I went home the other day and did some casual shopping with my mom at Twelve Oaks Mall in Novi. I don’t know why specifying the location is necessary; all malls are essentially the same. Their purpose is to sell, no matter what the product is. After hundreds of years of studying the psychology of retail salesmanship, it seems retail stores have found effective, albeit brash, ways to sell products. It’s all about the presentation.

I walked into Banana Republic to browse and, just as Mom expertly taught me, went straight to the clearance rack, avoiding all the pretty displays of new arrivals (the full price stuff) arranged in order to pique my interest. But the cunning of retail pervaded the entire store; even the fitting room was deceiving. I went in to try on a shirt and found I liked the way I looked. The lighting from the front and not overhead illuminated my eyes like a model in a photo shoot. It would appear that was intentional, as manipulating the fitting room lighting is an important opportunity for retail stores to close a sale. And if it’s flattering enough, a person might end up buying the item in question. So I tried on the shirt and batted my eyes at my narcissistic reflection, never realizing that Banana Republic had just implanted the desire to buy the t-shirt into my feeble mind.

The concept of retail sales seems to be based almost solely on illusion. When trying on clothes, or even after I have purchased them and taken them home, the question I always have is this: Why can’t a shirt on me look the way it looked on the damn mannequin? Real human beings can’t feasibly pin up a garment in the back to get the desired fitted look — at least not without looking like a jackass. And what about those models presenting the clothes in those pictures above the shelves? There’s no way I’m going to look like that. Association with those faces and bodies is what attracts the buyer. It makes them think they can look that good. Ostensibly, the purpose of advertising is to show the clothes being worn; their style, function and even the lifestyle associated with the clothes. But it’s just illusion. Mannequin displays and model pictures aren’t always realistic. In the end, people end up comparing themselves to these images, and that can lead to unhealthy choices.

After going to a few shops and suffering through places like Pottery Barn and Sephora, Mom and I headed out. I thought we were home free, but one more obstacle stood between us and the exit. The makeup and perfume section was a dizzying labyrinth of bright lights, colorful displays and borderline creepy counter attendants with smiles plastered onto their overly painted faces. Immediately my mind turned to cartoon silliness. There is a parody of the perfume section in an episode of Spongebob Squarepants — work with me here — that is hilarious and almost identical to reality. Spongebob and Patrick try to escape from the Flying Dutchman’s ship through the perfume section. There is a sequence of hands appearing out of nowhere offering samples, slow motion puffs and the two characters gagging and choking. A gas mask would have been useful for passing through that section. I wonder, how can that combination of smells be at all enticing? And the glitz and glamour and special attention of the makeup counter disappear once you leave. When women get home with the makeup, they usually revert back to a more sensible look because they can’t recreate what they saw at the mall.

On my way out, I saw possibly the most heinous item in the entire mall — bedazzled Uggs. What is this world coming to? Everything inside me was screaming in protest of the shoes, but I couldn’t look away. “They’re just so shiny,” I repeated as I brought them to the register. Only after I came home did I realize that I didn’t actually want them.

Nick Bringardner can be reached at njbring@gmail.com.

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