impulse buys

I miss the days of pre-Amazon, pre-smart phone shopping. Before we were saturated with information. Before we scanned every product with our phone. When we could pick something up just because it looked cool, rather than buying it because we’d scoured reviews, weighed all options and finally purchased from the most reasonably priced quality seller we could find.

I get anxious when making a purchase decision now. Is this the best price? Is it a high quality product? Could I do better? The opportunity cost of each purchase grows proportionally to the depth of data at our fingertips. For me, it means I often delay buying – sometimes to my detriment.

It’s not just products either. Services are the same. Yelp has created a plethora of service data – which, while informative, are all subjective and dependent upon the mood of the customer and the provider on a given day. Take my search for a lasik doctor, for example. Pre yelp days, I would have asked around, gotten a few personal recommendations, met with a few doctors, then jumped in. Now, though? It’s a different story. I gathered opinions from friends (which still holds the heaviest weight in my mind). I read about Billy Bob’s negative experience, and I file that in my head. Then I read Sally’s glowing review, and I file that away, too. Repeat. Soon, the good and the bad start the blend, and the individual reviews get a bit blurry. Here I am, a month in to the process and I haven’t been able to decide on who I should see. There are just too many options, and all have pros and cons.

For me, delaying decisions often leads to paying more in the end – and the hit stings financially and emotionally. Knowing that if I had just decided sooner, I could have saved some money just kills me. Most recently, I delayed pulling the trigger on a hotel for a trip this fall. I created a spreadsheet, compared options, weighed objective and subjective data, but just couldn’t come up with a decision. I was a click away from booking one hotel, but when I found several negative reviews I hadn’t seen before, and it stopped me in my tracks. In the end, I booked that same hotel a few weeks later, but paid $30 more per night because of the delay.

Here’s my dilemma – it’s expected that you’ll research things before making a purchase, choosing a doctor or booking a hotel. It’s a world of buyer beware, where the it’s on you to check things out before you commit. There’s no (or very few) times when you can shrug and say, “There’s no way I could have known.” That responsibility weighs on me when making these decisions. It’s taken something as simple as buying toilet paper, and turned it in to a statistical analysis – giving weight to all factors and trying to find the best option. It’s making life more complex than it used to be.

The number of options we have today is also wonderfully problematic. I watched a TED talk on choices a few months ago. It discussed how having more options can actually diminish our purchase satisfaction. So, while it’s great to have a few options, once it goes past 5 or 6, we start to feel less satisfied with our decision. I think it’s due in part to the opportunity cost that comes from the items we didn’t choose – and in part because making that decision took so much dang time. It’s just doesn’t feel worth it. The small cost savings or incremental quality increase isn’t worth the time and energy we put in to the decision itself. Multiply that process time by a whole shopping list,  and you leave the grocery store feeling rather depressed.

There’s a surprising genius behind grocery stores like Trader Joe’s. They have one or two options for most of their fresh and frozen products – organic or not. The dried goods isle gives you a bit more variety, with five or six types of sauces and various types of pasta. The dairy case has a wide range of options, but still keeps the options slimmed down to around four options for each type of item. The number of options feel manageable – easy, even. Either you like what they’re selling, or you don’t. They don’t offer 18 different options for chocolate ice cream – there’s one, maybe two. (The wine section blows away my point, but it still doesn’t feel as intimidating as the larger grocery stores.) I leave Trader Joe’s feeling satisfied with my purchases.

As with so much else in life, once again, less is more.


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Mom to "C", wife to Ben. I'm a part-time blogger, cook, organizer, seamstress, house cleaner, taxi, nurse (the mom kind), accountant... I could go on, but really... it's all in the blog. Read away!

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