A few years ago, when online retailers began requiring an e-mail address with every purchase, I thought I'd outsmart them by creating a separate account just for shopping. By corralling unwanted come-ons, I naively predicted, I'd keep my real in-box pristine and gain the upper hand in the psychoeconomic battle over what, when, and where to buy.
This holiday season, the ekinneys experiment is exploding in my face.
In less than a month, more than 1,200 e-mails have flown into the account. Electronic suitors dangle free shipping and 20 percent off everything so often, it's impossible to ascertain what anything should cost or whether any deal is real.
Old Navy and Lands' End send two e-mails a day, each urgent "hours left!!!!" warning more bogus than the last. Boscov's treats me like family, offering "secret extra discounts" just for buying one outfit for my 91-year-old granny.
Even gourmands spam. While I adore the honey and lavender confections from Philadelphia artisan chocolatier John & Kira's, I could do without twice-weekly pleas to surrender wallet and waistline.
"There are a lot more promotions this year," confirms Wharton School marketing professor Z. John Zhang, who has made a career of analyzing targeted pricing, the academic name for consumer agony.
So, I ask Zhang, how does a truly informed consumer shop?
"I don't," he says, laughing. Knowing what he knows, "I don't feel good about buying anything."
Online holiday spending rose 12 percent this year, and the $1 billion Cyber Monday broke retailing records. Though free shipping sealed many deals, Zhang says he believes ultra-aggressive retailers ultimately suffer for their sins.
"When everyone does promotion in a very intense way, collectively, you basically encourage people to look around," he explains. "That causes you to delay purchases. Literally, you could shop till you drop just trying to find the right price."
That, of course, is impossible. Online retailers routinely alter prices based on what they've gleaned about the would-be buyer from her Web trolling and past purchases.
"The people setting the prices don't even know what the prices should be," adds fellow Wharton retailing expert Stephen Hoch.
The only irrefutable truth in advertising? That the more stores bombard customers with what Hoch dubs "irrelevant exhortations," the greater the likelihood that buyers simply "tune it out."
Paradox of choice
When Swarthmore psychology professor Barry Schwartz wrote The Paradox of Choice, he never imagined a book analyzing human nature would land him speaking gigs with business groups.
But when he did a TV interview at the King of Prussia malls two days before Christmas years ago, Schwartz had an epiphany: If too many options tend to paralyze people, then shopping has become a crippling pastime.
"All they had to do was turn on the damn camera," he recalls. "Everybody in that mall was tortured, exhausted, and confused."
The smartest shoppers, it turns out, grow most miserable. The more research you do, "the more each option suffers in comparison," Schwartz says.
On cue, I begin confessing to second-guessing just about everything I've bought for Christmas. Schwartz reassures me with a tale of his own e-commerce shame.
"No one decides to spend three hours looking for a toaster online," he shares. "You decide to give it one more minute. And one more minute becomes three hours."
Schwartz thinks boycotting holiday gift-giving would improve the collective psyche by 20 percent, but we both know that's not practical and would kill the economy.
Zhang, the reluctant shopper, may have the best strategy for surviving the next two weeks.
"I always wait until Dec. 24," he shares. "If I like it, I buy it. Don't look around."