Why do we like a bargain?

Fast fashion, discount food… why do we want a bargain at all costs?

A stylish Londoner I know used to joke her wardrobe was, “all Primarni, darling”. This play on the words Primark – one of Europe’s cheapest clothing retailers – and Armani, used to be hilarious.

But, since 1134 people were killed when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013, it is not funny at all.

According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, which has been campaigning for workers’ rights since 1989, cheap, disposable clothes were being made therefore Primark, along with other global household brands.

And although most people agree improvements have been made since then, knowing what we do about the human and environmental cost of fast fashion the question has to be asked, why are we still buying it?

Hard-wired for a deal

“Human beings aren’t wired to prioritise future gratification,” says Sarah Dunn, former editor for NZ Retail magazine and commerce consultant. “Our brains want the shiny new item now, even if we’d get a greater benefit from saving up for a higher-quality item and keeping it for longer. We tend to evaluate future consequences based on our tastes and needs at the moment of decision-making.”

It isn’t just fashion that falls foul of this need for instant gratification. Food, holidays, even household appliances seem to have entered the realm of throwaway culture.

A 2019 report by UK windows and door manufacturer Origin noted that 40 per cent of homeowners said they don’t feel it is necessary to have the best-quality furniture they can afford, with 30 per cent saying they would rather spend less so they could afford to update regularly and be on trend.

Report author Alexandra Giles says this behaviour is costing consumers a small fortune.

“Something as simple as replacing the humble kettle can cost more than £750 ($1500) over the years,” says Giles. “On average, we spend £50 ($100) each time we replace one, which is generally every four years, meaning we each buy around 15 kettles throughout our lives. This adds up to a hefty cost.”

As to what it is costing the planet, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency data shows that in 2018, 57,100,000 tons of ‘durable goods’ (such as washing machines) were produced, with 37,410,000 tons going in to landfill. Only around 10 million tons was recycled.

Tricks of the trade

US site Retail Me Not surveyed 2000+ American shoppers to get to the bottom of bargain-hunting behaviour. They found consumers saw paying less for a product as ‘saving money’; and when they spent more on a product 56 per cent experienced guilt or remorse.

Among millennials that figure jumped to 73 per cent. “[Getting a bargain] reduces the neural pain – the sense of loss as cash is spent,” says consumer psychologist Greg Tucker. Coupons, sale prices and discounts are, “a way to defend and justify their purchase against any criticism.”

Manufacturers and retailers take advantage of these behavioural quirks to make more regular sales. “Many of us have impulsively bought an item that doesn’t quite meet our needs because it’s got a ‘SALE!’ sticker on it,” says Dunn. This trick is called salience, “in which we focus on prominent information to the exclusion of less attention-grabbing details.”

For many households, bargain hunting is a necessity. Last year in the UK, the Office for National Statistics revealed living costs for the bottom 10 per cent of households had increased by 2.7 per cent over the previous 12 years, compared to 2.3 per cent for the richest tenth.

And while richer households benefitted from cuts in mortgage interest rates poorer houses suffered rent hikes.

The picture is similar in New Zealand. “It’s really important to remember that even in developed economies such as New Zealand, many consumers struggle to make ends meet,” says Dunn.

The Retail Me Not research showed lower-income consumers were more likely to buy immediately, with 32 per cent of unemployed people unable to wait at all for an item. Stress and financial pressure have long been known to cause executive functioning irregularities.

It makes sense then that if you are skint, you want or need something now, and you are trying to avoid those negative feelings that come with spending beyond your budget, you’ll be drawn to the cheapest item in the room.

Changing consumer behaviour

Although not everyone can afford to shop with their heart rather than their head, change is possible. Chris Wilkinson, managing director of First Retail Group Ltd, thinks NZ retailers have relied too heavily on discount shopping behaviour.

“Getting a bargain is part of people’s natural psyche, but in NZ retailers have unconsciously educated shoppers to expect that after years of discounting,” he says. Wilkinson believes retailers have a responsibility to shift the way they target sales.

“Strong relationships and goodwill between stores and their customers help reduce the expectations of discounts. That’s why many work to develop and retain brand loyalty,” he says. “We are seeing some shifting trends where people are valuing quality, brand heritage, responsible sourcing and sustainability. We expect our younger consumers to increasingly prioritise values and buy less but better.”

Wilkinson says that the Covid pandemic has re-centred the shopper on values rather than value-driven purchases, driving foot traffic to the local high street and artisan stores. But Dunn isn’t sure this will last.

“Traditionally, recession means that consumers tighten their purse strings. I don’t think bargain-hunting consumer culture is going away anytime soon.”

Spread the love
Rate This Article:
Thank you! Your subscription has been confirmed. You'll hear from us soon.
Sign up to our email newsletters for your weekly dose of good