Understanding a shopper's quest for bargains

Consuming Interests


It was a situation ripe for confrontation: a limited supply of 2,000 pocketbooks, hundreds of women afflicted with designer label lust, problems with crowd control and a store closure that frustrated many determined shoppers.

But no fistfights broke out at the Great Heinous Handbag Hoopla of 2005 that overwhelmed C-Mart in Joppatowne 10 days ago.

Just lots of angry women pushing and shoving and cursing their way toward a chance at grabbing one of those marked-down, high-end purses offered in a heavily advertised sale by the Harford County discount retailer. Police swooped in when the crowd refused to leave the store after management closed the doors for hours to restore order. Many irate women left empty-headed.

What in the world would induce such hostility and bad behavior, observers wondered. The answer is almost anything when it comes to an object of desire, behavioral experts say, be it discounted mobile phones, Tickle Me Elmos, Apple iBook laptops, Ikea sofas, DVD players or Nike Air Jordan athletic shoes.

The phenomenon of bargain shopper's rage doesn't just happen to women either. Men experience it. Boys, girls, rich and poor, and young and old. And it isn't exclusive to greedy Americans. People in England, Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia have seen recent cases of it, too.

"I don't think anyone goes into these places with an intention to riot," says Michael R. Solomon, a professor of consumer behavior at Auburn University in Alabama. "A lot of these sales are about scarcity. It creates a competitive situation in a zero-sum game. I think primal instincts take over in those cases. The longer you've been waiting in line for something, the more you invest of yourself in attaining that object, the more valuable that object becomes to you.

"When these things come together and you add a `50 percent off' sale, it creates a perfect storm of influences capable of bringing traits out in anyone that can be very unattractive," Solomon says.

`Mob mentality'

Richmond, Va., saw this happen in August when 10,000 Henrico County residents showed up outside Richmond International Raceway for a first-come, first-served sale of 1,000 used iBook laptops for $50 each. Seventeen people were injured and hundreds of men, women and children were trampled in the stampede.

Police in the capital of Dhaka in Bangladesh baton-charged thousands of shoppers who rioted in March after braving heat, rain and a nationwide strike when it was discovered that only a few dozen applications for a sales deal on mobile phones were being distributed.

In London, five people were hospitalized and hundreds crushed at the midnight grand opening of an Ikea store in February when 6,000 buyers showed up to get their hands on $65 sofas that were being offered during a 3-hour window of opportunity. That disturbing incident occurred just five months after three people were crushed to death at an Ikea grand opening in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

"It's like the mob mentality," says Geetha Jayaram, associate professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "You take perfectly reasonable, nice people and put them in the right set and setting, and you can create this type of reaction."

Exceeds supply

Whether it's over a soccer game, Rolling Stones concert tickets or those old White Sales on linens, competition for limited resources can provoke any crowd into frenzied behavior, says Glenn Treisman, who is also an associate professor of psychiatry at Hopkins.

"It never makes sense to outsiders," Treisman says. "But once you confront a large number of people with a limited resource of something, they become acculturated to the value behind the resource. Now you threaten their ability to attain that resource, make it competitive, set them up for the possibility of disappointment and it becomes an emotionally charged situation. Someone is going to get it and they're not.

"It could get ugly," Treisman says. "That behavior is not unique to the 20th century, or to purses."

But high-end purses are a perfect example of a product that's likely to produce envy in others.

Designer handbags can run several thousands dollars. They rarely go on sale. Certain labels and styles bring with them a high level of status and bragging rights. And some bags, like the ultra-exclusive Hermes Birkin that retail for $3,500 to $60,000, have a two-year wait-list for buyers.

"The thing is, fashion for women is a huge thing," says Meagan Mahoney, the 22-year-old Fort Lauderdale, Fla., host of an online Web log called the purseblog. "But everybody has their own thing they're into. I have driven 12 hours one way to Munich to get a Chloe Paddington bag for $1,400. People will fight for things they want.

"It's not good, it's not bad. It's just human nature."


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