how to escape the sales
Happy Friday—it’s Memorial Day weekend, and despite a global pandemic, it’s a big sale weekend, and retailers really want you to know it. Fashion brands are in turmoil right now—even before the pandemic, the McKinsey State of Fashion report wrote that "continued caution is advised for the year ahead as mounting underlying turmoil could disrupt relations among both developed and emerging market economies." And now we're looking at a whole new world for retail stores and shopping. Retail sales fell 16% in April, our beloved slow fashion brands are struggling or closing, and we're even more aware (and conscientious about) of who made our clothes and where our money is going. It's no wonder brands are working hard to get us to shop right now.
Sales can be a fantastic way to access expensive items you might not be able to afford otherwise, but they can tip you right over the edge into buying items (at any price) you don’t actually want or need. Retail marketing tactics are super-savvy—as this article from NYTimes shows on how e-commerce sites manipulate us—and our damn brains—we fall for it all the time, even when we objectively know better.
I talk a lot about how getting satisfied with your personal style means you get the mental space back to not do things like spend three hours in an afternoon looking at clothes online. Confession, though: I still do it sometimes.
A while back I looked at a pair of straight leg jeans that I thought might, from the photos, be a fit for me and my body. I did my research: I emailed customer service about the measurements, I searched secondhand, I tried to find alternative model photos. I’m curious about them, but I’m 80% sure they won’t fit. I had decided, nah, probably not these.
This entire week I’m being aggressively retargeted by those damn jeans. They are everywhere I go online. This retailer is working hard to get me to buy in their weekend sale: ads everywhere, an extra-on-top-of-sale-price discount code this weekend only… My brain is on overdrive going, “what if they are the straight-leg jeans that finally fit me the way I want?” (I hope you can hear my internal self’s eyes rolling from here, because: I saw those measurement numbers.)
It took a while, but I finally realized three things: a) I absolutely don’t need more jeans, b) even though these are a style I am searching for, the hard, cold numbers of the measurements tell me they’re not likely to be the ones, so I definitely don’t need more jeans that don’t even fit me the way I want, and c) half the reason I’m still looking is because I’m envious of how the model looks. And worst of all, because I had gone down the rabbit hole of online shopping, now I was starting to look at other stuff, too. Yikes—none of this is good.
If you’re feeling the same thing, here’s seven ideas to stop it, quick.
1 — Turn on your adblocker!
Getting ads for items you’ve recently looked at is called retargeting. To simplify, it’s a way for a site to track what items you’ve looked at, and connect that with other sites where they advertise. As this explainer says, “Retargeting helps remind someone of your product as they continue browsing the internet, whether they're on social media, their favorite news site or researching your competitors.” Wow, thanks, exactly what we needed! But it works: statistics on retargeting vary by study but generally show that someone who clicks on a retargeted ad is more likely to buy the product by a lot, 20-50% usually—and probably to buy more, too.
My first strategy is to get rid of the ads, quick. That means busting out the adblocker. AdBlock Plus is the most well-known adblocker (and what I use), but there’s a lot of options for various browsers. I don’t usually leave it on, or if I do, I turn on “Acceptable Ads,” which are clearly labeled, don’t disrupt website reading flow, play music or launch popups — and ads are a huge part of how online retailers make money. I’m okay with supporting smaller companies and sites I like with their ads.
But… sometimes I need a break! So turning off all ads for the weekend means a little bit of space between those jeans and the dopamine high of shopping. As a bonus, it makes the Internet look a lot nicer:
This doesn’t help with Instagram ads, of course—but if they’re really getting to you, it might be time to get off Instagram for a few days til the intensity subsides.
2 — Block the websites themselves.
Unfortunately, we still know the URLs of our favorite shopping sites. If you really need a forcing mechanism, using a website blocker can keep you away for a bit.
Typically site blockers like this are described as “for productivity” — get off Facebook and get back to work! They’re equally effective for shopping, though. I like Cold Turkey, because you can create customized block lists. Over time, you can build up a pretty impressive (or depressing?) list of sites—or even apps—you want to avoid. You can set a timer for hours or even days, or give yourself a daily allowance. It’s super effective.
Turning this on for the weekend, so not only am I avoiding the ads, I can’t go directly to buy those jeans in a moment of weakness.
3 — Unsubscribe from brand emails.
This might not help you today, but I periodically go through and unsubscribe from brand emails.
Some brands I like getting emails from: solopreneurs and friends who own businesses, because it supports them; newsletters from some brands that are less ads and more interesting stuff; and the occasional brand I actually do stay subscribed to. (For example, one of those for me is AYR. Their emails are short, often funny and witty, and I know pretty well what items from them I will and won’t like, so I’m rarely tempted into buying something I don’t actually need or want.)
Over time though, the emails pile up. First, you sign up for one to get a discount code for something you actually do want. Later, something you want to keep an eye on when they restock. After that, maybe some of your information gets sold and something you didn’t even sign up for is in there. Then, a brand giveaway and suddenly there’s eighty-five brands in your inbox all doing a sale. Argh!
Usually I get right on that helpful Gmail Unsubscribe link as soon as I get an email I don’t want.
But they do add up, so you can also use tools like Unroll.me and Unsubscriber. Note that these apps work by collecting data about your purchases, which it can get from your email, and then typically they sell to marketers. If you’re okay with this, they’re extremely effective. You can also revoke access later.
If you’re not down with that, and willing to shell out a little bit of cash, Clean Email is a paid service that unsubscribes you and doesn’t share your data (because you pay for it).
Either way: get that stuff out of your inbox!
4 — Delete your credit card information from your devices.
I know, I know — it’s so convenient to have your credit card information stored in your password manager, browser, and Shopify cart. It just makes it so easy…!
Well, if you’re impulse buying, especially on sale weekends, maybe make it a little bit harder. Delete your saved credit cards, so you have to get up off the couch to go find the number. (If you’re one of those weirdos who have your credit card number memorized, this obviously won’t help you!)
If you have a partner you trust—really, genuinely trust—let them take your physical card for a while, or change the password to your saved information. I’m definitely not advocating that you have to get permission from your partner to shop all the time, but if you’re struggling with impulse buying, even one extra barrier between you and a bad decision can make a big impact. (I had to do this for quite some time to curb a pretty bad shopping addiction. It wasn’t pretty, and I felt a ton of shame by giving my male partner “control” over my finances. But I trusted him, and I wanted it, and it worked. I got my card info back when I felt like I could trust myself, not when he felt like it. You know your relationship, so use your own judgement.)
5 — Do a closet try-on of similar items you already own.
Okay, a little bit more of a fun one. Go shop your own closet! I know, that sounds so cheesy! But I have jeans, and maybe they aren’t exactly like the ones I was looking at on sale, but trying on the ones I do have and making some outfits with them helped remind me how great the stuff I already have is.
I’m in the middle of the #may30x30, and I realized that part of what I was missing was a jeans shape I didn’t add into my capsule. I like challenges, but I also like variety. Shopping for a new pair of jeans isn’t going to add variety to this capsule (and it’d be over by the time they arrived anyway), and more importantly: I can play with different shapes and proportions without shopping.
And if you are shopping…
6 — Make smart purchases
First, sleep on it. Sales tempt us because they’re time-constrained. Buy it now before your size sells out! Quick, before the weekend is over! How often do we hear or say, “it was the last one, and it was in my size, and it was on sale, it was just meant to be!” Guilty, I’ve done it too. But really, try to sleep on it. It will, most likely, be there tomorrow. And if it’s not? What’s really going to happen?
Next, reference your wishlist and get objective. I really like Jaana of @thismomsgonnasnap’s 4 I shopping rules: IDENTIFY / INVENTORY / IMPULSE CONTROL / INVEST. Identify what it is about the piece you want. Is this item actually, exactly, really, what you want? Inventory things you have that are similar, and where this new item fits in to your wardrobe. What outfits or combinations would you wear it with? Then comes the hard part, the Impulse Control. Spend some time thinking critically and clearly about the purchase, and then go back if you’ve made an informed choice. If you can’t get clear on this, and your brain is just repeating, “but you want it! They’re so cute! Treat yourself! Why not!” — it might be time to dig in to what’s triggering that shopping.
As Janna writes in this Instagram post:
Deep down it’s likely an emotional filler for boredom, sadness, self-esteem issues, etc. But do you struggle to control your spending on makeup? Accessories? Online shopping? During sales? Clothes in general? At the peak, I got specific and identified that my trigger was specifically jeans on sale. (I owned 75 pair back in the day!) Make a list and decide where you want to cut back.
(What is it with jeans!?)
For items you aren’t sure about, saving it to your wishlist might include not just a photo, but also the item name, SKU number, any measurements you can find, fabric content, the original price, current secondhand prices if any, and hopefully a photo of the garment flatlay/hung, not just on a model. (The marketing copy and envy-enducing model photos are not as helpful as these!)
This is all useful for shopping later, so you can reference secondhand sellers’ measurements, original and secondhand prices, and look at photos and be able to tell details (like wash, seaming, and shape) without being distracted by the model. Sometimes the best secondhand finds are the ones with bad photos and no info, because the person doesn’t know/care/isn’t familiar with reselling, but you can tell it’s the right item. These are often cheaper than the highly polished, experienced resellers with all the info, who know they can charge a higher price.
7 — Log off.
Okay, this might be obvious, but log off for a while. Not just off shopping sites or Instagram, but really get offline.
If shopping your closet or looking at your wishlist backfires, because you really don’t have anything like what you’re shopping for, take some space away. If you can't escape the ads on Instagram, and even your friends are making you want to shop, put it away for a bit.
Bake something. Go for a walk. Work out. Play with your kids. Read a book. Distract yourself until the impulse passes. It will pass, and the clothes will still be there, and you'll be fine without them. I promise.