Neither subject interests me much, but the juxtaposition caught my eye over breakfast: A Fashion Identity Crisis at Wal-Mart . It reported on the decline in the chain’s clothes sales and the judgments it needed to make about what kinds of clothes to sell in order to sell more. I’m not picking on Wal-Mart, everyone’s corporate bogey-man; it’s just that the story that caught my eye covered their business.

“With so many shoppers trading down during the recession, Wal-Mart missed an important opportunity to grow its clothing business by giving its shoppers more fashionable everyday apparel,” the WSJ reported,

But sticking to just the most humdrum clothing is a risk for Wal-Mart, too, as it carries lower margins than more fashionable apparel and isn’t as much of a traffic driver or an impulse buy. That is something Wal-Mart could use . . . .

I was struck not just by the chain’s need to encourage impulse buying, but by the fact that the writer assumes, as do probably 99.8% of the readers, that impulse buying is a good thing. But being impulsive is never a good thing.

“She’s so impulsive” is never a compliment. “Impulsive” is never a commendation in a reference. “He follows his impulses” is never something  you want to hear about a future son-in-law. “Poor impulse control” is never a line a parent wants to see in a school report. You do not want someone for whom you are financially responsible to use “impulsive” and “shopping” in the same sentence.

And yet impulse buying is an essential tool in modern sales and apparently a key to the success of companies like Wal-Mart.  They depend upon encouraging people to be what they should not be: not rational creatures who use their resources for ends they’ve chosen after due thought, but creatures of appetite, who take what they want without due thought, including adequate consideration not only of their ends but of the resources they have.

I know the gluttony or lust to which they appeal (I have to stay out of bookstores), and it’s my own fault when I give in to it, but encouraging people to live impulsively, and particularly to spend money impulsively, is wrong. It’s like serving an expensive wine at dinner, perhaps to show off your wine cellar, when most of your guests are alcoholics you know are barely keeping it together. They have free will and can ask for water, but that does not excuse your tempting them. Actually, it’s worse than that: it’s as if you tempted them to drink because you will benefit in some way by their beginning to drink again.

Companies that make money by tempting people to act impulsively aren’t going to change. There’s too much money in it to operate by a high view of man as a rational creature.  The culture in which one just didn’t tempt another like that is long gone, if it ever really existed. (Think of the days when hotels wouldn’t let unmarried people share a room, when now almost any major chain offers a selection of pornography piped straight to your room.)

What we need, maybe, is a campaign for deliberative buying. And a greater use of the disciplines of the spiritual life through which God tames our own impulses and appetites and makes us ever more rational and deliberative creatures.

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