Shopping Bulimia explored one case study

I have a friend – educated, married, children, job, house, big extended family, 2 holidays a year, good looking –  who nine times out of ten returns her clothes purchases. These are often skinny jeans, black, shapely, which I always think look perfect on her. They’re too baggy around the bum, she says, this being the most common complaint but there are others.

Her Dad doesn’t approve. Even though she doesn’t wear the clothes out to socialise in, which to be fair a lot of people who think nothing of a harmless fraud do, her Dad still thinks this is shameless and an abuse of the shops’ policy.

But what’s really going on here?

Perhaps she feels guilty spending money on herself. Perhaps she doesn’t think she deserves the item. Financially literate, she is also trying to stay in control of her spending. So far, so logical, the problem is when this leads to an extant use of energy. A lot of mental space  is taken up with the mental dithering of deciding whether or not to return an item. This is mental space that could be used more productively, say reading a book or writing an article or even taking your kids out for a long walk. I don’t mean to sound judgmental, most of us have done this at least once, but it’s a growing trend.

I was in Uniqlo in Oxford Street. There was a short queue for the retail desk and a long, snaking queue for the refunds desk. In TK Maxx, the same day, the woman in front of me wanted to return some trainers she’d bought with the line they were the wrong size. The cashier surprised me. Another one, she says to her colleague. Her colleague smiles. The woman with the trainers blushes and apologises. I should have looked at the size before buying them, she says. I bought them for my brother, but he’s a size nine and these are a size ten. They all use the same excuse, the cashier says, somewhat harshly I thought, but then again if you’re faced with the same excuse umpteen times an hour, you can understand her concern and frustration. Witnessing this was notable in that it’s the first time I’ve seen this from the cashier’s perspective. It must happen an awful lot for her to feel so browbeaten on a Wednesday morning. In Primark I see for the first time: bins full of clothes behind the desk and at least one person employed to organise them. This is costing time and money for the retailer. It’s a full time job for at least one member of staff.

This trend of shopping bulimia is happening more and more. Returning items to the store is one way of assuaging guilt and yet still getting your shopping high, but why are we spending so much time in our heads and in real time shopping? Fashion, they say, is the second most polluting industry after oil.

H&M, concerned about how much fast fashion is produced every year, offer a financial reward of £5 voucher for every bag of old clothing donated to the store. While their heart is definitely in the right place here, I can’t help thinking offering rewards such as this is is only encouraging people to come back and spend more, titillated into doing so with the promise of £5 off. Isn’t this only making the problem worse?

But to return to shopping bulimia for a second: Why, I wonder, do we need to fill our lives with the yo-yo of shopping and returning, shopping and returning? The truth is my friend who was the exception back in the 1990s when she started this habit, is now becoming the norm.


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