I think I’m in control. Until I come out of a store having bought something that was not remotely on my mind when I went in.
What did I spend $40 on at Marshalls?
I was returning things I’d bought a week earlier and grabbed the receipt. A $40 item jumped out at me: Gourmet Housewares followed by a string of UPC numbers that provided no further clue as to what it was. What could I have spent $40 on at Marshalls? And, more surprisingly, why couldn’t I remember what it was?
I tried recalling the Gourmet Housewares section I’d shopped in, and what items I’d considered. I did a mental walk-through of my house, trying to envision each room, striving to recall if there was something I’d needed—or wanted—for that room. Blank.
I could identify the other four, modestly-priced items on the receipt; how could I not remember the most expensive thing?
I swiveled in my chair, scanning my office space. Then I saw it.
A 64-ounce, Yeti Rambler Bottle.
I didn’t go into Marshalls looking for a stainless-steel, double-walled, vacuum insulated bottle.
But I came out with one.
How did that happen?
It happened because we’re complex creatures, with multiple characters wanting and desiring different things. My decision-making often happens without my even knowing what’s going on; without knowing which characters are in play.
I’ve seen Yeti products regularly at our local hardware store. There’s a sign with the Yeti name in front of the store, so passing by I’m reminded of the brand. I have friends who own Yeti products and swear by them. I don’t think I’m very brand-name oriented, yet I’ve found myself tugged toward Yeti products, toward their promise of keeping cold things cold. But I’m price-conscious, and Yeti costs more than I’ve been willing to pay. Plus, I already own a variety of stainless-steel bottles and don’t need another one.
But need has no defense against unconscious wants.
In Marshalls, I’m drawn to shelves containing stainless-steel bottles. I like containers. I like these containers. Amidst the array of randomly displayed bottles produced by assorted companies, a large, Yeti bottle stands out. I recognize the label. The 64-ounce bottle is bigger than all those around it.
It’s the only Yeti on the shelf.
I pick it up. A young woman standing next to me glances over.
“Those are the best,” she says. “We’ve tested lots of them for our company and Yeti is the best of the lot.”
I don’t realize at the time how this confirmation of what I already think about the brand influences my decision-making. She’s young, speaks with confidence, quickly goes on-line to confirm that, yes, the price they’re selling it at is a good price. Not an outrageous bargain, but easily 20% less than on Amazon.
“They really are the best,” she says, and heads off.
I feel a pressure to buy. There’s only one Yeti. I’m holding it. I fear that if I don’t get it now—a Yeti! at this Price!—my opportunity will be lost forever.
I’ve written about how strong the frugal, bargain-shopping character is in me; the character that wants the discount. My mom modeled that style repeatedly and it was a celebrated trait in our family. It has value; but it can also lead to buying things I don’t need.
I also know that buying quality, rather than cheap knock-offs, can be the better decision.
I’m in Marshalls, staring at the Yeti in my hands. Thoughts ping around: good quality, on sale, you don’t need it, but I want it. It goes into my cart, even as I tell myself, you can always return it.
When I returned the other items to Marshalls, I didn’t bring the Yeti. It’s still in my office; on a side table. The sales tag is still attached.
I’m still puzzled about why I bought it. Our local hardware store, the one that sells Yeti products, has a monthly 20% off sale; everything in the store. And yet, despite the discount, I’ve never bought a Yeti product there. There’s been no urgency; there’s no scarcity. They sell Yeti. The sale is every month. If and when I’m ready to buy, the product will be there. The sale price will be there.
But standing at Marshalls, with only one Yeti available, sold at a price that felt like a bargain, I acted. Or maybe, more accurately, my characters reacted; to desires, cravings, deeply-wired survival tendencies. It might make no sense, but I know it will happen again.
Because we’re complex creatures.