A Theory: The Psychology Behind a Fashion Sale

Credits: Photo - Anonymous, Styling - Sarah G. Schmidt, Location - Sarah G. Schmidt's home


Earlier this week I got the email that Net A Porter's annual sale is on. Oh yes, first it's Net A Porter, then all the others. Fashion friends, what is a better feeling than the optimism that jolts through a body thinking they may get a beloved item in the shopping cart for a bit of a discount?

A “nah-nah-nahhh-nah-na” song erupted out of my body, “I’m going to get some deals, I’m going to snag some finds. I love to shop a sale. Can’t what to bring home what’s mine.”

Mid song I gasped. I stopped to think, “Why do I actually love a sale?”

Now, I know fashion shouldn’t be cheap, but I also know that getting a deal feels so stinking good. I’m likely not the first to tell you of all the tricks and flips and switches that retailers use to entice you to buy. Tactics vary from coupons all the way to intentional markups that come down to the actual target price that the sale advertises. They can be ruthless. Look no further than your email inbox or spam folder for all the “buy this or die” hyperbolic type promotions and offers. Often the underlaying message is something like, "you don't want to miss out on this, silly."

The quick and simple answer to why we loves sales is that you feel like you are getting more for less. But the skeptic inside of me thinks it’s actually something much more basic need than just getting a deal.

I started toying with a new theory. Alright, no really new, maybe just new in this particular context. This is something I learned back in my advertising days that has stuck with me whenever I am trying to understand behaviours of others. LBH, I am trying to understand myself a little too.

When it comes to grasping the psychology of consumer behaviour one need to think all the way down to the root cause. As in, what’s the underlying need of a customer that this particular product is the only one that is going to satiate that particular need? Once we get past the basic human needs of shelter, safety, and food, we should be good, right? We know – at least in most of North America – that that’s not the case. Why does a customer feel they need this thing or that thing?

Part of me thinks that people love to feel smart. But another part of me thinks that’s actually the mistaken way to look at it. See, I think it’s more that people do not want to feel stupid. There is a feeling of safety of getting by in the middle. Whereas feeling outright foolish sucks. I think I’d get a “heck yes” response to the statement that no one likes the feeling of getting taken advantage of, am I right? It super dooper blows to be played. Thus, we prefer to be “in the know.” That’s why I believe pop culture – and trends in fashion – are so captivating. It’s one way to try and show that, “Oh yeah, I’ve got this. I know what’s up.”

The funny thing is when we get competitive and treat knowledge or airtime or retail sales as a scarcity. I empathize that we have been conditioned to think this way and sometimes it is a reality. But it's not really the reality, right? We often believe that it is something that must be rationed or kept away from others because you are afraid of it running out. We watch movies and read books on how to outsmart or play our opponents all the time. Everyday – online, on our commute, in the news – we have a continuous barrage of me versus you messaging that creates a sense of there-isn’t-enough-for-everyone false emergency. We learn how to play a fool but never want to be caught one. A bit cut throat, right?

I think this feeling of outsmarting the retail companies is what gets triggered when we hear about a sale at our favourite stores. I certainly wait and save up for a sale as I know my money will go farther for garments I’m already stalking. But maybe, just maybe, I need the ego boost that a sale provides me too? It’s never just one thing, is it?

For now – or until I have my full throttle Marie Kondo fuelled identity crisis meltdown - I choose to live somewhere in between. I will continue to enjoy fashion as more complex than a seasonal sale but still relish the satisfaction of a few less dollars spent.