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Heeding the Call--to Spend

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

During World War I, Americans on the home front were called upon to spend money on liberty bonds. During World War II, they were urged to conserve food by planting victory gardens. But in the nation’s current crisis, President George W. Bush is enjoining Americans to make the ultimate sacrifice ... buy that $350 top-stitched leather blazer from Banana Republic. Go ahead, buy it!

Many are heeding the call to the cash register. At Century City Shopping Center on a recent afternoon, Carol Pucci, who works in hotel management, said she’d already finished a quarter of her holiday shopping. “We need to put more money into the economy now,” said the Marina del Rey resident, balancing a shopping bag and garment bag, while trying to stuff cash into her wallet in front of an ATM.

At Harari on Santa Monica’s Montana Avenue, Kathy Wax, 41, of Pacific Palisades was hoping to find things she liked because “you don’t have to feel guilty about shopping these days, ‘cause you are helping the economy by doing it.”

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For some, buying has even become a way to thumb their noses at terrorists. Erin O'Neill, 26, an artist’s assistant from Santa Monica, has just bought a Venetian mirror. “I don’t want to let them depress me,” she said. “I am gonna shop. We’ve seen such greatness come out of this--the police, the firemen, the families of victims--and I think that becoming fearful is not good. For the terrorists, that’s a win.”

For past generations, conspicuous spending was antithetical to the idea of war. But in this age of excess, shopping is being cast as a patriotic act along with waving the flag and donating blood. Instead of issuing a rallying cry to conserve, politicians are urging the public to consume. Boosting the lagging economy has become the preeminent cause on the home front.

Economic times were tough even before Sept. 11. But now that terrorist attacks have left many Americans uneasy about the future, financial experts have predicted the economy could grow even more sluggish. In September, retailers reported sales dips ranging from 10% to 60%. Stores are fighting back by cutting prices and offering discounts and promotions.

Former President Bill Clinton dropped a wad at New York’s NBA store, hoping his fellow Americans would follow suit. Even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals is cooperating: For this year’s holiday anti-fur campaign, members dressed as beaver and raccoon mascots won’t try to bar shoppers from entering department stores as they have in years past. Instead, they’ll hold signs saying “Hello Shopping, Goodbye Cruelty.”

But not everyone is willing to rally ‘round retail. As she browsed the half-off bras at Victoria’s Secret, grad student Allison Cohen, 24, said, “I think it’s good-hearted, but if people don’t have money, they don’t have money. [Bush] seems out of touch.”

And some Angelenos haven’t even heard the call. “I didn’t even know Bush said that,” said actress Jenna Elfman, trying on a pair of Keds booties at Bloomingdale’s on a recent afternoon. “But I have been shopping like crazy lately, so I guess America can thank me!”

Bagging a new pair of boots is hardly the supreme sacrifice that pundits had predicted would be in store for this untested generation. “But sometimes superficial activity is profound activity,” said Simon Doonan, who is a columnist for the New York Observer and creative director of Barneys. Doonan said he has bought a Costume National jacket and three pairs of Dolce & Gabbana trousers since the terrorist attacks.

Checking out sunglasses at J. Crew, Colleen Devery, 27, a fund-raiser visiting L.A. from New York, said she didn’t think her shopping habits had changed all that much since Sept. 11. “But the economy being on shaky ground is a good rationalization for buying things.”

People love any excuse to shop, according to Paco Underhill, author of “Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping” (Simon & Schuster, 1999). They flock to stores, not only to buy things, but also because they crave community, he said. “If you look at the roots of shopping, it’s as much about being in public as it is about the acquisition of goods. It’s no surprise that after a few days of being at home in front of our TVs, we needed to go out and be with people.”

Shopping, like alcohol and junk food, has its soothing properties, too. “Spending money makes me feel better. It’s a relief,” said John DeGuzman, 19, a restaurant worker who lives in Los Angeles. His haul on a recent shopping trip to Abercrombie & Fitch included cozy sweaters and long-sleeved shirts.

“One of the primary motivators for shopping is emotional gratification,” said Pam Danziger, president of Unity Marketing in Stevens, Pa. Although she doubts the attacks and subsequent economic rallying cries have prompted a spate of militant shopping, people do seem to be shopping differently, she said.

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They are likely to be forgoing big-ticket items such as cars and new refrigerators in favor of small indulgences. It’s little luxuries--blankets, pillows, candles, “lotions, potions and warm fuzzy stuff"--that shoppers want now, said Danziger.

“I thought about painting my condo, but after the attacks I decided not to,” said Marti Melville, examining duck-and bunny-shaped garden ornaments at the Following Sea gift shop in Century City.

Doonan has stockpiled four bottles of his favorite rosemary hair oil. “It gives me a certain nesty, protected feeling,” he said. “Whatever else happens, I’m going to have my hair oiled.”

Americans may not be asked to do anything as drastic as sacrificing their stockings for the military effort, but there is evidence of a war mentality brewing. “Luxuries are more than you need,” said Danziger. “They represent selfishness and ego-gratification that people don’t want to associate themselves with right now.”

Kim France, editor of Lucky, a magazine about shopping, agrees. “I have heard people are having trouble reconciling big purchases. The question is whether there will still be a waiting list for the Balenciaga bag all the fashion people had to have.”

Wary of what lies ahead, shoppers appear to be paying more attention to price. “I might have spent $150 on boots before Sept. 11, but I decided to buy these from Naturalizer for $69, and price was a factor,” said Joanie Shenson, brandishing a Macy’s bag. “It used to be buy now, think later. Now it’s think now, buy later.”

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Times staff writer Bettijane Levine contributed to this story.


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