Do you shop? Of course you do. Everyone shops. You could be a subsistence shopper, a maker of sensible, disciplined purchases. Or a serial shopper who goes about her shopping with the grim, cheerless determination of a person on a diet. Or an impulse shopper who exercises keen instinct, often at the cost of massive credit. Or an emotional shopper who believes there’s nothing that a trip to the mall can’t cure. You could also be all four rolled into one hypernervy, coffee-chugging bundle of shopping bags. I know I am.
I thought I’d mastered shopping at brick-and-mortar stores till online shopping came along and POOF! went my discipline and discernment. I’ve bought some very embarrassing things online- like a cheese grater than can’t dent paper- let alone grate cheese, a china ballerina figurine with what looks like a faint moustache that wasn’t visible in the photos online, a necklace with an elephant charm so disproportionately huge I could use it for a quarter plate at dinner, and many more.
So I decided to distill some hard-learnt lessons into a neat little listicle (the flavour of the moment. apparently nobody wants to read anything if it doesn’t begin with <insert a pleasingly convenient number, like 8, or 10, or 15, or 20> Ways to <insert short, edgy descriptor of totally mundane activity> ) Here, in no particular order, are
18 Ways To Shop Sensibly
Shopping for food
1. Never shop for groceries when you’re hungry. Your shopping cart will look like an orgy of many processed foods, each a weird mutant that doesn’t look or even behave like food.
2. If you’re picking out a can or a pack of something you like- like fresh hummus, or organic eggs- reach for the item furthest from the front of the shelf, because it’s the freshest. Having done a Sales stint with Unilever Foods, I can tell you that expired stock is kryptonite for retailers, and they will stack and shelve oldest-to-freshest front to back. This is also why you must always, always check the expiry date, even if it means squinting uncomfortably at micron-sized print on the back-of-pack.
3. While buying a novel, exciting dessert from that fancy new patisserie with a pretentious French name, don’t hesitate to ask for a taste. I always make sure to ask if there are any scrapings left from the kitchen, so I can make an informed choice. I hate it when you bite into blueberry cheesecake and it turns out to be purple whipped cream- true story. Also, with ridiculously thin slivers of dessert costing the moon-and-a-half, I’d like to know what I’m buying, thanks berry much.
4. When buying a cartful of groceries at the supermarket, keep a hawk’s eye on the billing, and always, always tally the bill immediately afterward, preferably on the premises. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been multiple-billed for a single item. It’s downright dishonest, and you’ll be surprised at how often it happens right under your nostrils.
Eating at a restaurant
1. We’ve all found ourselves hungry and irritable at the door of a restaurant during meal hour, rubbing shoulders with a sullen throng of people sizing each other up. And we’ve all wondered- what does it take to breeze into a restaurant like a VIP? The answer will surprise you. You don’t have to be a VIP to have table access even at the busiest hours. You just have to be nice. I say this because the Husband and I are always, always ushered courteously into The Big Chill, our favourite faux-Italian place immediately upon arrival, 2 hour waiting time be damned. This is because we know each member of their staff by name, and make the effort to be kind and ask after their health, their families, their worries. We say ‘Thank you for this!’ a lot, and we mean it. On Christmas, we leave surprise presents for them at the table, with handwritten notes expressing our appreciation and gratitude for their service. And we don’t do this for table access- we do this because these guys are on their feet from 10 AM to 11:30 PM, and they deserve some love for smiling at you, pulling your chair for you, taking on your tics and tantrums with grace.
2. Can you hack the menu of a beloved restaurant? Yes you can! Every restaurant, food chain or chaat-wallah has a list of secret items not listed on their menus, that you can get if you ask. At The Big Chill, I like ordering spaghetti aglio e olio with lots of capers when I’m not in the mood for a heavy meal. At the sole chaat shop in GK M Block market, you can order aaloo chaat minus the tongue-burny, pungent green chutney it comes bathed in, asking instead for a generous sprinkle of their special namak, and some chopped onion. If you’re around a Mc Donald’s and a Brown Sugar, buy yourself a cheap burger at Mc D’s, ask for Brown Sugar’s soya garlic chops, throw away the suspect filling in the burger, insert soya chops- and your junk food is now good for you! For readers in the US, Hack The Menu is your ticket to fun, unusual combinations if you’re experiencing palate fatigue.
Shopping for wearables
1. It is a truth universally acknowledged,*that a woman in possession of a great butt must be in want of magic pants. If you come across a really great pair of pants that makes your bum and your pins look amazing- hero pants, if you will- buy two pairs immediately. Great bottomwear, especially pants- is universally hard to find. (*Wawddup Pride & prejudice reference!)
2. If you’re shopping for something to go with a specific item in your wardrobe, and aren’t very sure about matching, don’t hesitate to ask the sales lady to allow you the use of your phone camera so you can take a picture, and go home and reconsider. Most will balk at the idea, but keep pushing, and they will relent.
3. While out buying ethnic Indian clothes for shaadi season, stay away from expensive salwar kameezes. I’ve made the mistake of hunting for a sari, despairing at its price, and settling for a cheaper salwar kameez instead. Here’s the thing about salwar kameezes– they’re just not a great investment. They respond terribly to fluctuations in weight, risk becoming unwearable once trends change, and more often than not, frustrate you with their inability to look and fit exactly as they did back at the shop. A sari is a wiser option- they buck trends and are very forgiving of seasonal bulges. If saris are not your thing, long, flowy skirts with lots of gher, paired with basic monochrome tops and cherrypicked chunnis are a great bet. And cheaper! I’ve often constructed an impromptu lehenga at Fab India with a long, full ajrakh skirt, a basic black strappy top, and one of their many gorgeous dupattas. Finish your look with bangles and chunky jewellery, and you’re basically a Diwali Goddess, a Human Pataaka.
4. Instead of paying your local darzi in gold for a shoddy rush job on a sari blouse, walk into a Forever 21, or any clothes stall at Sarojini or GK M Block, and buy yourself a crop top. A crop top is basically a teeny-weeny garment meant to expose your pierced bellybutton to the world, but you can appropriate it cleverly to Bharatiya sensibilities and use it for a sari blouse, which I do very often. Mostly made of a thin, stretchy fabric that fits your upper body insanely well, crop tops offer a dazzling array of colours and patterns for your choosing. I’ve bought many basic blacks, reds, browns and greys, in addition to lots of prints, and they go beautifully with my saris. And cost one tenth the price of a tailored blouse. I’m also not beneath using an old t-shirt for a blouse, which I’m doing in these grainy pictures of my favourite sari, worn at a friend’s wedding-
5. Pay no heed to fashion magazine warnings about sizing and patterns. Don’t hesitate to buy a size up if it makes you look great, and conversely, a size small if it makes you feel sexy. I’m personally a huge fan of oversize clothing, often borrowing one of Husband’s vast, floaty shirts and cinching them at the waist with a leather dori. Also, to hell with rules about patterns! Please rock horizontal stripes if they’re in a colour you really love, or giant polka dots because giant polka dots y’all! Who can refuse giant polka dots the size of poories? Answer- NO ONE. If you love a print or pattern, pick it up regardless of the Miranda Priestly inside your head. Sexy is hugely about how you feel- if you’re wearing something you love and are comfortable in, you’re sexy. Period.
6. Buy shoes in the afternoon, or in the evening. Feet swell by as much as half a size as the day progresses, so a morning purchase may turn into a toe-pincher by night.
7. Ensure that the flats to heels ratio in your shoe rack is at least 2:1. I don’t care if you’re practically a midget- heels are dangerous. Over time, they ruin your gait, and mangle your feet. And then, they kill your spine. And yes, platforms and wedges are heels too. Resist the temptation to buy heels if flats are doing the job for you just as well. There’s nothing sexier than a woman comfortable with her God-given height. Tottering around on heels is not sexy.
Shopping for presents
1. If you’d like to buy clothes- a dress or a top- for a female friend or relative but are terrified of getting the size wrong, stick with skirts, stoles and saris. Skirts make pretty gifts and can always be cinched/ loosened at the waist, and stoles and saris are size-agnostic, so you’re sorted.
2. If you’re buying a shirt for a guy, ask for a shirt box. Most brands will wave you off with a flimsy paper bag, but hold your ground and ask for one till you get it. Your gift looks nicer and more substantial that way.
3. I’ve discovered, through trial and error, mostly error, that a fragrance is not a great gift for a guy. Most women I know freak out at the thought of buying a present for a special male someone- because let’s face it- how many blue and grey shirts can a guy own? So we descend nervously on the fragrance aisles, sniffing at bottles and hoping one pleases their hairy nostrils. Here’s the deal- a fragrance is a very personal thing. That musky note you’re going for may well be nose-poison for your poor friend, and may send him reeling into the nearest wall. Also, fragrances are expensive. You don’t want your six thousand rupee present to idle at the back of his dresser, do you? A better gift in the same department is shaving essentials- like shaving cream, aftershave balm, or one of those fancy razors that require a socket. I hate to generalise here, but for men, utility wins over frou frou anytime.
4. ‘Hampering’ is a great way to put together a gift if you’re low on money or voluntarily unemployed, like I am. Hampering entails buying lots of little gifts along a particular theme, and putting them together in a clever little package of happiness and good intent. I’m on a shoestring budget these days, so I recently made my friend a Pamper Hamper that contained a lip balm, novelty soap shaped like lemons, a foot scrub and a small bottle of amazing shampoo. I also made another friend a Red Hamper (her favourite colour) that contained red lip and cheek stain, a bottle of red nailpaint, a red silk cushion with a cheeky message on it, and a vintage Archie comic with Cheryl Blossom on the cover. I love putting great thought into my gifts, and hampers are a good way to show the recipient you care.
4. Here’s a mini-list of impactful yet under-explored gift options:
a) an annual subscription to a favorite magazine, like National Geographic, or Vogue, or AD.
b) a picture of the recipient in a pretty frame (My favourite! Everyone loves it!)
c) wine. In India, we don’t do wine that often when we gift, but chosen with care, it’s a great option
d) phone covers. Smartphones have spawned a vibrant industry of phone accessories, and clever, quirky covers make superb and considerate gifts
e) a vintage movie poster. The grainier, the better!
f) a whole cake from your favourite patisserie
g) a cookbook. You can never go wrong with a cookbook. Any cookbook. Everyone loves cookbooks
i) fancy socks. My favourite thing to gift to men especially in the winters! I love snapping up gorgeous patterns in wool from Brooks Brothers, or online at Footsy
j) a potted plant. The plant guys at Select Citywalk Saket do adorable low-maintenance terrariums, and bonsais in the prettiest pots
…aaaand we’re done! A lot of these seem glaringly obvious, but trust me, in the heady vanilla scented, pop- music filled spaces of the mall, your senses do get scrambled, and before you know it, you’ve bought yourself a leather jacket you will never wear because you live near the sea. Friendly wave, Bombay readers! Also, please do shop local as much as you can. Our small Indian businesses and the tenuous supply chains that support them need our patronage more than multinational corporations eager to sell us overpriced, sweatshopped goods. I hope to compile- soon- a list of desi retail options that will hopefully put up a brave fight before Big Corp.
Much love, everyone! Have a great week.