Why you can’t seem to buy winter boots

Canadians have a (delusional) wardrobe bias toward summer clothing
Joanne Latimer
Young women waiting on footpath with shopping bags.
Why you can't seem to buy winter boots
Robert Niedring/Westend61/Corbis

“It’s an odd form of denial,” says Alexandra Mélançon, creative director at Be Sleek, an image consulting agency in Montreal. “We have a wardrobe bias toward summer clothing in Canada. You don’t need 20 sundresses. You need 20 cashmere sweaters! It’s not like owning more shorts will create a longer summer.” Shame, that. “Those two weeks of perfect weather in July have a psychic grip on our imagination,” adds Caroline Alexander, co-owner of Ludique, a personal shopping service. “We have to talk people into balancing their wardrobes.”

Guilty! Facing a closet stuffed with sundresses, I lament packing them away. Mostly, I resent paying money for clothing that doesn’t fuel the myth of an endless summer. Catyanna Antoniou, a 23-year-old marketing student at York University, couldn’t agree more. “I own about 70 little dresses and 90 pairs of heels,” says the upcoming Toronto contestant on the reality show Princess. “If I have any baggy sweats or turtlenecks, it’s because I’ve stolen them from friends or my boyfriend. Eighty per cent of my wardrobe is for summer, with only about 20 per cent boring warm things.”

As the owner of the knitting store Americo Original, Nicole Sibonney is an unlikely person to exhibit summer shopping bias: “Oh, I have over 25 swimsuits—which I wear with linen pants—and I wear sandals through to the end of September,” she says. “It all creates a little fantasy. Psychologically, summer clothes take up less ‘room.’ ”

In England, Philip Graves, the author of the book Consumer.ology, calls summer “a heady cocktail of positive associations. Who doesn’t want to keep them going?” Gail Vaz-Oxlade, author and television host of Til Debt Do Us Part and Princess, refers to it as the “ice cream before ground beef” attitude. “There’s a mindset out there that resists spending on things you don’t derive fun from,” said the famously sensible money manager.

This summer, Michael Mulvey was on his way to Gatineau for a vacation when he stopped to buy fishing tackle. “I came out with a kayak,” deadpans Mulvey, an assistant professor of marketing at the Telfer School of Management in Ottawa. Mulvey borrowed lyrics from Nirvana’s In Bloom to explain the phenomenon: “Weather changes moods, as the song goes. People’s purse strings open.”

Two principles explain this spending bias, says Dilip Soman, professor of marketing at Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. “One is the concept of having multiple selves. The other is scarcity. Studies show people think of themselves as having multiple selves—your work self, your hobby self, your home self. Consumption decisions are linked to these selves, but people aren’t good at allocating properly to each self. When something is scarce, like summer or free time for a hobby, we tend to over-allocate. If you saw all my photography equipment, for example, you’d think I was a professional.” Soman cites China as an example of winter-bias spending. “In Hong Kong, there are only 20 days of winter,” he notes. “But it’s not uncommon for people to own three to five winter coats and all kinds of ski equipment.”

Finance professor Lisa Kramer at the Rotman School noted that financial decision-making behaviour also varies with the season. “It’s well known that in spring and summer, people are more willing to take risks on stocks, and gamble,” said Kramer, who admits to self-medicating via retail therapy. Does Kramer think summer-related spenders are delusional? “Some delusions are harmless,” she says.

Personal shopper Kara Brownlee doesn’t think it’s delusional so much as lazy. “Compared to buying flip-flops, it’s really hard to find that perfect pair of wool pants that makes your bum look good and your legs look long,” she says, adding, “there’s a disconnect between what people think they own and wear versus reality. It’s easier to just ignore the discrepancy.”

And it’s cheaper. Packing away my bargain sundresses, I tried to muster enthusiasm for buying $200 winter boots after salt killed last year’s. “The only way to start liking winter is to become a ski bum,” advises Mélançon. “They have no problem spending on warm stuff.”