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Lauren Drabwell

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With the combination of good weather and the Royal Wedding, the Office for National Statistics has determined that we are in serious buying mode: retail purchases increased by 1.3% between April and May of this year, with a 6.3% and 3.9% growth in the amount and quantity bought (respectively) in May 2018 compared to 2017. What good timing, as retailers are starting to crack on with summer sales like Alex and a new girl in Love Island . But unlike Alex, sales are largely successful at convincing us they are worthwhile. Why is this? What is it about a sale that encourages us to part with our money?

As a disclaimer, this is not to say that we as consumers are stupid and blinded by glaring red sales signs and eye-watering discounts. We generally know that if we spend money on a discounted item, we lose money, no matter the invisible cash ‘saved’ and potential pride at our good life choices. However, this rational logic is all well and good until you’re actually in a sale. Knee deep in discarded crew tops and trousers 3 sizes out of your way, shoppers bustling around you scavenging in the racks for a hidden gem, you find yourself feeling rather faint with the either too bright or too low light and odious brand fragrance covering every inch of the room (@Zara @Hollister). 

These conditions are designed to bewilder and overload your senses, adding cognitive load to block your rational processing of everything around you, until you rely on impulse and instinctual judgement making alone. Have you ever wondered why clothes on tables are folded and neat? When you pick up the item to model it against yourself, you are obviously forced to touch the material. If you like the feel of the fabric, you add emotional attachment to it and are therefore at a greater risk of buying the product (if the discount and the nice smells weren’t enough) (Schafer, 2017). Your brain lacks the energy to consider whether the product is a worthwhile investment as it is struggling to process all the other potential items in the room, how much money you have in the bank, what you already have in your wardrobe. So you act on impulse.

This being said, not all sales tactics attempt to dupe shoppers without their awareness. Sales items display the original price alongside the new sales price. This is a given and an obvious tactic. With the original price as a reference point for its value, we note the reduction in monetary value and consider it a worthwhile investment, based upon the resources saved compared to its utility. The product becomes more tempting, even if the reference price is inflated in the first place. However this can backfire if the price reduction falls out of the ‘latitude of acceptance’. This is the range of prices around the ‘actual’ price that consumers will accept as the cost of the product. (Campbell & Diamond, 1990), . If the sale price is too low then the product may be feared as cheap or faulty,  or the reduction may be so small as to be unnoticeable (see Weber’s Law of Just Noticeable Difference) and not taken up. On the other hand, if the price is too high and above the range, greater than the highest accepted price, then one may determine that one’s cash is better spent elsewhere. Ultimately, a misstep by a retailer when re-pricing products may make the consumer more conscious that sales are designed to shift leftover product, for the financial benefit of the producer and not the consumer.

Yet sales still play into our loss aversion , ‘people’s tendency to prefer avoiding losses to acquiring equivalent gains’ (quote from Wikipedia, originally Kahneman & Tversky, 1992). Our preference to not lose out is powerful, almost double that of our preference for gaining something. Unfortunately, sales by their nature are framed as the potential for loss. Expressions like ‘while stocks last’ and ‘limited time only’ punctuate the sale with conditions of scarcity and uncertainty, alluding to a dwindling and finite supply of products at reduced prices (Tan & Hwang Chua, 2004). Even the sale itself limits our opportunities to buy the products we want, because it sets ourselves up against other consumers, people who may get there first and snatch up the 70% off cashmere jumper you never knew you wanted. Suddenly we are competitive (Yarrow, 2013). 

On the flip side, marketing for reduced-price items can make you feel as if you’re saving money, even before you look at the price reduction. The posters skip the step in which you decide whether you actually want the item and assume you already do and offer you a tremendous 60 % saving – you’re just too slow to realise it, keep up. Overall, when shoppers read all these cues they may crack under the pressure, the ambiguity, scarcity and panic motivating them to jump into the sale and avoid the potential ‘loss’ (Tversky & Kahneman, 1992). What’s more, Tan & Hwang Chua (2004) found that even when consumers strongly agreed that sales are simply ‘ploys by retailers to protect their own financial interests’ the same consumers did not deny that they could be persuaded by these selling tactics.

But the biggest barrier to thinking rationally about sales? You enjoy them. For one, the excitement of a bargain ‘interferes with your ability to clearly judge whether it is actually a good offer or not’ (‘The Psychology of Shopping for bargains’, BBC). Clearly, the treat yo self mentality can lead us into trouble. Equally, in the split second in which we decide to buy something, we experience a rush of dopamine at the anticipation of the ‘reward’ alone. In this sense we may be no more evolved than monkeys. It was observed that monkeys’ dopamine levels spike upon a ‘cue’ that they may receive a reward, until they have carried out the action necessary to receive the reward. (see Sapolsky on the Science of Pleasure). This can be paralleled to the decision to buy an item and the process of purchasing. Despite popular culture, dopamine’s role as a neurotransmitter is credited more as a mediator between desire and motivation, than for pleasure directly (Berridge & Robinson, 1998). For instance, in between the monkey doing what it needs to receive the reward and actually getting it, the dopamine spike drops off to 0 (see the graph below – Credit to Robert Sapolsky)

Therefore the spike in dopamine motivates the monkey for the chase, the anticipation of pleasure, rather than the prize. We may be motivated in the same way to buy that sale item. The anticipation-period can be the time it takes to reach the till, or it can be the time in between searching plus ordering something online and the eventual delivery of the item. Notably, an international survey conducted by Razorfish (cited in Weinschenk, 2015) found that of the 1,680 shoppers across the US, UK, Brazil and China, an average of 75.75% of consumers are more excited by online deliveries than in-store purchases; being forced to wait longer extends the anticipation period and is perceived as increased excitement for the item. Remembering this excitement motivates us to order more again.

And once the consumer has acquired the coveted item? The rush of dopamine can be followed by intense guilt, after-purchase regret. ‘Why did I buy this? I was trying to save money. It doesn’t even look good on me’. You may be lucky and come away with an item that you genuinely like. You may even emerge with an item you have been waiting to go on sale and you may revel in the joy of anticipation. But if you are suddenly surprised by a sale, like an amorous Islander who is saying all the right things to you in the heat of the moment but you sense somewhere in the back of your mind that you might regret the interaction, my advice: Look at the sale, appreciate the sale, back away from the sale.

Cast your mind back to the time period that is post-Brexit, pre-general election. The public were still reeling from the horrendous terror attacks in Manchester and London. Prices were rising, living standards were falling; people were, to put it lightly, despondent. This mood was reflected in the economy’s performance. Wage growth was slow, compared to an inflation rate that was scaling up, felt as a 2% drop in real incomes. One could reason that this was not a time for spending with abandon. However, according to Paula Nickolds, managing director of John Lewis, the Lipstick Effect had returned.

Coined by Leonard Lauder (emeritus chairman of Esteé Lauder), the Lipstick Effect or the Lipstick Index was the idea that during economic turmoil, consumers are more inclined to purchase relatively inexpensive luxury items. This was based on his observation that following the 9/11 attacks, sales of his lipstick line spiked. Taking the index as an economic indicator, he supposed that lipstick sales were inversely correlated with economic health, as consumers substitute the purchase of a luxury coat for luxury cosmetics – a smaller financial burden, but still somewhat gratuitous when the economy is feeling the pinch. Considering that the early 2000’s was a time of recession, his observation that the economy was struggling wasn’t especially illuminative, and his index had since been discredited. 

This was until Nickolds struck up the parallels between the economic failings of the noughties US and 2017 Britain. According to John Lewis’ sales numbers, by the end of the second quarter (April-June, the aforementioned time period of interest) consumers were holding off from the ‘considered’ items, the long-term investment pieces, seeing a decline in furniture and appliances. However, consumers were instead in favour of the ‘spontaneous’ categories, the impulse purchases, with sales 7% higher than the previous year and womenswear up by 4.4%. Notably, lipstick sales rose by 31%. Could the Lipstick Effect really exist? Whether you trust John Lewis as a rigorous measure of the economy’s performance, there may be something to the purchase of lipstick, along with other items within that market space, which really appeals to our wallet in hard times.

For a start, Beauty on the whole is a relative constant. Fads and trends may change within the cosmetic industry, but makeup is always marketable, because the demand to look good is ubiquitous. But why would this demand increase during financial strife? Perhaps purchasing smaller luxury items may be a method of making ourselves feel better. Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you perfume, as well as the illusion that you have resources to spare – even if you’re only fooling yourself. So when the financial health of individuals and the economy look insipid, luxury items may rebuff the sad truth, as well as our mood (Smith et al, 2005). Equally, purchasing the ‘spontaneous’ items may act as an attempt to fool others to the extent of your resources. Touches of lipstick, expensive scents, a glass of sparkling wine, a new watch, may all allude to a hidden wealth that may or may not exist. 

Anthropologically speaking, we may look for resource cues that are indicative of the individuals greater wealth and power. Advertising your resources in a time of financial difficulty may prove a clever strategy to bagging a genetically desirable mate (Wiederman & Allgeier, 1992). However, this strategy has been shown to be a predominantly male one; the male display of resources is considered more effective and of greater reproductive value (males providing food, shelter, protection) than the female equivalent (Buss, 1988). This may partly explain the increase in spontaneous item sales in John Lewis, but as cosmetic sales are driven massively by women, why would specifically lipstick sales jump so significantly?

Some explanation can be derived from the female indicators of reproductive value: health and youth (Symons, 1979). Judged by attractiveness and physical appearance, a woman who looks healthy and young has a greater perceived reproductive potential, or simply, the potential to produce more, healthy offspring. Specifically, ‘evenly coloured, smooth, pliant skin, clear eyes and shiny hair’ are considered attractive (Thornhill & Gangestad, 1999: 453) – a very familiar litany of cosmetic and beauty product buzz words. In practice, it is indeed the women that take more time on their appearance and grooming that are much more likely to attract a mate (Buss, 1988; Richetin et al, 2007). Further still, it is no coincidence that shades of red dominate the cosmetic industry products (aside from lines of foundation and concealer). Lipstick is a case in point: the graphic below demonstrates that globally, shades of red are almost always the most popular colour. Interestingly, the colour red is indicative of cardiovascular health and increases the perceived attractiveness of young women.

Red clothes, accessories and makeup are perceived as subtle signs of sexual interest, the intent to attract a mate (Kayser et al, 2016). Indeed empirically, a woman wearing red lipstick was found to garner the greatest number of solicitations from men compared to other shades, and compared to no lipstick at all (Guéguen, 2012). So if we were to assume that the spike in lipstick purchases were dominated by shades of red, perhaps more women really are trying to attract resource-rich men during a time of economic crisis.

Or, they just want to buy lipstick. Lipsticks are compact and tactile, a physically and financially smaller burden upon our purses, coming in a variety of colours for whatever inclination. They are the cosmetic equivalent of jewels, to be collected and prized, if not used all the time. Notably, jewels are universal (like diamonds are forever). It would be potentially dogmatic to assume that makeup is only consumed for the acquisition of a (male) mate, or for the delight of anyone other than ourselves. Even the notion that we can fool ourselves into thinking we have more resources than we actually do forgets that impulse buys can be entirely self-aware. As it stands, the link between lipstick purchases and financial health seems rather tenuous.

The index may not be the most useful predictor of human psychology, nor the most accurate economic indicator, but what we can say is ‘in the red’, is our lipstick.

If there is anything to be gained from the lead up to Black Friday, Cyber Monday and of course – Christmas, it is this: as a species, we love stuff. A complicated love affair no doubt, a matter not just of budgets and bank balances, but of the brain too.

We desire to own new things to show off our personal uniqueness, to own goods that few others possess for the sake of our social status and self-identity (Lynn & Harris, 1997). We purchase things impulsively, a coffee here, reduced sale item there, conflicting with possible long-term goals to save money, for short-term satisfaction. We even buy things simply to make ourselves feel better (Baumeister, 2002), Items we may not truly (on a happier day) want – because ‘treat yo self’. For fashion followers, every Fashion Week brings in new trends and looks that that we didn’t realise we needed but are stimulated by all the same. For the layperson, the release of seasonal collections remind us that we must obey Mother Nature and purchase a winter/autumn/spring/summer staple.

Our psychology is easily led in a pulsing consumer world; there’s no wonder we have so much stuff. But if we are more likely to seek retail therapy than clinical therapy, where does that leave our psychological well being?

Minimalism and mindfulness offer reasonable solutions to our stuff problem: minimalism helps de-clutter our physical space and mindfulness de-clutters our mental space. Minimalism is the most practical approach of the two, grounded in the principle that we can live more with less. The theory goes that a reduction in stuff will lend to greater freedom, reduced stress and an overall healthier relationship with your spending habits (The Minimalists). If you can limit the number of items you own – everything from smartphones to sheets – the happier you will be. This comes from having greater opportunity to manage what’s truly important to you and to avoid being distracted by what’s not. Some people take this approach literally and restrict their ownership to only 100 items of the greatest value. Putting a numerical limit on what you own may prove effective in encouraging considered purchasing decisions, so perhaps minimalism is the way forward.

 

The Psychology of Fashion

However, minimalism does fall prey to our fallacies. Our judgements of value, for instance, can be entirely subjective. The endowment effect illustrates that the perceived worth of an item increases with its sentimental value and familiarity (Kahneman, Knetsch & Thaler, 1991). Such an effect can go a long way to explain hoarding behaviour, the antithesis of minimalism. Equally, the minimalist approach may champion quality over quantity, but quality costs. Those who genuinely subscribe to the minimalist lifestyle may be more able to afford a several-hundred-pound-investment-coat, compared to those who need the money for rent that month. Juggling these kind of decisions may burden an individual with more anxieties and dissonance than they experienced pre-minimalism. Simply, minimalism isn’t for everyone.

Here enters mindfulness. Mindfulness is considered a mental state that focuses your awareness to the present, where thoughts, feelings and reactions can be acknowledged and treated separately to appropriately and calmly evaluate your decisions (Brown & Ryan, 2003).  This moment of pause to calm the mental storm we experience day to day is to give way to ‘voluntary simplicity’ (Gregg, 1936), thereby propagating healthy minds without the need to tally up our furniture. For our spending, mindfulness lends a ‘due-diligence’ and ‘awareness of subtler processes of one’s own mind’ (Burch, 2012), a combative measure to our spending fallacies. Do you truly want to buy that coat that you’ll never wear, or is that just your emotions talking? Is that shoe everything that you need in your wardrobe, or is it just your intuitive, physiological reaction to the appealing glossy magazine trap? Overall, the mindfulness approach seems much more accessible and broadly beneficial to the everyday consumer than minimalism.

However it too is not perfect. Part of the teaching of mindfulness is to let certain anxieties, superficial or no, pass through your present-mode to be considered when they need to be considered. While this proves ideal in theory, some decisions in life do require some future thinking and planning, lest you be surprised and unprepared by what life might throw at you. Equally, the success of mindfulness depends entirely upon the mental capacities and determination of the individual. To say you only ‘get out what you put in’ becomes distinctly difficult when it’s all happening within your head, rather than being something external and tangible that you can manage.

All’s not lost, however, for the consumer. Upon evaluation, a healthy consideration of your own battling mental states and a thoughtful insight into the items you own and look to own, can do a great deal to curb your stuff problem. But probably better to try after Christmas.

 

Are we all victims of a consumer and social media culture geared against genuine individuality?

Vogue marked 2016 as the year of individuality. For beauty, this means ‘bold lips’ and ‘daring short cuts’. For the runway, there has been an increased focus on casting models of all ethnicities and colours, case in point Yeezy at this year’s NYFW. Some designers are opting to accentuate the unique beauty of each individual model on their catwalk, rather than fitting them to one ‘look’ (see Louis Vuitton’s AW16 show). The fashion institutions of the West appear to be heading towards notions of individuality and distinctiveness when it comes to their clothes and models, and indeed the brands themselves depend upon their perceived uniqueness to survive financially and reputationally. But when it comes to what we put in our wardrobe, are we that individual?

Individuality is how we distinguish ourselves, and ultimately others, from everyone else. It ranges from characteristics that are difficult to change, like heritage, race, family, even height, but also includes features we can control, like hair colour, interests, dress. Increasingly, individuality in the West has become synonymous with ‘cool’, a desirable trait. When it comes to what we wear, fashion weeks are the perfect time for people to showcase their individuality and creativity off the catwalk, notably in the top four (NY, London, Paris and Milan). With this comes photographers vying to snap the outfits of celebrities and regular mortals alike to capture what’s ‘in’.

Does this mean we are all victims of a consumer and social media culture geared against genuine individuality? ​

The photos generated are circulated across the vast social media platforms to provide up-to-date inspiration for fashion followers and a literal snapshot of to-the-minute style. However as expected, social media is a powerful tool and the items of clothing featuring in these photos become immediately in demand through mass exposure. This can be in the consumer’s attempt to replicate a look, to emulate the person of interest, or simply because they like the clothing. There is even the suggestion that we have subconscious tendencies to mirror and replicate the actions of others within our social (online) environment, dubbed the chameleon effect (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999). Intentional or no, much of the individuality attached to the items are lost, snapped up by consumers immediately (see any item that a Kardashian has worn) or replicated and mass produced, negating notions of ‘uniqueness’. Individuality, and the person it is attached to, sells, then it stops being individual.

This reflects the birth and death of a trend, and can be understood in regards to social group theory, such as social proof. Rao, Greve and Davis (2001) considered social proof as ‘using the actions of others to infer the value of a course of action’. In the context of dress, if a celebrity or someone of influence decides to dress a certain way, this attaches value to the style of dress. The same can be seen with high-end brands, where the actions of a fashion house, such as the contents of their most recent collection, are considered of ‘value’, and therefore influence consumer decision-making. As a result, large groups can be motivated into buying into certain styles of dress or trends; the more people who wear such clothing, the greater the social proof that the style of dress is ‘of value’ or better yet, ‘in’. This is until everybody is wearing jeans with holes in them, the value decreases, a new trend surfaces, and the cycle repeats with new clothes.
​To extend this rather capitalist engine, buying into trends is a good example of social categorization, where one increasingly bases their social identity on the ‘group’ they belong to, rather than their own individuality. Groups include style movements, most notably punk, where distinctiveness is achieved but not necessarily individuality. 

Beyonce’s release of her activewear/athleisure collection ‘Ivy Park’ saw members of her fanbase break the internet for the items, becoming the top-selling brand on Nordstrom during its launch week, holding 12% of all sales on the site. On one level, the obvious branding on these items, (the most popular items, bodysuits, feature ‘Ivy Park’ clearly on the front) allow Beyonce’s fanbase to actively identify as a follower of Queen Bey (the Beyhive) and in turn satiate the human need to belong as part of a group. At the same time, the marketing campaign’s emphasis on each woman as as an individual with their ‘own park’, a real and emotional/mental safe space, is yet another example of the media and consumer culture promoting individuality to achieve quite the opposite.  

Does this mean we are all victims of a consumer and social media culture geared against genuine individuality? Are we all just wearing Meryl Streep’s Devil-Wears-Prada cerulean sweater? Not necessarily. What is evident is that individuality does in fact start with individuals, but that each individual is a combination of manifold interests, experiences, influences and social groups, which are reflected in what we wear (and not what wears us). Street style photographer Phil Oh at NYFW commented that to have an individual style, ‘just be genuine’. Genuine unique style can be achieved, even with that romper you saw on instagram – unless someone told you to wear it.