Why People Buy Luxurious Things in the Middle of a Financial Crisis
How ‘shoptimism’ drives consumers even when it’s irrational
About a month ago, as the stark reality of the pandemic lockdown set in, I hit a personal low point — worried and pessimistic about the economy in general, about the financial future of my city and of my household.
Then I went online and bought something I didn’t need.
Specifically, a swimsuit — from Patagonia no less — even though I already have perfectly fine swimwear and, more to the point, the public pools where I live are closed for the foreseeable future. But swimming is one of my prized routines that the lockdown shattered. So my needless purchase was a kind of billable wish for a better, or at least more normal, future. It was, in short, a form of shopping optimism. And as it turns out, I’m definitely not the only person to engage in such superfluous spending — even in the midst of a financial catastrophe.
The term “shoptimism,” in fact, was evidently coined during the last economic meltdown. Former Land’s End creative director and Esquire editor Lee Eisenberg’s book on the subject, Shoptimism: Why the American Consumer Will Keep on Buying No Matter What, was published in late 2009 when the Great Recession reigned. Eisenberg posited two kinds of buyers: the classic shopper, who compares prices and tries to be rational, and the romantic, who “may buy something because it is trendy or it has a really cool design or because he or she is feeling blue and needs a pick-me-up. It is someone who cares less about durability and more about emotional satisfaction and appeal.”
The truth is, both of these consumers exist in all of us and that this is the case even in the worst of times. Consider some surprising shopper data turned up by Amperity. The consumer data analytics firm tracks consumer spending by category and recorded huge plunges in spending in the first full week of April on “home, jewelry, and leisure” and “fashion and apparel.” That makes sense. But the following week, spending in both those categories experienced a notable uptick. One notable change: That’s the week when government stimulus checks started to arrive. According to Amperity’s data, spending rose 18% in the jewelry category and 13% in the…