Musings at the mall

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I can't believe how much I learn from a visit to the mall sometimes. About people, shopping and me. Here's a list of some of the things I learned or that happened when I went to my local mall recently.

First, the reason I was there. A cousin of mine has recently become engaged (congratulations C!) and was holding a celebratory 'garden party'. Having bought my fill of summer clothes, I'd decided I was going to do some compacting. I had a perfectly good dress I'd worn to my sister's wedding in October, a gorgeous grey jersey dress with very wide, short sleeves, a high gathered waist and above-the-knee pencil style skirt. I'd wear the dress again, I thought, with a newish long-sleeved black top underneath -- only a tiny fraction of the people there would have seen me in it.

But I was defeated by the bureau of meteorology. It was going to be a sultry 29 degrees. The dress's material would be all wrong, and it just doesn't look right without something long-sleeved underneath. So, despite being an Inspired Shopper, I did a last minute rush out to the mall the day before, hunting, as usual, for a bargain.

My shopping was much more dispiriting than usual -- trying on dresses that looked awful or that I had trouble even getting into. But eventually I found my bargain -- a $40 Witchery dress down from $130. It was black, peasant-style and casual, so I planned to dress it up with a bright necklace. And as my sisters assured me, I'd 'get a lot of wear out of it'.

This experience made me think about compacting. As well as the initial aim, it requires planning -- much more than I'd been prepared to do. I'd also forgotten about the perils of last minute shopping -- although it was fun to finally hunt down my 'prey', I wondered at the time whether I'd still be running around the following morning looking for something.

Other things I learned:

I rarely go 'late night shopping' on Friday nights any more -- but this was one of the fun things in my childhood. When the then much smaller 'Chaddy' -- now 'the largest mall in the southern hemisphere'(by sales volume rather than size) -- first introduced late night shopping, my family and I would often wander round the centre on a Friday night, ending with a visit to the doughnut shop, my sisters eating them in the car on the way home. The only trouble was, I hated (still do!) doughnuts. Parking my car I had a sudden memory of those Friday evenings.

I still experienced a bit of Inspired Shopping magic. A book I'd been thinking about getting from the library -- The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers -- 'appeared' in a bookshop for $3, complete with accompanying short stories. Synchronicity at its best.

Last but not least, the toilets at Chadstone shopping centre have automatic flushing. Melbourne is in the midst of a drought and I was appalled by the waste of water! The toilet actually flushed twice while I was in the cubicle -- I tried not to take it personally. I was gobsmacked at the hypocrisy -- Chadstone has recently announced its efforts to be more environmentally friendly.

But this weird state of affairs also sent me off into a meditation about the kind of society that needs self-flushing toilets. Supposedly we are more selfish than ever before, and we're also encouraged to be more self-reliant. However, this has led to a state where we're losing our sense of social rules and customs to keep the public, communal sphere in order -- we don't have time, it seems, to create reciprocal communities where people know the social expectations and carry them out.

Yet, while we're encouraged to be selfish, it's selflessness that is required to teach tomorrow's citizens basic skills -- like how to keep public toilets clean! (Of course, not flushing 'number ones' for environmental reasons is perfectly OK, an aim that these self-flushing toilets also defeat.) Selflessness still exists of course, but it's highly unfashionable. I'm not blaming working parents here, but the relentless march of materialism and the changes wrought by 'economic rationalism'.

All that from a visit to the mall on Friday evening!
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In search of better sound

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Yesterday a good friend rang me for some advice. He was thinking of taking the plunge and buying a new CD player. There was nothing technically wrong with the one he had, so he wanted to make sure he was making the right decision.

My friend -- let's call him Simon -- is a music and film buff. His entire system, including television screen, cost him more than $40,000. But he doesn't spend for status reasons: he wants the best in screen and music quality so that he can enjoy his CDs, which range from classical to rock, some in superaudio, and his extensive DVD collection. Whenever I'm over at his place, I can see the joy he receives from superb colour on his screen and a clear, true sound.

Simon's been unhappy with the sound of his CDs for a while and, an electronics engineer by profession, recently made some changes to the set-up to improve the sound. But he still felt it wasn't right. So he started checking out other CD players, and found one on the Internet for $1700 that according to some reviewers was the best available for under $3000. It also had many features that really appealed to him. I have no doubt at all about his ability to do effective research on this issue! So why had he rung me?

For a start, he wanted a sounding board. It's a great idea to discuss a potential large purchase with someone you know well. Even talking about it can give you clarity about where you are in the decision-making process, and the issues that may be holding things up.

As well, many music buffs constantly chase the holy grail of perfect sound quality, spending ever-larger sums to obtain just the right sound. Someone with a $3000 player might soon begin to crave one worth $5000, but the owner of a $5000 one might, after a while, wish he or she had splurged on the $10 000 one (these increments represent what buyers have to pay to get an appreciable difference in quality). Simon wanted to avoid this trap.

The other problem Simon had was that before buying, he wouldn't be able to tell for sure if a new player would configure well on his existing system. The only way of knowing was to get the thing home and set it up. He really would have liked to borrow his favoured model from a store, set it up at home and then return it if it wasn't right.

I listened to what he had to say and after a while told him that I thought he had already made up his mind -- that he was just about ready to buy. I also know him well enough to know that, as he'd been unhappy with his cheaper CD player for a while, he probably wasn't going to be happy until he'd bought this new one. But I was worried that he was chasing the holy grail and would soon be craving a $5000 player -- so I initially found myself suggesting he go for the $5000 one upfront, skipping a stage in his consumer craving, despite all my Inspired Shopping principles. But he assured me that he would be happy if the sound was 'right' -- for him, it wasn't about chasing absolute perfection.

Finally, I gave him some advice. 'You have all the necessary information. There's nothing more your rational mind can do. Intuition is great when there are unknowns that you can't be sure of. It can help you work out if you're making a good decision.'

I suggested that he write down two things on a piece of paper: 'Buy x brand CD player' on the top of the page, and underneath it 'Don't buy new player -- get used to existing one'. I suggested that he put tick boxes next to these two alternatives. He could then tick each box, one at a time, each time noting how it made him feel by tapping into his body and its reactions. I also suggested that he then close his eyes and do a short meditation to see if any ideas or intimations came up.

I rang Simon the next day and he had already ordered the new player! I asked him how he felt about his decision. He said that he felt great about it, but was now hanging out for the new player to arrive.

What do you think about Simon's decision? Have you confronted a similar dilemma, and if so, how did you solve it?

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Staying Mindful at Sale Time


I love sales, I'm not ashamed to admit. And I rarely come home emptyhanded when I go to one (although I'm always prepared to). But sales have certain dangers, and this was beautifully illustrated in an article (aptly titled 'War'!) published recently in The Age newspaper by fashion writer Janice Breen Burns.

Breen alerted readers to a major trap that can beset the bargain hunter. On a shopping trip with her daughter, she bought her a pair of jeans that she assumed were $50 off the original price. After she'd checked her credit slip and gone back to the store to correct the 'mistake' she thought the sales assistant had made, she was told that the pile from which her daughter had selected the jeans weren't on sale -- although they were next to a series of piles of jeans that were all $50 off. Sneaky to say the least.

A similar thing happened when she made a bulk purchase of her favourite undies, lured by a red 'Sale' sign that seemed to indicate they were less than half-price. You guessed it -- not a cent off.

There are a couple of lessons here. Sometimes when we're at a busy mall or a shopping strip full of stores having sales, we go into a kind of fog of consumer delight. That's exactly what the stores want us to do -- the store window displays, layouts, smell, fittings and signage are all designed to encourage us to spend. The red sale signs are particularly powerful, and there's something very primeval about bargain hunting.

But there are two things that can help you avoid disaster. The first is not letting the fog swallow you up -- staying aware of what's going on for you, even if it's just acknowledging that you're salivating at the thought of that shiny black sleeveless top that has a whole $20 slashed of it, and choosing to slow down a bit in your decision making. This is mindfulness.

The second is listening to that 'still small voice' -- your intuition. Mindfulness can help you go slowly enough to do that. Have you ever been about to race into a changing room or to a counter with your booty, yet you felt something wasn't quite right? You felt uncomfortable and you couldn't identify why. It may have been that the clothes item (or whatever else you were purchasing) just wasn't right for you. It may have been that the store's price signs were misleading and you were about to be duped. Or it may have been even more straightforward than that -- you simply couldn't afford to buy the item. Listen to that inner voice -- it may be irritating but believe me, it's your friend!
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