I remember back in 1998 I was invited to my first disco party held at my school. I was ten years old, and like most kids at that age, all I cared about was making an impression on my peers.
So with that motivation, my mother took me out shopping to find some nice clothes for the party. Buying the outfit for the party was the specific goal of this shopping trip. At least so I thought…
We visited malls, second-hand shops, boutiques. You name it. We went there.
She made me try on dozens of jeans and short-sleeve shirts that day, asking for the opinions of the retail assistants along the way.
I thought we found a winner, but it wasn’t enough for my mother.
You see, my mother is an excellent shopper. She knows all the shops in town, she knows all of the assistants and most importantly, she knows how to find a lower price.
So once we found a few outfits, she proceeded to work her magic. She checked which rack we pulled the clothes from to see if it was on sale. She then looked at the store signs to see if there was a storewide sale.
With no luck with the basics, she asked the assistant if there were any deals that day. As it turned out, there wasn’t a discount on the clothes we chose. However, if we bought the jeans, we could get 50% off a second pair.
To remind you, the objective of this shopping mission was to get an outfit for the disco. Simple.
But with the promotion presented to us, my mother started to justify why I would benefit from purchasing a second pair of jeans.
“You need more nice clothes like this, and the ones you have at home are starting to wear.”
“This sale is only on for this weekend, and these jeans are good quality so let’s take advantage.”
Being ten years old I was both excited about the prospect of getting more clothes, and I was also incredibly exhausted from being in the shops. So of course, I responded with a “yes please!”
But something else happened after we got my outfit. And most children who go shopping with their parents can probably attest to what I’m about to say.
We were in a department store, and so far we had only been in the boy’s fashion section. But my mother was so excited about my second pair of jeans, and she asked the assistant, which at this point was a close friend after the experience we had just been through, “What other sales do you have on this weekend?”
And just like that, the specialist was asked to hold my outfit at the counter as we proceeded to go into the women’s wear, and home supplies departments.
This already long shopping experience just became an epic event about maximising the opportunities of the weekend sale at this department store.
We went home that day with many more things than we expected. But in our minds, all of the purchases were justified because we got them on sale.
Our need to celebrate deals
That day, my mother and I came back home to our family, heroes. Not only did I have my swift outfit for the disco, but my mum also had a new outfit, and we got a new toaster.
She was over the moon, bragging about how much money we saved. And I was proud of her for making it all happen. She was a shopping hero.
This experience is not uncommon to how most of us operate.
As a culture, we celebrate sales. When friends come over for dinner and ask us where we got our dining set, we tell the story about how we got it on sale.
We say things like, “Can you believe I got this top for $15!? The crazy thing is that no one can even tell that it’s $15. I’m so happy with this purchase.”
We can literally go the rest of the week on a high from the money we saved.
Ironically though, we never tell the story of how we ended up buying the dining set or the new top impulsively on top of another purchase.
And according to retail, that’s the whole point of a sale.
A brief history of promotions
A sale, more specifically, discounts/coupons have been around for centuries.
According to Time Magazine, Atlanta businessman Asa Candler had an invention that transformed Coca-Cola from an insignificant tonic into a market-dominating drink. His hand-written tickets offered customers a free glass of Coca-Cola.
Between 1894 and 1913, an estimated one-in-nine Americans had received a free Coca-Cola, for a total of 8,500,000 free drinks. By 1895, Coca-Cola was being served in every state.
As demonstrated by Coca-Cola’s success, a discount is an incredibly creative and compelling way to sell products.
Whether it’s saving coupons for Pizza deals or waiting for Boxing Day mega-sales, we are conditioned to look for better prices.
And this is not to say that sales are a bad thing when it comes to minimalism. I love a good deal as much as the next person. After all, we’re talking about saving hard-earned cash.
My issue with sales is the power it holds over us as consumers. Sales encourage us to buy more than what we need.
The trap of unnecessary purchases
Back to the story, my mother came home a shopping hero that day. But who was the real winner here? My mother or retail?
The mission was to buy me an outfit for the party. We ended up getting an additional pair of jeans, an unexpected outfit for her and a toaster, which in all honesty, we didn’t need.
Yes, all of the purchases were easily justified depending on whose perspective you’re looking from. But we are the best salespeople to ourselves. Maša and I could justify just about any purchase to each other with 100% conviction and influence.
But the question remains, do we really need it? Or are we being opportunistic and excessive?
Read more: Why Too Many Choices Can Paralyse You
How to separate yourself from the sale when making a buying decision
As a conscious and aware shopper, we need to learn how to separate ourselves from the sale or discount.
If the promotion applies to what we intended to purchase, great. However if we’re getting pulled into something we didn’t plan on buying, you need to slow down.
A simple question to ask yourself before buying something is, “Did I plan to buy this item today?”
Now, of course, there’s going to be some exceptions to this question.
For example, you may be in the grocery store working through your list, and realised that you forgot to add a key ingredient. It’s not reasonable to expect you not to buy the key ingredient if you forgot to plan for it.
But with most other purchases, you can ask yourself whether you planned to buy it or not.
This is what it means to live with intentionality and purpose.
Maša and I plan our purchases through a shared Wishlist in Wunderlist. This is where we add all of the things we need to buy in the future.
As minimalist vegans, we can’t find a lot of what we want in local shops. Unfortunately, ethical materials are yet to hit the mainstream. So we do a lot of our shopping online.
We add links and comments to each item on our Wishlist. Communicating back and forth in this manner challenges us to be rational with how we shop.
Then we plan and budget accordingly. We don’t wait for sales, but if we do happen to purchase an item on our Wishlist that also happens to be on sale, we gladly accept it.
But we don’t proceed to add more items to our cart that weren’t planned for merely because it was on sale. This is key.
Plan for your purchases
If there’s one key takeaway from this post, it’s to plan for what you want to buy in advance.
As a minimalist, buying things is okay. But be thoughtful about where and what you buy.
When you look at consumerism through the lens of intentionality, you get better at blocking out the distraction of a sale, and you execute on what you set out to do. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Do you have any tips on how to overcome the power of sales? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.
Note: we’ve also dedicated a whole episode on our podcast to talk about dealing with sales as a minimalist.