A Closet Filled With Regrets

A Closet Filled With Regrets
You loved it in the store. Now it haunts you from the closet.

You still haven’t worn that item of clothing that seemed perfect in the shop but at home seems so wrong. You can’t bring yourself to get rid of it, though. It’s in a corner of the closet that could be labeled ‘regret.’

The retail industry counts on this and knows that people buy for many more reasons than actually needing something. Sometimes the skirt or shoes were bought on a whim. Other times, a blue mood demands ill-advised retail therapy. Maybe the sale was too good to pass up. Or maybe the outfit was perfect for the thinner, edgier, wealthier person you aspired to become.

‘Generally you like it, but it’s a little tight or a little baggy. And you think ‘Oh well, it’s a minor flaw. It won’t bother me in the long run.’ Then, that turns out to be the very thing that keeps you from wearing it, ‘ says consumer psychologist Miriam Tatzel in Nanuet, N.Y. Other times, ‘You think you might have a use for it in the future, but that day never comes.’

Shoppers can be stuck with more second-thoughts-merchandise now as many retailers toughen their return policies. Many impose shorter deadlines for returns, among other conditions. Most retailers don’t allow returns on items that have been marked down. Also, some shoppers don’t return clothing due to the hassle of making another trip to the store or the hassle of packing and mailing items that were purchased online.

Only about 20% of clothes in the average person’s closet are worn on a regular basis, says Ginny Snook Scott, chief design officer of California Closets, the designer of customized closets and storage spaces. That’s especially the case for women since ‘men tend to wear more of their wardrobe, as they stereotypically have less, ‘ she says. ‘They tend to have less than 10 pairs of shoes that they rotate fairly well, whereas women have four to five times that amount, on average.’

Tara Johnson, a 37-year-old attorney in Webster, N.Y., finds herself with a pair of waxed denim skinny Levi jeans she bought on sale online from Net-a-Porter in November and a pair of strappy gold and black Christian Louboutin heels she bought on sale at Barneys New York in January.

She loved how the jeans looked online and purchased them swiftly. But ‘by the time they got here and I tried them on with other things in my closet, I was like ‘Ehhh, it’s not working, ‘ ‘ she says. ‘Then I started finding reasons why I didn’t like them. They’re too long. I have to wear a certain kind of heel height or get them tailored.’

The jeans still have the tag on. She hasn’t worn the Louboutins. Neither the jeans nor the shoes can be returned.

Nikki Lafferty, a philanthropist in Los Angeles, regrets a silk wrap dress by Roberto Cavalli she splurged on two years ago hanging in her closet that she only wore twice. ‘I have a 4 in front of my age. I’m holding out hope that I will feel sexy one night and have an event to wear it to where I want to look sexy, ‘ she says. That’s not likely to happen, she says, especially as most of her events take place in Washington, D.C., among politicians. ‘It’s not the place to be sexy, ‘ she says.

Two years ago when she and her husband were remodeling their home, she retained Lisa Adams, chief executive of Los Angeles-based LA Closet Design to design her closet and help her better organize. She ended up giving away a few large shopping bags of clothes to charity, including some with the tags on. In March, she called on Ms. Adams again, believing her closet was ‘bursting, ‘ with items causing her second thoughts. After working with Ms. Adams, Ms. Lafferty finally gave away the Cavalli dress.

Shopper’s remorse is different, of course, from compulsive shopping or hoarding. Buzz Bissinger, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ‘Friday Night Lights, ‘ set off a stir online when he chronicled his shopping addiction in an essay in the April issue of GQ entitled ‘My Gucci Addiction.’ He spent $587, 412.97, he wrote, on mostly flashy designer clothing between 2010 and 2012. Mr. Bissinger subsequently sought treatment for his compulsion. ‘I wrote it because it was the only way I knew of coming to terms and getting the help I am now getting, ‘ said Mr. Bissinger in a statement emailed by a GQ spokesman.

A few years ago, when the recession made her anxious, Colette Courtion, founder of a chain of upscale anti-aging skin clinics in the Northwest, went shopping. Some of the clothes still have the tags on. She keeps them as a reminder, she says, ‘to go to yoga instead of shopping.’

Now she shops only when she truly needs something. ‘It’s not for recreation anymore, ‘ she says.

A Post-Purchase Consumer Regret Scale, developed by Seung Hwan Lee and June Cotte at what is now called Western University’s Ivey Business School in Ontario, tracks reasons for shopper’s remorse. Among the causes: fear that choosing an alternative might have worked out better; a change in how important or useful an item seems; a feeling they didn’t put enough thought into their purchase decision; and a suspicion they spent too much time or effort buying something that later doesn’t seem worth the time or effort. The scale was published in a 2009 issue of the journal Advances in Consumer Research.

The conventional wisdom that shoppers regret splurges isn’t true, research found. In fact, shoppers most regretted, over the long term, passing up an indulgence for something practical or less expensive, according to research in the Journal of Marketing Research in 2008 by Ran Kivetz, a professor of marketing at Columbia University Business School, and Anat Keinan, assistant professor of business administration at Harvard Business School.

Michael Fanelli, a 50-year-old construction project manager who lives in New York City, still holds on to a few pairs of patterned pants from high-end label Etro he purchased years ago. When he was shopping, ‘I was looking for something that makes a statement, ‘ he says. ‘I look at them now and it’s ‘what was I thinking?”

Mr. Fanelli owns a lot of shirts with prints and patterns, which made it tough to match with the trousers. He occasionally wears the pants but feels self-conscious whenever he does. He keeps putting them back in his closet in part because they are ‘really nice quality.’

Of all people, Tyler Tervooren, of Portland, Ore., should be able to avoid style risks. The 28-year-old is the founder of Advanced Riskology, an online guide to taking smarter risks in life from mountain climbing to starting a business. When launching his business in 2010, he bought expensive wool sweaters, hoping to impress business associates.

He wore one once. ‘It just wasn’t me. I’m a jeans person, ‘ he says. He finally donated some and sold others at a consignment shop when he moved to a smaller place in 2011.

Now if he sees something in a store he might want, he will wait 10 days, to see if the feeling passes.

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