As a resident of rural central Iowa, I often visit Ames and Des Moines for shopping purposes, with Ames being somewhat more convenient for my family. I have a strong grasp on the different shopping options in Ames and take advantage of various grocers for various things – we go to Aldi and Sam’s Club frequently, and to the local food co-op for some esoteric items.
A few days ago, I was driving through town with my three children and they spotted a new store opening up – Fresh Thyme. For those unfamiliar, Fresh Thyme is a grocery store chain that seems to aim to be something of a hybrid between Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods – I think of it as Trader Joe’s if Trader Joe’s sold more natural and organic foods, but at least attempted to keep the prices relatively low.
My kids read the sign out loud and asked what it was, and I described it to them, as I’ve visited one in the past. Then, they immediately wanted to know when it would open and whether we would go there.
The thing is, I wanted to go, too, but I really couldn’t explain why.
(Please note that everything I say below is not a knock on Fresh Thyme, which is a perfectly good store. I have visited other locations of the store in the past and enjoyed those visits, and my comments below have more to do with my perception of their competition than Fresh Thyme themselves.)
There’s not really much they could sell that I don’t already have access to at a good price. Between the other grocery options in town, I can already find virtually every food item I could want except for a pretty small handful of obscure things that I’ve failed to acquire over the last several years – and those are available if I make the longer drive to Des Moines. I really doubt that this store is going to carry those rare items anyway, given its size.
While the prices of the chain will be solid, the only area where they might compete price-wise is against the food co-op and perhaps against the more expensive primary grocer in town, Hy-Vee. Based on my experience, I can’t imagine competing against Fareway and Aldi and Sam’s Club on price for most things.
It’s also a chain store. It’s not a locally-owned business. I’m not helping the local community nearly as much as if I spent my premium food dollars at the local co-op, which is locally owned and operated and makes a point to stock as much stuff from the local area and the state as possible.
Furthermore, the simple act of going into a store without a purpose in mind opens up a very large chance of wasteful spending. I’m going into a place that’s trying to sell me stuff when I don’t really need anything, and I’m going in there by choice.
Yet, even knowing all of that, I still have this desire to go there and check out this new store when it opens.
I understand why I want to do this. It’s that basic human interest in the new experience. Suddenly, there’s a new option available. Let’s check it out.
Yet, consciously, I’m aware that there’s little chance I will find something there that I want to buy and use.
In other words, I have this strong unconscious desire that makes little sense when I consciously evaluate it, yet that desire persists.
Honestly, it’s the same reason so many people want the latest smartphone, even though it really doesn’t do anything much different than what they already have. Another quarter-inch of screen space and a “rounded bevel” isn’t going to add up to a life-altering change.
Is this kind of desire triggered by a consistent desire for something new? I was curious about that angle, so I did some research and came upon this article entitled Why Getting New Things Makes Us Feel Good. Bear with a bit of the ol’ neuroscience here:
There’s a region in our midbrain called the substantia nigra/ventral segmental area or SN/VTA. This is essentially the major “novelty center” of the brain, which responds to novel stimuli.
The SN/VTA is closely linked to areas of the brain called the hippocampus and the amygdala, both of which play large roles in learning and memory. The hippocampus compares stimuli against existing memories, while the amygdala responds to emotional stimuli and strengthens associated long-term memories.
It’s been thought before that novelty was a reward in itself, but, like dopamine, it seems to be more related to motivation.
Researchers Bunzeck and Düzel tested people with an “oddball” experiment that used fMRI imaging to see how their brains reacted to novelty. They showed the subjects images such as indoor and outdoor scenes and faces with occasional novel images (oddballs) thrown in.
The experiment found that the SN/VTA was activated by novel images—that is, brand new images that hadn’t been seen before. Images that only slightly deviated from more familiar ones didn’t have the same effect, and neither did images with strongly negative emotional context such as car crashes or angry faces.
In other words, that desire to go to the new store isn’t a rational one, it’s a deep biological one, triggered deep in the SN/VTA region in our brains. When our brains see something new, we are biologically motivated to want to learn more about it.
Translate that to my family driving by the new store: we see a new store opening up, all of us have our SN/VTA regions activated in our brains, and we all want to go check out that new store (or at least know more about it, but it’s a store, so it’s not potentially scary and thus we want to go check it out).
It’s the same reason that going on vacation to a new place is so exciting, albeit on a smaller level. When we go to new places, the SN/VTA region of our brains is working overtime, encouraging us to check out all the new stuff.
Again, a biological response is working inside of us, nudging us toward what might not be the wisest financial move. So, what can we do about it?
The first and most useful thing is to be aware of it. That strong impulse you have to go to the new store? It’s not a rational one. It’s a biological one, the same impulse your ancestors had when they saw a new food source or a new trader’s wagon rolling across the prairie. You are wired to be attracted to the new thing and to want to check it out.
Of course, if you follow from that, just because you are wired to be attracted to something doesn’t mean you have to dive into it. Sure, it’s an attractive impulse, but it’s just that. You don’t have to follow up on it. It’s just your deep mind alerting you to something new and getting excited about it.
Instead, give it a bit of rational thought outside of the heat of the moment. If Fresh Thyme had been open, I probably would have been pulled by my SN/VTA to go right into the parking lot and right into the store, but because I waited and left the situation and thought about it later, I began to realize that the store wasn’t really that big of a deal. I don’t need to go there; in fact, there’s likely little I would buy there that isn’t found elsewhere.
If you do decide to go later on, go with a purpose. If you’re going to a grocery store (like Fresh Thyme), go with a list of items that you might buy there with the intent of comparing prices. If you’re going to a clothing store, do your homework first, know what they specialize in, and go there with the intent of hitting their sales and specialties. If you’re going to an outdoor store, go there with the intent of checking out a specific outdoor product that you already intend to purchase and use that time to examine the product and figure out if the price is right for you.
You get the idea. That pattern follows for almost any new store you might go to, because almost any new store is going to be selling similar things in comparison to other stores in the area and online.
So, will I go to Fresh Thyme when it opens? Sure. But I’ll go there with a few specific items in mind to buy and I’ll use that opportunity to price check some of the items I might buy there and examine the quality of their produce. I won’t walk in there just because it’s the new place to go.
In other words, I’ll let my SN/VTA have a turn at running the show in my brain, but only after I prepare for it a little.