What Shoppers Really Want

And How Shopping Can Turn Out To Be Dangerous Even When You’re Sure You Don’t Need More Stuff

by Patricia McLaughlin

Honestly, I was so over it. Shopping, I mean. I could stroll through a mall with impunity, expose myself to the blandishments of Neiman’s, Nordstrom, Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Bloomingdale’s, Pottery Barn, Restoration Hardware, Sears, Victoria’s Secret, you name it, and want—not a thing!

Scarlett Alley proprietor Liz Scarlett shows off a Squiggle. Photo: Patricia McLaughlin
The grand panjandrums of fancy merch could dangle anything in front of me—nice big dark-green emeralds, cozy sheepskin boots, high-end washer-dryer combos in designer colors—and I remained indifferent, unmoved, untempted.

Which was a good thing for so many reasons.

The environment, for one. Producing tons of frivolous consumer goods season after season—unlicensed make-believe-antique Pink Floyd T-shirts, oversized double-recliner family room sofas in stain-repellant microsuede, pettable robotic hamsters, etc.—and then shipping them hither and yon all over the globe can’t be the highest and best use of all the natural resources it uses up, can it? Not to mention all the greenhouse gases it pumps into the atmosphere.

Besides, like most Americans, I already have too much stuff. I was deeply impressed by a piece in the New York Times Magazine this fall that reported that one out of 10 American families now rents a self-storage space, and that more than half those spaces are rented not because somebody died or got divorced or moved, but just because the renter has more stuff than he or she has room for at home. And get this: 15% of those renters admitted that they’re storing stuff they “no longer wanted or needed.” They just can’t bring themselves to get rid of it.

I identified: I have way too much. More than I can keep track of, more than I have room for, more than I know what to do with. I’ve lost count of the number of pairs of black pants I own—and it’s always a struggle to find the one pair I’m looking for. I truly do not need or want more.

Also, thanks to unfortunate ongoing structural changes in the newspaper business of which you may have heard, my current cash-flow situation argues persuasively against discretionary spending. (Or any other kind, for that matter.)

So there you have it: I had overshopped. And now I was over shopping. That was just the way it was.

And then, out for a walk one Saturday afternoon, I stopped into a small shop called Scarlett Alley on Race Street in the Old City section of Philadelphia. I meant just to have a look. And, in an instant, all my rationalizing and good resolutions were undone by a squiggle. Or, actually, a Squiggle.

Not (by the way) Mr. Squiggles, the light-brown Zhu Zhu Pet robotic hamster who hit the headlines early this month when he was briefly suspected of being contaminated with antimony, a heavy metal and known carcinogen, but was quickly exonerated by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

No, this was the Sayami Squiggle, a cashmere muffler shirred down its length with three rows of elastic thread so as to create two rows of little squarish puffs down the center and ruffly ruched edges that frame the wearer’s face in a particularly flattering way. The best part is the way some mysterious property of the elasticized shirring and the fleecy surface of the brushed cashmere fabric predisposes the scarf to adhere to itself. You drape it around your neck, flip one end over the other, and it stays there, all by itself. You don’t even have to tie it. It’s utterly effortless, requiring no sophisticated Parisienne scarf-tying skills, no fiddling at all, and yet it looks delectable.

It cost $85--which seemed like a deal later that day when I checked online and found it selling elsewhere for as much as $125. But I still couldn’t square it with my cash-flow shortfall.

I didn’t buy it. But wanting to was enough to spotlight the fallacy I’d slipped into. I’d thought that, just because I didn’t want more stuff, I was safe from the temptations of shopping. And sure, I didn’t want more boring, undifferentiated, commodified stuff. I didn’t want more of the same stuff I already had, more practical but boring black pants, more black cardigan sweaters, more unexceptional T-shirts.

But I’d failed to account for charm. I’d forgotten about the potent appeal of things—like a scarf that requires no effort on your part but looks wonderful anyway—that you’ve never imagined, things you don’t want only because you don’t know they exist.

It made me wonder how many people in retail understand that, at bottom, that’s their job: tracking down things that people don’t know they want until they see them and, once they see them, can’t resist.

Patricia McLaughlin is a Philadelphia-based Universal Press Syndicate columnist writing on fashion and style trends. Her “RealStyle” column appears each Sunday in 100 newspapers across the United States and Canada. Patricia last contributed to Empty Nest in fall 2009.

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