A Victim of Retail Decision Fatigue

The mission was simple: to buy a spice rack for the pantry. I figured my best shot was at Bed, Bath, and Beyond; a store I had not entered in over a year, much less at Christmastime. (I had a specific size and type in mind, and figured I would need somewhere with lots of choices.) Little did I know that would be the beginning of the end of my productivity for the day. Upon entering, I scanned quickly, looked past the holiday specials, and found the kitchen department. Lo and behold, there were spice racks. And all kinds of other racks. And an embarrassment of choices.

Because I like choices (or thought I did until this particular day), before long, I was nose to nose with shelves and shelves of plastic, rubber, aluminum, and chrome gadgets, doodads, and whatchamacallits for kitchen storage problems I didn’t even know I had. As I searched and searched for the exact product I wanted, my brain had to sort through everything else and cast it aside. More than once, something other than a spice rack caught my eye. At first, I had the wherewithal to ignore them.

As the minutes wore on, though, I was forced to make dozens of little decisions. First decision – does this item look like what I came for? If yes, is it the right size and type? If no, move to next item. As I grew tired of the sorting process, some irrational part of my brain appeared and said, “But….is it something I COULD use? Hmmmm…it looks like very handy and sleek, too, after all….it could make more room in the cabinet maybe?…would it fit in the cabinet?”

“STOP IT,” my Rational brain said. “You are here to get the spice rack. Move on.”

Next item – does this look like it? No, not quite. Then that annoying voice again, “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if my whole kitchen looked like the label on this doodad?”

“STOP IT,” Rational brain says. “You would have to buy every doodad like it in here, which is a) exactly what the label is suggesting you do and b) out of the question. Next item!”
And so it went….for nearly fifteen minutes until I found exactly what I was looking for. By then, the dueling sides of my brain had gone 144 rounds. I was exhausted. But did that stop me from oh, just taking a look around the rest of the store to see if there was anything I couldn’t live without? Nooooooooo. I got to the bath side and wondered what got into me. To check out, I had to walk through the gauntlet of those holiday specials again. I actually stopped and pondered a couple of them.

When I left the store only $8.35 poorer, I felt like Rocky – beat up, but victorious. I needed a nap.

I once heard Dr. Moira Somers talk about the mental energy required to make decisions, particularly ones to avoid temptations. It seems we only have a daily finite amount of mental decisionmaking energy available. After we’ve exhausted our quota, it’s free-for-all shopping, chocolate, nagging, smoking, sleeping, drinking, or whatever your personal favorite temptation happens to be. That annoying irrational voice, which we’d like to believe we can defeat by simply thinking it away, is pretty darn powerful. Some solutions? Get plenty of sleep, be conscious of how many decisions you put in your own way every day, and have someone, or a group, with whom you can share your struggles.

I had never considered a retail organization store to be a threat to my health, but after this, I think even once a year is more than I can handle.

Holly Donaldson

Holly P. Donaldson, CFP® writes and consults on the psychology of money. Her fee-only, product-free financial planning practice focuses on increasing financial self-efficacy for those seeking a financial navigator to help them make good decisions. She is the author of The Mindful Money Mentality: How to Find Balance in Your Financial Future (Porchview Publishing, 2013) and publisher of the award-winning monthly e-letter, "The View From the Porch." With a fully virtual practice in Seminole, Florida, she primarily serves clients located in the Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Clearwater areas. Holly will also work with clients who are a good fit located elsewhere in the United States.

Leave a Reply