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As a child growing up in Dallas with a grandmother who'd happily own five things so long as they all had a Neiman Marcus label stitched inside — the ladies in the bridal department fawning over her as she bought her wedding dress there circa 1950 was an oft-told anecdote — I was all too familiar with the thud of the store's legendary Christmas catalog hitting the coffee table. Year after year I'd greedily pore over it, marveling at the luxurious baubles and one-of-a-kind experiences advertised inside, knowing full well that, despite her eye for expensive items, Grandma would still be filling my stocking with a half-dozen oranges and not, say, jewel-encrusted Fabergé eggs or a voucher for a custom song written by a classic rock star. Still, I considered it a delicious thrill to flip through those glossy pages, and to this day I wonder about the people who did use them for actual gift ideas and not sheer retail fantasy, nor more real to me than Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.
I'm not alone. Each year, the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book — currently featuring a 30.86-carat diamond ring and a $235,000 ski trip with Olympian Lindsey Vonn among its "fantasy gifts" — and other splashy gift guides continue to dazzle shoppers with their curated mix of covetable, and typically costly, items. Scott Rick, a behavioral scientist and associate professor of marketing at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, attributes their popularity to the "novelty of seeing new things and learning about what's out there."
Rick explains that catalogs and gift guides are, in a way, homework for shoppers. Part of the draw is the ability to familiarize ourselves with products we might have never known we wanted or needed — or indeed even existed, like, for example, a "Hug Coat" or monthly mystery-solving subscription, both listed among Goop's "ridiculous but awesome" gift suggestions.
"You just become a better consumer if you can see a bigger range of stuff," he tells Yahoo Life. "You just become more [of an] expert; even if you can't afford it, you're learning: 'Oh, well here's what is valuable and here's things that are high-quality.' I think it's fun to kind of hone your consuming skills."
There's also what Rick calls the "pleasures of fantasy and daydreaming." While luxury gift guides are often criticized for being both out of reach and out of touch — it's hard to imagine someone not in the 1 percent splashing out on a Circu gold-plated playset costing nearly $40K and, according to Goop, channeling "rich mom energy" — there is sometimes a "plausible fantasy" that could theoretically be fulfilled. Goop's gift guide, for instance, includes items priced under $100, and while parking a $285,000 special-edition Hummer under the Christmas tree is inconceivable for most, buying a loved one something else from the Neiman Marcus Christmas Book, in which prices start at $14, is less so.
"You can imagine a path to shopping there," Rick says of the department store. "A lot of people can imagine, 'Oh, if one or two things pan out, maybe I can have a holiday season where I'm shopping there.'"
It's a "stretch goal," he says — something that may be out of reach for the moment, but potentially possible down the road. The desire to own something may inspire a shopper to save up, or find a more affordable version of thing they covet, for example.
"People get a catalog in the mail — or you get an email from the company — that might suggest that this is within your grasp," Rick says. "You're a relevant person here. So plausible fantasies are really a nice escape simulating these better, possibly achievable realities; it's like a virtual reality experience. People are pretty hopeful in general, and we're good at thinking that the future will be better than the past and that everything's always on an upswing."
Amit Kumar, Ph.D., assistant professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, adds that "anticipation" can also be a powerful motivator for consumers — the prospect of owning something, seeing a loved one's eyes light up when they receive their gift, savoring the item or experience in question. Gift guides spark those scenarios to play out in our heads, and it's perhaps no coincidence that it's the experiences featured within — $395,000 to attend an exclusive Roaring '20s-themed party in New York City, a ride in an aquatic "eco-luxe suite" — that are oftentimes more memorable than the material products; Kumar points to research which finds that experiential purchases tend to be more enjoyable than tangible possessions.
"Consumers derive more satisfaction from their experiential purchases — so, travel to places, meals out, tickets to sporting events or theater performances — than they do from material purchases like clothing or jewelry or furniture or electronic gadgets and so on," Kumar tells Yahoo Life, adding that it's those kind of experiences that offer more anticipatory pleasure — planning a trip, for example, or looking at a restaurant's menu and deciding what to order before a reservation.
"These experiences don't just make us happy when we're experiencing them or when we tell stories about them after the fact, but even before we might hop on a plane or put on our hiking gear or what have you," he explains.
Behavioral scientists refer to this as "savoring your future consumption," Kumar says, noting that experiences also have a strong storytelling benefit.
"People are happier when they sort of reflect on past experiences they've bought, whether they're the trips they've taken, or events they've attended, or the meals they've eaten, than when they reflect on significant material goods that they've purchased," he says.
In other words, if you have to choose between a diamond the size of a baby's fist or an A-list ski trip, the latter is the better buy. But Kumar adds the reassurance that these benefits still hold regardless of price; seeing a beloved band at your local bar or going camping is likely to be more rewarding than spending the money on a material possession.
But it's important to acknowledge that this material consumption can come off as negative, not aspirational, for many. Just as one person may see a photo of a size 4 supermodel as inspiration, while another sees it as toxic and triggering, goods that feel too hopelessly Lifestyle of the Rich and Famous and out of reach could make a consumer feel "miserable," Rick notes. In that case, setting social media filters or email settings to weed out certain content or shopping alerts may be beneficial.
"When are these lists going to bring people joy, and when are they going to make people feel kind of peeved of how expensive things are — how other people can buy these things that they can't buy?" muses Kumar. "I think a big lesson is: If these are items that are gonna help foster your social relationships in some way, you're probably going to derive some positive benefit from them. If instead they lead you to engage in problematic social comparisons, then they are less likely to bring you that sort of benefit. And these dissuading comparisons are more likely to emerge for material things that people might be thinking about buying."
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