The Science of Why We Buy Clothes We Never Wear
As a consumer psychologist and researcher I spend a lot of time peeking under people's beds and in the dark recesses of their closets. In addition to dust bunnies, in more homes than not I find new, unworn clothing and accessories, usually with the price tags still attached.
I’m not talking about bad gifts. I’m talking about merchandise purchased by the owner but never worn. This occurs so frequently that chances are you’ve got something with tags still on it stashed away in your home, too. Why would we waste money on clothing we don’t wear? Here are the top reasons.
We Ignore a Major Flaw
The most common explanation for why someone buys an article of clothing that never leaves the closet is that the shopper did some well-intentioned but faulty thinking during the purchasing equation. The typical scenario goes like this: There was something really amazing about the item; there was also something not quite right about it; but because it was on sale the shopper bought it anyway.
It's a classic example of something called choice-support cognitive bias, in which we ignore information that doesn't support our desires. For example, one shopper I interviewed named Karen described an emerald green silk blouse she purchased as “so luscious to the touch.” That’s the good part. The not-quite-right part is that it doesn’t go with anything in her wardrobe, and it’s a bit snug. But it was on sale at 80% off, and that sealed the deal. “I missed the return window," Karen said. "I was so determined to make that blouse work.” Ultimately, though, the blouse didn't work and has never been worn.
Similarly, Jasmine purchased sky-high Prada heels that squeak a bit and are uncomfortable. She’s not convinced that they were a bad purchase even though she’s had them for more than a year and hasn’t worn them yet. “They’re Prada!" she said. "My only pair. They were 75% off! I’m waiting for someplace to go where I don’t have to walk.”
We Purchase for Fantasy, Not Reality
The second most common reason for buying clothes that are never worn is similar to the one above, but the emphasis is on misperception of ourselves rather than a fantasy about the product. That misperception, or self-deception, allows us to psychologically rationalize the purchase of products that would otherwise seem inappropriate or foolish.
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When we shop, we visualize our future selves. That’s why so may people love to shop—it’s an exercise in preparation. Shopping stimulates our imaginations. As we consider different items we imagine how others will respond to us, how we’ll feel wearing it, and so forth.
The problem is that people often shop visualizing a lifestyle that may not ever exist—that slimmer self, or the one who goes camping, or vacations on glamorous tropical cruises, or attends lavish black-tie events. This is essentially how Geoff ended up with a white linen suit that he hasn’t worn yet. “I live in San Francisco, the cut is too fussy, you can see through the pants and the color is so wrong," Geoff told me. "It’s a fail; it’s just not something that fits into my life so I haven’t worn it.”
Most common to this category, though, are clothes that are too small—you know, jeans or dresses or bathing suits that were purchased to be worn in the future, after the diet. For some, of course, the diet never works out. For others their slimmer selves don’t really like what their plumper predecessors picked out. Either way, by the time this realization occurs, the item is probably not returnable.
We Love the Item Too Much
This will sound odd to some, but there are shoppers who simply love what they purchased too much to risk wearing it. The phenomenon is called loss aversion, and it's especially common with people who felt deprived or suffered losses in their childhood.
For instance, Diane owns a white cotton halter dress that she says is “killer, perfect in every way—slimming, comfortable, the works.” Yet she's never worn it because “one spill and it’s shot.” Diane says she’s saving it for a worthy occasion, “someplace where it will be appreciated and where I’ll want to feel like a million bucks.”
Some people simply buy an extra of a favorite article of clothing due to the fear of ruining the original. In fact, Jason has double sets of several shirts. “If I find something I really like, I buy an extra just in case. Sometimes I get bored with it, though, and never get to the back-up.”
We Go Shopping While Tipsy
Lastly, we have shoppers who go browsing under the influence. Yes, that’s right, there are many shoppers—especially online shoppers—who are drunk or high when they click the buy button. While poking through 50-something Mimi’s closet, I spotted a full-length light blue froth of swirly chiffon topped by a bodice of giant rhinestones. I didn’t even have to ask. I just pointed to it and Mimi blurted, “That’s what happens when you shop drunk—it was like 95% off, but I can't return it.”
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Alcohol, you see, first affects the cerebral cortex, which frees our inhibitions. In Mimi’s case it probably went something like this: Why NOT have a Cinderella disco dress!? Next, alcohol hits the hippocampus, which exaggerates emotions. Mimi struck me as a relatively happy and optimistic person, so the notion that she’d imagine herself ultra-happy in that fairytale princess dress makes sense.
While we all make mistakes, the saving grace for consumers is the ability to return misguided purchases. So the number one recommendation is never purchase iffy items you can’t return.
After that, be sure you calculate the down side of the purchases you’re considering—if you truly have places to wear them, and if they genuinely fit your lifestyle and existing wardrobe (not to mention your body). Don’t fall prey to the idea that this is the only time you’ll ever find a designer you like on sale or a dress that’s "simply perfect." In retail today, we’re truly awash with options, and there’s no reason ever to feel pressured to buy now.
Kit Yarrow, Ph.D., is a consumer psychologist who is obsessed with all things related to how, when, and why we shop and buy. She conducts research through her professorship at Golden Gate University and shares her findings in speeches, consulting work, and her books, Decoding the New Consumer Mind and Gen BuY.