Returning hunger for retail therapy thaws out credit cards

By Annie Gowen
Monday, October 19, 2009

Aba Kwawu vowed she'd buy only one or two classic pieces for work that would last her for years. So what was she doing recently at the cash register of a Washington boutique, credit card in hand, agonizing over whether to buy a flashy designer purse with faux snake trim?

"I don't need anything. I don't need a bag," Kwawu said, and sighed. She barely looked at the pricey but practical gray sweater coat she was supposed to be buying, already wrapped in an elaborate origami of tissue at her elbow. She only had eyes for the $695 green-and-black handbag next to it that looked so cute when she slung it over her shoulder and twirled in front of the mirror a few minutes earlier.

When the recession slowed business at her public relations firm, the Silver Spring fashionista put herself on a strict spending diet. She avoided online retailers and her favorite Georgetown haunts. She unearthed clothes in her own closet that she had never worn, some with the tags still on.

After about six months, however, her virtue has begun to feel like a heavy cloak she longs to cast off.

"I had not shopped in so long I was going through withdrawal," said Kwawu, 34. "I thought, 'I have to get something now. I've been good long enough.' "

Malls and boutiques are filled with people such as Kwawu these days, shoppers who have cut their spending -- some drastically -- during the downturn and are now suffering from what some call "frugal fatigue."

Most ardent shoppers don't seem to be giving in to their cravings yet: Consumer spending was sluggish last month, and credit card debt is waning. But with the Dow topping 10,000 just last week and the air filled with talk of recovery, it's getting harder for some people to keep suppressing the urge.

"I want to shop!" cried a frustrated Gillian Joseph, 42, of McLean, leaving Marshalls in Pentagon City empty-handed last week.

Joseph, a widow and mother of a young son, quit shopping "cold turkey" a year ago when her investments lost half their value.

For someone who used to blow $100 every time she walked into Target, "it was a sad and scary time," she said. "I'm a shopaholic. I love to shop."

She finally broke her fast, walking into Nordstrom after a long absence and buying a pair of 4 1/2 -inch heels in bright floral colors. The experience was cathartic, she said.

"It was like spring -- rebirth, reawakening."

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