November 4, 2011

Magical Thinking at the Mall

What's wrong with our spending habits as a nation is exacerbated at the retail level.

Last Wednesday my brother and I headed to a local department store to buy clothes for our elderly mother, who has dementia. She is no longer able to shop, or even accompany me on a shopping trip. My brother was visiting, so I took him along to help select several holiday outfits for her.

While she is completely dependent on others, she is still able to attend a number of social events with my father. It is very important to him that she look nice. They live in an upscale retirement home, and everyone “dresses for dinner.” He also is active with his university in fundraising, and they attend a number of dinners, orchestra concerts, and programs.

I selected two Alfred Dunner slacks outfits with sweaters, both stylish and festive looking for the holidays.

Frankly, I went to the store on Wednesday because they advertise good sales. However, price wasn’t my main concern. Mom is an odd size, short but plump, and finding attractive clothing for her is somewhat of a challenge. When I find pieces that work, I buy them.

I paid with my credit card. My husband and I always paid our card off at the end of the month. We only have two, one that is used regularly, and the back-up one, for when card number one isn’t accepted. After my job loss three years ago, we don’t buy anything unless we can afford to pay it off that month. Sometimes that is a difficult rule to accept, but in this “new normal,” it is our reality. That wasn't always so; we spent a lot of our twenties and thirties bailing our financial ship with a tin can.

The clerk asked me if I had a store card. Was I going to use the store card and get the special discount?

I said no.

I said I don’t use the store card anymore.

She said, “Well, you are really stupid then. You could save twenty percent right now by using the store card, and then just write me a check and pay it off.”

It seemed to me that if the discount were meant to benefit me, that the store would give it to me immediately, no matter how I paid for my merchandise.

I don’t want to use the store card, which charges the usurious rate of 28% and offers me an ungodly high limit. I don’t care that I will save twenty dollars.

The more I thought about it, the more angry I got about it.

While twenty dollars is twenty dollars, and I would like to have twenty more dollars, the question to me is at what price? As Americans, we are so into the “instant gratification” and always looking for a bargain.

But that isn’t what this was about. This was about getting me to use a store card, hoping that like many other Americans I would run the card up beyond what I can afford, and let the card company charge me 28% interest on the balance.

Of course all the sales people are incentivized to push the store card. Have you purchased anything in a department store lately where you weren’t approached to use credit?

I don’t like being called stupid by a clerk in a store when I’ve just paid nearly two hundred dollars for four pieces of clothing. My days at Macy’s are now over.

Next, please.