3/30/2012 2:38 PM ET|
The new 'buy everywhere' mall
You can buy almost anything at any time by going online. But all that convenience can come at a price, like thoughtless, out-of-control spending.
Once upon a time I had shopping lists.
When I thought about something I might want to buy, or read about an intriguing new product or gizmo, or heard a friend rave about a book or album, I'd add it to one of my many lists.
These days, our grocery list is pretty much the only list that's left. Now when I think about buying something, I open a new browser window and buy it. If I'm away from my computer or iPad, I use my smartphone. I don't need to go to the mall anymore -- the mall is anywhere I am.
I love the ease of this, because I really hate shopping at malls and at brick-and-mortar stores in general. I hate the parking hassles, the surly or indifferent clerks, the pain of lugging stuff home and the even greater pain of returning it.
By contrast, I love Amazon Prime and my Amazon app. I love knowing that almost anything I need, from dog food to printer ink, will be at my doorstep in two days or less. If I have a return, UPS can pick it up from my front porch -- and if I use a site with free returns, like Zappos.com, I don't even have to pay the shipping for my change of heart.
Yet I tremble a bit at this brave new world.
Lists served a function beyond mere prompting. They were also holding pens for desires. Sometimes, after an item was added to a list, I'd decide I didn't want it anymore.
Scarcity had a value, as well. Sometimes it was hard to find the sparkly new whatever I'd read about in a magazine. I could decide to put effort into tracking it down or just let it go. Usually, I let it go. Now I don't have to, since the iPad version of the magazine has links that take me right to the retailers' websites and usually right to the object itself.
I'm not alone in being worried about this. Some of my Facebook fans worry about the shift in how we buy.
"I don't have that 'walking around the store' time to re-think purchases," wrote one. "It's very impulsive."
"Smart phones make it way too easy to buy stuff," another agreed. "Too convenient, too fast."
But others pointed out the upsides that I've experienced as well.
"I have found I spend less, because I am able to use technology to find and purchase exactly what I want instead of walking around a store or mall full of at-hand temptations," wrote one mother, who added, "Plus, my smart phone or laptop after bedtime is so much easier than a three-year-old at the mall."
The same phones that make it so easy to shop also make it easy to review your bank balance, noted Jeromie Farnsworth of Raytown, Mo.
"I find that I actually spend less due to the ability to check my bank account from anywhere," he wrote, "which helps me stay more conscious of my spending."
The convenience of shopping from home is nothing new, of course. The first door-to-door salesmen probably appeared shortly after the invention of the first door. Rural residents have shopped the Sears mail-order catalog since 1894. Even QVC, the home shopping television channel, has been around for more than 25 years now.
What's changed is how quickly we can translate a desire into a purchase. A few clicks (or one click, with some retailers), and we're done. If you see an ad on the bus, you can point your phone at the ad's QR code -- one of those pixelated black-and-white squares that look a bit like product bar codes -- then click and go straight to the retailer's website.
We don't even need to dig into our wallet for a credit or debit card, if we've already entered our account number at the retailer's site. We can start reading a book, listening to a song or watching a movie almost instantly. Other products may take a little longer, but they'll still get to us quicker than any Pony Express delivery ever could.
"It's an instant-gratification culture par excellence," said therapist Olivia Mellan, the author of the book "Overcoming Overspending: A Winning Plan for Spenders and Their Partners." "It can be pretty horrifying."
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