Chapter 3: If Consumer Spending is the Engine of the Economy, Then Discretionary Spending is the "GAS"
As we have seen, consumer spending drives the U.S. economy. Moreover, consumers' desire for things they want, but don't need, is the lure that draws them to the stores, the mall, and now the Internet. The strong emotional gratification that consumers gain from their discretionary purchases is the reward that reinforces continued purchases of things desired, but not needed. Like Pavlov's dogs, they seek that same level of gratification repeatedly. A focus group respondent explained her experience buying things she doesn't need: "Essentials are things you need, but you also need a little 'fluff,' not all substance. Just buying essentials is boring, so you need to buy things that are frivolous to make life less boring. It makes you feel better."
What is the source of gratification? Is it achieved through the act of shopping for something not needed or gratification from the object itself? Evidence points to both as important contributors to consumer satisfaction. In planning a new purchase, a consumer often develops elaborate fantasies surrounding search for an item, finding it, and making it their own. As another focus group participant explained about the recent purchase of a car bought for pleasure, not need: "Anticipation is everything. Everything you do, you anticipate. That is the fun, and that is part of who you are. By anticipating something new, you are trying to level things out [i.e., keep your emotions level]. You go on one vacation, and before that is over, you are already planning your next vacation. You get satisfaction, and you are so thrilled you start planning the next purchase. Satisfaction sets up more anticipation. You can't wait to do it again. Anticipation is stress, healthy stress. You are still enjoying the satisfaction you got and anticipating the next time."
In shopping, the search for a desired item encourages consumers' fantasies, allowing them to create more complex tableaus in which to act out their dreams and desires.
Another respondent adds: "You can anticipate little things, like taking a bath when you buy soap powders; buying fuzzy slippers to come home and put on after work; or going out to a really nice restaurant." In the act of consuming, these consumers act out vignettes and fantasies—sometimes small, sometimes very elaborate—that may well provide more satisfaction than the actual experience of shopping and buying the item.
In shopping, the search for a desired item encourages consumers' fantasies, allowing them to create more complex tableaus in which to act out their dreams and desires. Another recent new-car buyer explained: "The search for something adds to the anticipation. In shopping for my car, I spent time thinking about what kind of car I wanted. I had fun going to dealers, playing one against the other. I found a thrill in the search. When I finally picked the car and bought it, I almost felt a let-down. The search was over. Now that I got what I wanted, I have to pay for it." Once the purchase cycle is completed, reality sets in. Inevitably though, a new shopping fantasy will begin to brew as the consumer starts a new cycle of anticipation and searching, leading to purchase, then followed by letdown.
Some consumers gain satisfaction from developing a shopping fantasy they can act out. For others, it is the power they feel from finding something and being able to buy it. Interestingly, the consumer's feelings often may have more to do with the act of purchasing than with the object that the shopper buys. In response to the description of the thrill of the hunt, another respondent explains: "If you are an impulse shopper, you don't have any of that. There is no search, no anticipation. For me, the search can drive me crazy. I like to buy. I see something; I find it; I buy it. I like to know that I am the one who got it. For me, it's the power I feel when I buy. I am a big impulse shopper. I like to buy, not to think about it."
The consumer's feelings often may have more to do with the act of purchasing than with the object that the shopper buys.