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Behind The Pandemic Purchases We Won't Use Until Later

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

What is the point of buying something now if you can't use it until the pandemic is over? Well, after nearly a year in lockdown, it can help you dream of better days ahead. NPR's Kat Lonsdorf explains.

KAT LONSDORF, BYLINE: Hanging on the wall of Kelly Jenkins' apartment in Brooklyn is a full set of hair extensions, an impulse buy Jenkins made a few weeks ago.

KELLY JENKINS: I think there was this idea that there would be some future event that I could go to, you know, once this is all over, that I could wear this full set of extensions and have like beautiful, long, voluminous hair.

LONSDORF: She says sometimes she just sits and pictures that eventual night out with her beautiful flowing hair. She's thought about it down to the soundtrack.

JENKINS: You know, getting drinks with lots of friends, a group of friends, then moving on to maybe a place where there's more dancing. I want it to be crowded. I want fun lighting and fun music, probably funk or disco or something that really makes you want to dance.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JENKINS: And somehow there's someone taking great photographs. I don't know. It sounds ridiculous describing it out loud.

LONSDORF: But it's actually not ridiculous. The more Jenkins daydreams about using those hair extensions, the more she talks about it, the more valuable a purchase like that becomes.

AMIT KUMAR: It extends the satisfaction that we derive from those purchases. We have more time to savor this future consumption.

LONSDORF: Amit Kumar is a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas. He says this isn't anything new.

KUMAR: Before any of us had heard about COVID, we used to make restaurant reservations in advance. We used to buy tickets to shows beforehand. We used to book our flights and plan our travel.

LONSDORF: All of which allowed us to anticipate. But now, with so much that we can't do these days, even seemingly ordinary objects can give us the same opportunity, like a new set of plates for an eventual dinner party, a sparkly cocktail dress or a bicycle, which is what Chase Hensel (ph) recently bought.

CHASE HANSEL: The kind of classic English folding bicycle called a Brompton, which folds up really small.

LONSDORF: He and his wife live in Alaska, but they have two small granddaughters living in London. They haven't seen them in well over a year. So Chase bought the bike to take with him when they finally do get to visit, since his grandkids are just learning how to ride bikes now. He likes to picture what it'll be like to ride in the park with the older girl barreling off after being in lockdown for so long.

HANSEL: Just kind of racing off ahead, you know, and that just sort of sense of freedom of her being able to, like, just take off and, you know, go a hundred yards away and then then circle back.

LONSDORF: It's helped him think more concretely about post-pandemic times.

HANSEL: I think buying the bike was sort of putting a marker towards the future and saying, this will happen.

LONSDORF: There are lots of ways to benefit from this effect. And with money tight for a lot of people right now, it doesn't have to be a big purchase. Stephanie Califf (ph) in Austin, Texas, started out small. She adds money every month to a savings account specifically for post-pandemic times.

STEPHANIE CALIFF: When this is all over and everyone's doing great, then I can finally have some money to spend on myself, a sort of a reward for making it through this whole thing.

LONSDORF: Califf has barely left her house for almost a year, so when she pictures spending the money, it's at her favorite restaurant in town.

CALIFF: And I get to talk to the waiter at the bar. And I get my coffee. And the newspaper's on the table and just the noise of everyone being around. It's going to be really nice. Because it's been really quiet in my house, so I'm excited to get back into some noise.

TOM GILOVICH: We've been in lockdown for so long that this unexceptionable thing can nonetheless have that effect.

LONSDORF: The effect of anticipation. Tom Gilovich is a professor of psychology at Cornell University. He says usually it's experiences like vacations or concerts that do this and extend the value of your purchase. But right now in the pandemic, we're craving the commotion of everyday life.

GILOVICH: And so anything that you're planning that gets that going might very well provide the same kind of benefits that, let's say, looking forward to an exotic vacation does.

LONSDORF: So go ahead. Buy the high heels. Get some fun glassware for a someday cocktail party. Plan that trip for 2022. Let yourself dream. It's worth more than you might think. Kat Lonsdorf, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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