What’s in YOUR basket?

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I have a theory that check-out clerks know a lot about people. And they don’t have to read tea leaves to do it. That long receipt tape curling out of their cash register tells them plenty.

The check-out clerk is usually the second person to know a baby is on the way – the first being the woman who’s buying a home pregnancy test to confirm what her morning-sick belly already knows.

Clerks also know who bakes from scratch and who pretends to. They know who needs a tube of Preparation H. They know who throws a copy of National Enquirer onto the conveyor belt at the last minute. They even know who indulges in less-than-nutritious cereal and tries to balance it out by buying an extra bag of lettuce. (Captain Crunch and I have been having a late-night love affair behind my diet’s back for years now.)

What we buy says a lot about us. And what we buy over and over again may be the most telling. Not long ago my mother and I went shopping and wandered into an aisle with new dishes. We both stood there a long time, gazing lovingly at dishes we do not need.

“I could buy dishes every single day, if I could,” I said as I admired the rows of colorful plates and bowls on display.

“Me, too,” Mom said. “I’ve always loved dishes.”

But we love dishes for different reasons. She is an excellent cook so the love of new dishes makes sense. I, on the other hand, would rather clean the kitchen than cook in it, so, for me, the new dishes are more like little pieces of art – their vibrant colors stacking next to each other in the cabinet.

To test my check-out clerk theory, I made a short list of the other things I would absolutely buy every day – if money, time, common sense and storage space weren’t an issue. Here’s what made the list in addition to pretty dishes: pajamas, school supplies, cosmetics, and storage containers.

What does that list say about me? I’d say it means I’m a nerdy, comfort-loving homebody who loves the idea of being super organized, even when she’s not, and who has high hopes that the next tube of lipstick will be the perfect mixture of pink and coral. And that’s a pretty accurate description – my shopping basket knows me well.

For decades, marketers have been trying to find out why we buy the things we do. Why do certain products call to us over and over again while others leave us cold? According to an article in Scientific American magazine, a researcher at Atlanta’s Emory University did an experiment in 2003 in which he asked people to look at different consumer goods and rank them according to which ones appealed to them most.

Then the researcher put each volunteer through an MRI scanner and once again showed them the same products, while the MRI kept track of the volunteers’ brain activity. The common link was that when people saw a product they really liked, blood rushed to an area at the front of their brain – the “medial prefrontal cortex” lit up like a Christmas tree (or a busy cash register). And that particular part of the brain is the part that decides who we are and how we see ourselves.

So when certain products make us do the “happy dance” in our heart of hearts, it’s because those products fit into the carefully designed image of who we think we are.

Gives whole new meaning to the phrase “head rush,” doesn’t it? Happy shopping.

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