I stared at the computer screen the day before, long enough to reason out my recent purchase from Amazon – an all new Kindle Paperwhite with a cover that costs about 15 percent of the device itself. It definitely seemed like I can save up on all the travel to the bookstore, my frequent appointments with my ophthalmologist and even some space on the shelf. And the biggest of them all – stand up for the cause of saving trees more religiously. Although, I would like to admit that this retail order is more personal as I am determined to read more and believe that this kindle will change my life. Quite ridden with guilt, the purchases I made and you might have made, and tried to rationalize during this lockdown is actually a process of creating an identity of your commercial self. In fact, this was first observed by a modern Marxist or a window shopper in the late 17th century – Denis Diderot. In his book, Regrets on Parting with My Old Dressing Gown, he explains this material condition of experiencing a mystical change in his lifestyle up on purchasing a new dressing gown.
Contrary to rudimentary assumption about individuals being predominantly rational agents, the Diderot effect, as it is known, creates a consumption constellation and highlights that people from different societies are seriously flawed in their decision-making abilities. While certain preferences are noticed to bring about irrational results in our lives, the knowledge of such behaviour might help us in adjusting our social and personal outlook of shopping in general. However, it is tough to determine our consumption pattern in absolute terms given the fact the uncertain environment we have been living in, since the pandemic outbreak nudges us to make certain decisions that are based on our preferences and not just our social or economic welfare. And this is more applicable to a medium and higher income group person, who can access both essential and nonessential goods and services.
Behavioural Theorists like Barsade, Brief and Spartaro (2003) have commonly disassociated emotions from reasoning and thinking, understanding that it often interferes with the rational event. However, it is also observed to be complimentary in particularly Asian markets where “rationality of emotions” plays an important role in the decision-making process with respect to culture and tradition. And this can also be elaborated on during uncertain situations where it reduces the complexity of making the decision and also the efficiency of it. Considering shopping as a less risk choice when compared to activities such as gambling, betting etc, our subjective explanation of outcome of choices helps in providing plausible reasons as to why would we make certain purchases such as “would I feel regret?”, “Am I experiencing an extreme loss?” and so on which are not only impacting the decision made but are essential for making a decision (Li, Ashkansy and Ahlstrom, 2013). This only intensifies in the present situation as our expressive rationality enables our need to make sense of the world in terms of attribution and beliefs on causality.
The recent reports released by Ernst and Young (Sentiments of India – pulse of the country) and McKinsey reflect on the long-term impact on the retail market beyond the pandemic in India, which is primarily driven by convenience and hyperlocalization. The survey by the latter reports that 90% of the respondents believe that their finances are going to face a severe blow for about two months or more. Furthermore, 61% of the respondents describe becoming more mindful about spending money while shopping. And the expected spending categories include groceries, entertainment at home, household supplies, personal care products etc. This also marks for a seamless integration between online and offline purchases which was previously assumed to take over one another, with word of mouth acting as the most trusted source of review. Although this captures the consumer sentiment as more mindful in shopping, this value system can to a certain extent be viewed as an excessive consideration of our immediate welfare.
My purchase of an E-reader can be categorized under books and entertainment at home. However, it is also driven by “shoptimism”, a concept that gained traction during the Great Recession in 2008. Len Eisenberg explains this based on two types of shoppers – a classic who is often rational about buying and a romantic who is often appeals to his or her emotion. Since it is not definitive of a person to be either, there can be an indulgence in revenge shopping to make up for not buying a non-essential commodity for a long period of time. In everyday language, this is identified as retail therapy and is termed as a fad. However, it is often seen as an irrational, immediate emotion in an uncertain situation. Observed for the first time in China after the cultural revolution in 1980s, consumers went on a shopping spree for luxury commodities in particular. Interestingly, such a surge is now being witnessed in China again since the lockdown has been lifted. Brands such as Hermes’ International, Apple, Nike, Gucci and Salvatore Ferragamo have recorded one of the biggest single day sales in the Chinese market.
Even though these can be termed as luxury purchases, it should not be ignored that this would bridge the gap between essential purchasing and premium purchasing among different income groups, helping the retail market to gain some stability and recover from the pandemic. But in terms of personal shopping, this cannot be viewed as an emotional setback of an assumed rational economic agent. Instead, it could be viewed as a heuristic method of achieving consumption efficiency where the motivating factor to make a decision is not a person’s desire but given the panic ridden atmosphere.
My kindle is arriving next week and I am currently making a list of books that I’d wish to read. While making the payments, I had a conversation with a friend who found my purchase quite unnecessary. Probably an improvement in my reading ability and a thorough consumption during and post this lockdown would subjectively be a good way to prove him wrong.
Written by: Prerana N.
Image credits: The New York Times