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To Buy or Not To Buy

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You Can Never Get Enough of What You Don't Really Need

By April Lane Benson

It's Monday before Christmas, and the lure of spectacular discounts has turned the usual elegance of the first floor of Saks Fifth Avenue into something resembling Filene's basement at the height of a clearance sale. Gloves, hats, sweaters, and scarves are tossed about as though Katrina has just been here. But this crowd is the exception. Elsewhere in Manhattan, discounts notwithstanding, the stores are largely empty. I stop in front of one and peer through the only part of the window not plastered with an enormous "50% off on selected styles" banner. Inside, sales associates are trying to look busy, folding and refolding.

In a large Midwest city, Michele, normally a big shopper, says she's cut back. "It doesn't seem right to buy so much now," she says. "My mood's changed." Using leftover yarn, she's crocheting colorful scarves for her nieces and nephew. And to model the generosity she hopes they'll adopt, she's donated a goat and two chickens in their names to a Senegalese family they're going to write to. "I got an excited call from my brother-in-law. When the kids found out, they were absolutely thrilled," she says. "The only shopping I did was for my husband, and I spent less than I'd planned! Always before, I'd get something for myself, but this year I didn't. It felt so good and so strange at the same time."

In a Californian suburb, the sun beats down through an atrium on a huge mall Christmas tree. Passing it, $35,000 in debt and facing the very real possibility that her husband Jason will be downsized, Sara scopes out her Christmas purchases. Like land mines, incredible bargains pop up and explode in front of her, little bursts of temporary insanity. There's a red Dell mini-laptop for her husband, very sleek and at a jaw-dropping discount. There are taupe peau-de-soie sandals for her at an irresistible price—just the thing for putting her best foot forward at the Peta benefit she's organizing. She buys both.

All across America, people's shopping habits are changing. For some, unmoored by this year's dizzying post-Christmas sales, shopping has grown even more frenetic. But for most, frightened into prudence by the shadow of the dark economy, it's become more deliberate and fraught with anxiety. The question of "to buy or not to buy" has become more complex than ever. Maybe what we're seeing is the just-perceptible starting-lurch of the engine of transformation. Maybe this new economic pressure on our shopping habits will begin to tip the phenomenon from what it's been to what it can be.

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