thing to put away and bring out for a festive party.

Maybe a discount urges us to make braver purchases than when we shop in season, too. Lovers of minimalism might choose a technicolour dress, splattered with a coral reef print that reminds us of bygone days snorkelling amid dreamy beachscapes. Likely, it also allows us the freedom to take a ‘risk’ on an unknown designer. The discount eggs us on to be a bit more sartorially daring. Discounts serve a purpose.

The idea of a sale steal becomes trickier when contemplating the value of what hangs in our wardrobe. If we’ve saved for a silky cerulean evening dress - spent more on it than we usually would - it’s likely to be treasured like the Queen of England’s Vladimir tiara than a painterly floral version plucked from the cut-price rail. The delayed gratification of saving feels like a well-deserved reward — it’s an exercise in patience, the hunger for such a dress growing each day. We’ve dreamed of it for so long that we’re happy to spend the full RRP on it — convinced of its worth as a trusted wardrobe ally for years to come. Investment purchases are treasured, like Cher Horowitz’ little red Alaia. Cher got robbed to save that Alaia from tarmac-gate, remember?

In this era of conscious shopping, we should aim for all our clothes to hold that weight. But those spontaneous purchases can be savoured just as much if restraint is exercised — choosing sale buys as wisely as full price spends will make the thrill of the discount taste even sweeter. Consider that coral-reef dress as your apres-dinner dessert. You may indulge in wearing it less than the expensive cerulean one, but it still brings great joy when you eat it. And you ate a salad for lunch, so you deserve it. As in diet, the wardrobe is all about balance. 

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