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During the economic boom of the past decade, many people relaxed their definitions of “need". They upgraded from Timex to Rolex. When the price of Jimmy Choo shoes hit $800 (around Rs40,000), many people said they “needed" the latest shoe anyway.

But as banks go out of business and friends get pink slips, the question “Do I really need it?" has a new resonance. After years of gluttonous shopping, forgoing our wants feels virtuous, like using up leftovers. That’s why many people these days are boasting that they are “shopping" in their closets.

“People are saddled with stuff they don’t need," says Debbie Then, a New York psychologist who studies the beauty and luxury industries. “I think the way people were shopping is over."

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint

So Gail is dialling back her shopping, too. “When I see people around me who are struggling and frightened, it really doesn’t feel like a good time" to shop, she says. “It’s not appropriate."

On Rodeo Drive’s exclusive shopping district, a sales clerk at the Michael Kors boutique told me, “There’s an umbrella of guilt over everyone."

Splurging doesn’t feel as good as it used to. At the Shoe Box, a luxury accessories store on New York’s Upper East Side, a good customer recently bought $3,000 of shoes and boots, says Jessica Denholtz, the store’s buyer. Five minutes later, the woman walked back in the store and returned every last item, saying, “I just can’t do this any more."

Denholtz says the store has had several experiences with shamefaced shoppers like this recently. “People are scared," she says. “Things could go into a depression." I never expected to hear the “D" word applied to my lifetime, although my mother, who was a child during the Great Depression, habitually recycles buttons and sometimes even zippers. But this fall’s economic upheaval has had a powerful effect on consumer behaviour.

As more people economize, it has become cool to pay less rather than more. It’s worth boasting these days about buying faux leather Anya Hindmarch for Target handbags for $30—rather than the $500 versions at Hindmarch’s boutiques. The digital marketing agency Zeta Interactive has measured a distinct increase in the buzz—recorded by the volume of website and blog postings—surrounding discount retail sites. According to Zeta’s research, for instance, discounter BlueFly.com received 25% more buzz in October than in September, while full-priced Netaporter.com received 19% fewer postings on blogs and websites.

Denholtz says the Shoe Box stores in Manhattan, Long Island and Boca Raton, Florida, are selling more MZ Wallace handbags—made largely of nylon and priced at around $325—while $2,000 bags sit on shelves. She also says that customers are scrutinizing the price tags on shoes before trying them on. And, she notes, “people are not buying $800 shoes anymore".

Melanie Gording, a 41-year-old stay-at-home-mother of two in Westchester, California, is married to an optometrist. Rather than shopping for his shirts at Nordstrom as usual, she recently bought him two white-collar shirts at Costco for $16.99 apiece. “Maybe people will decide they don’t need to get their eyes checked," she says. “We’re being preventive."

Gording says she is forgoing even widespread trends such as black jeans, and special occasions, such as some upcoming bar mitzvahs, won’t budge her. “Just before this crisis stuff was going on, my daughter asked for a new skirt and I bought it, no problem," she says. “Now it’s, ‘Nope, you need nothing.’"

“Need," she adds, is the “operative word".

Christina Binkley writes the weekly column, On Style, for The Wall Street Journal.

Write to wsj@livemint.com

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