Black Friday, Singles Day, Cyber Monday, Boxing Day – the sales are upon us, and although they always tease and tempt, the stakes feel higher this year, as a cost-of-living crunch forces people to keep the lights off and use Afterpay to buy groceries.
While an opportunity to save on staples, treats and Christmas gifts, sales also encourage overspending, buying things we wouldn’t otherwise and bringing forward purchases we may have made in the future but don’t need – and may not be able to afford – now.
“Sales are one of the most common reasons people acquire possessions,” says Dr Melissa Norberg, an associate professor in psychology at Macquarie University with expertise in hoarding, panic buying and identifying online shopping problems.
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“Buying things on sale is not an inherently bad idea, especially when money is tight,” she says, but doing so unnecessarily can cause financial strain – “the very thing that people are trying to avoid by buying sale items”.
Reflecting on the root of sales-induced temptation is important – is it a desire for the thing itself, the rush from buying the thing, or a fear of missing out? All of these feelings can be strong and hard to resist.
“We’ve often had years of practice giving in to these emotions,” Norberg says. “Feel them, buy. Feel them, buy.
“We unfortunately just don’t give ourselves a chance to learn that we can live with slight discomfort, and without the product.”
View image in fullscreen‘Consumers should be vigilant during sales periods,’ says the ACCC. Photograph: Ellen Smith/The Guardian
Tolerating discomfort teaches us that emotions “do not need to dictate our behaviour”, and proves that intense shopping desires usually dissipate quickly.
Accordingly, her “biggest advice is to just stop and think”.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) echoes that advice, noting that sales seasons are rife with predatory pricing tactics.
Consumers should … compare prices across retailersACCC
The watchdog instituted federal court proceedings against Dell Australia on 4 November, alleging they made “false or misleading representations regarding the price of monitors … and the potential savings when a monitor was purchased with a computer”. Dell stated that the issue occurred due to an error in their pricing process, and that they were updating their systems to prevent the error from occurring again.
Across the pond, Strand – formerly Strandbags – was just fined almost A$710,000 (NZ$765,000) in Auckland’s district court for advertising products as “significantly discounted or being sold at special prices” when they were not.
Under Australian consumer law, it is illegal for businesses to make false or misleading representations in their advertising, including “about discounts or availability of products”.
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“The ACCC is aware of concerns that some retailers increase prices for a short period immediately prior to sales periods in order to justify their discount claims during the sales,” an ACCC spokesperson tells Guardian Australia.
“Consumers should be vigilant during sales periods. They should undertake research and compare prices across retailers.”
Some, like YouTuber Hannah Louise Poston, are in favour of skipping sales altogether, and imposing a “no-buy” or “low-buy” rule if sales time feels irresistible. Poston, who launched her YouTube channel in 2018 to document a year-long no-buy, suggests paying full price can help ensure you really want something, and that you buy it when you actually need it, which can save you more in the long run.
View image in fullscreen‘If the fear of missing out drives you to buy things you don’t use, then it’s best to walk away.’ Photograph: Xinhua/Rex/Shutterstock
She applies the same rationale to buying back-ups of items such as skincare or detergent, arguing they often languish unused, leading to clutter and waste. Buying refills only when they are needed is also good for your cashflow, because a more urgent use for that money may come up before the backstock is ever used.
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There’s also a dark side to fear-based back-up buying, Norberg says. “We saw just what ‘limited’ can do during the pandemic. The idea that toilet paper and other daily goods would run out led some people to over buy – this then led to actual shortages and people in less fortunate circumstances having to do without.”
The psychology around “limited” items extends to the limited-edition products and sets that abound at Christmas-time. Buying them is “fine as long as you use these things and they don’t end up breaking the bank,” Norberg says. “But if the fear of missing out drives you to buy things you don’t use, then it’s best to walk away.”
The more we walk away from alluring deals, the easier it becomes, but as for how to start? Norberg suggests making a shopping list and sticking to it.
She also encourages asking: “What has our past behaviour suggested? Will we really use that bottle of shampoo in the next few months? Will our child really play with that toy all the time? ”
Otherwise, a shopping high will only be maintained if we “keep buying products – but that will lead to financial ruin, a very cluttered house, and negatively impact the environment”.
That goes for gifts too. Rather than guessing, she suggests asking loved ones for wish lists. If you can’t find or afford what they want, “ask for alternatives rather than trying to figure out an alternative on your own”.
“The premise that ‘it’s the thought that counts’ really isn’t helpful as it leads people to spend money on items that just end up in landfill.”