Retail Therapy

hanukkah gelt

Hanukkah gelt and a dreidl. That's about it for our kids. Makes holiday shopping easy.

There’s a lot of speculation in the news lately about the upcoming holiday shopping season. Will it be a bust again this year, or will it be a boon for retailers and signal an upswing in our recession economy? I feel a little guilty that I am not going to be doing my part to help out, but Christmas shopping is just not an activity I engage in. And to my kids’ chagrin, Christmas shopping does not translate into Hanukkah shopping, either. We don’t go for the whole eight presents – one for each night – thing. We are traditional and practical. Gelt is what we give – the chocolate kind and the kind that can be banked for emergency use in case of future stock and real estate market meltdowns (tfu, tfu, tfu).

But to tell you the truth, regardless of the season, I am really not much of a shopper. It seems that the shopping gene is not as hearty in our family line as the one for green thumbed-ness. I can already see that our youngest son is carrying on our family’s male dominated gardening tradition, but the hereditary predilection for whiling away the hours at the mall inexplicably ended with my mother. On my mother’s side of the family, there is compelling evidence (just venture into my mom’s closet and see for yourself) for the existence of an inherited trait shared by females. I don’t know what its genotype looks like, but phenotypically it manifests itself as an extreme attraction to retail establishments, especially those specializing in fashion. An attendant symptom is the compulsion to open one’s wallet and hand over its contents. The “ka-ching!” of the cash register (is that even still a relatable image?) has been as much of a therapeutic sound for my female ancestors as it has been for the shopkeepers who happily took their money.


1930's women's shoes. My great-grandmother had many pairs.

My great-grandmother and grandmother are probably looking down on my sister and me, shaking their heads in confusion and disappointment. “What went wrong?” my grandmother would ask. “I loved to shop, especially for clothes. And when I wasn’t shopping, I was pouring over Vogue and talking incessantly about the latest styles.” “I can’t believe those girls, would you take a look at what they are wearing on their feet?” my great-grandmother would add in horror. “Okay, well I admit that some said I went a little overboard with my shoe shopping, but at least I had taste.”

Thank God they are not around to know that my sister and I have only sons – no daughters, making strong the likelihood that the shopping gene will evolve all together out of our line. But, there are signs that it may not die out completely. My brother’s little girls wear the cutest outfits…though that may more of an indication of their mother’s fashionable influence than anything coming from our side. Also, my middle son is rather discerning and particular when it comes to his clothes, so there remains the possibility that the trait just skipped a generation and is alive and well on the Y chromosome.

But if you think that I do not like to visit stores, you are totally wrong. I never said I didn’t like stores. I just don’t like shopping with all its attendant trying things on and debating between this style and that color. If I must buy something, I devise my gameplay well in advance and with much thought. I enter the store…take a sweeping glance around…zero in on the item I need and like…try it on (if I must)…pay for it…and make a clean and quick getaway. All in the shortest amount of time possible.

Fish & Hook - Cartoon 1_0I know it may sound weird then, when I say that I like the aesthetics of the shopping experience. I am attracted to the feelings of comfort, possibility, and even make-believe offered by stores. Retailers really don’t get the return on their investment when it comes to consumers like me. I willingly let myself get reeled in by the deliberate design, the artificial atmosphere and manipulated ambiance, and then…I wiggle myself free from the hook. I am one of those slippery fish who like to swim around in the alluring waters but who don’t usually take the bait.

I know this poses a problem for my Jewish conscience. You see, window shopping, practically a national pastime – especially during an economy like the one we have now – is not so kosher according to Jewish teachings. There exists the mitzvah concept of hona’at devarim, which translates as showing sensitivity – including in matters of business and consumerism. In Exodus 22:20, it says, “Just as it is wrong to cause someone to suffer in business, it is also wrong to make someone suffer with words. One should not say, ‘How much does this item cost?’ if he does not mean to purchase it.”


Window shopping wasn't invented yesterday, or even in the mid-20th century. Ancient Jewish texts have something to say about it.

So, how do I deal with this? In two ways. First, I try to avoid lingering in or even in front of a store I really don’t need to be in and letting myself get engaged in a conversation with a salesperson (no easy task given how quickly they usually pounce on you). On occasions when this approach fails, I usually end up buying something out of a sense of (halakhic Jewish) guilt. Then I repeatedly kick myself every time I see the thing lying there, unused or unworn, on the shelf or in the closet at home,.

Second, and more successfully, I strategically choose specific retail establishments in which to spend my limited time. These stores are practically self-selecting based on either what I really need to buy (like food, if I don’t want my family to go hungry), or what I really like to do (reading, for instance …buying lots of books is probably my only shopping vice, but can you really call it a vice when it goes with the territory when you are a Jewish educator?). That way, I end up somewhere where I have to spend money or I can while away the hours (okay, maybe more like minutes given my schedule) without feeling like I have committed a sin, or at least not flagrantly and flauntingly defied a Jewish teaching.

trader joe's hawaiian shirts

It's always a party - or luau - over at Trader Joe's.

So, now that you are privy to my convoluted philosophy of shopping and quirky definition of retail therapy,  you are probably wondering which stores are at the top of my list. Well, I have to say that those Hawaiian shirted people at Trader Joe’s really make grocery shopping a fun experience. I never thought I would get over having to leave Fairway behind, but products by Trader Joe and his multi-ethnic alter egos like Trader Jose, Trader Giotto and Trader Ming  have proven very attractive and tasty (and relatively easy on the family budget). Only at this super-friendly store would Bob the checkout guy take the time to kibbitz with my youngest son and indulge his request to help scan and pack our groceries.

I feel whole and healthy the minute I step into Whole Foods. But I know better than to spend the whole day, or even a whole hour in there lest I end up spending my whole paycheck. I make a bee line to the few items I can find only at this store, practically leave the money on the register, and run back out to my car to avoid being sucked into all that expensive wholesomeness.

bookstore interior3

Better not to pull back the curtain.

It goes without saying that I love book stores. They are just magical and make me feel all happy inside. I will let you know, though, that my bubble was burst when my next door neighbor back in New York let me in on a trade secret. She worked for a marketing and design company that guided stores on how to set up their interiors in order to maximize profits. It was all about the flow of customer traffic, apparently. My neighbor worked on the Barnes & Noble account. As soon as she started explaining to me in detail how she advised B&N to set up displays and change aspects of the store layout for each holiday season, I knew it was too late. Curiosity killed the cat. That happy feeling has not completely gone away, but now I see through the veil every time I walk into a big chain book store; my innocent book store bliss can never be completely restored.


Target's new store brand.

Target has been a favorite destination since moving out here to California. Unlike other big box stores, I can stand to spend time in the slightly more classy Tar-get (you know, there’s a reason people pronounce the store’s name in the correct, French manner). I especially like their newly designed store brand logo and packaging. The possibilities are endless when you buy Up & Up.

DK book

Is it just me, or is there a similarity in style and design?

Maybe it’s just me, but this new design looks more European. And European signals sophistication, right? It could be that as a parent and educator, I have been around too many Dorling Kindersley children’s reference books (a favorite publisher, headquartered in – where else with a name like that –  London), causing me to see echoes of their distinctive design in the new Target branding.

I like to spend time in all these stores, but there is only one that I could literally see myself moving into. Shopping at IKEA is like visiting Sweden, or so the company would like me to think. I stand there and imagine the store being extra-territorial, a little slice of peaceful Stockholm right here just off Highway 101 in crime-ridden East Palo Alto. I see those model showrooms – complete apartments set up right there in the store – and want to just step in, forgetting my troubles, and passing effortlessly into an alternate existence where all that DIY furniture is already put together for me (just too bad the plumbing is not really connected)…at least for the few minutes before I am snapped back to reality by one if my kids shouting to me, “Imma, come look at this!  Wouldn’t this look great in my room? Can we get one?”

If only I had the chutzpah this guy has:

© 2009 Renee Ghert-Zand. All rights reserved.


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