This morning I returned from a week long vacation in Tennessee with my family. During the trip I noticed something that I had never thought twice about before: our society has an obsession with gift shops.
Whether we saw live performances, played putt putt golf, went to water parks, or hiked in national forests, there were gift shops every step of the way offering souvenirs to help us commemorate our experiences. From a business perspective, gift shops are gold mines that have incredibly high profit margins because they appeal to our emotional side: Yes, $50 for a hoodie seems like a lot, but think about what it represents – an awesome, unforgettable experience! That’s priceless!
Gift shops are so prevalent that we’re conditioned to associate them with nearly any experience. One of the most popular social events now are 5k runs, which always come with a shirt or gift bag to commemorate the event. Theme parks are littered with gift shop stands next to each ride. Heck, there are even mini-gift shops inside most restaurants now.
Growing up, my family would always buy a souvenir cup or shirt to take home with us after a social events like baseball games or carnivals. Up until now, I didn’t think this was odd at all. It seemed so normal to buy a souvenir to accompany a fun experience.
But here’s the uncomfortable truth: Souvenirs are just material possessions. Most of them will be forgotten within one week of an event, and nearly all of them will end up in the garbage at some point. One of my favorite quotes that captures this idea comes from a blog post by Ty at Get Rich Quickish:
“Material possessions are just future garbage.”
Consider this thought experiment: Think of the best trip you have ever taken. Vividly recall what made it so memorable. Now imagine someone walks up to you and says “Hey, would you like this souvenir cup for $15 as a reminder of that amazing trip?” I doubt you would say yes. Why would I need a cup to remember that incredible experience? That’s not necessary. And yet in the midst of the experience we think souvenirs are not only a great idea, but a necessary purchase.
So how do we remember events and experiences if we don’t buy souvenirs to remind us? They’re in our mind. They’re our memories. If you go on an incredible international journey, you don’t need a shirt to remind you of that adventure. It’s stored as a memory. And if you do want a vivid reminder of the experience, you can look through old photos which happen to be free.
Gift shop obsession leads to us buying trinkets, shirts, hats, and a myriad of other knick knacks that most of us never look at again once we get back home. And yet gift shop spending is one of the most carefree, unconscious spending habits we participate in. It’s part of the reason why vacations can be unnecessarily expensive.
I don’t think souvenirs are a great evil that should be avoided at all costs. I just think it’s silly that we believe they’re necessary to remember experiences. If you collect souvenirs to represent your past experiences and travels there’s nothing wrong with that. But recognize that the souvenirs are merely a reflection of your memories.
If you have a collection of bumper stickers that remind you of your travels, the real joy you get is in conjuring up the memories of these travels and the people you met along the way. The joy is not in the bumper sticker. Souvenirs may serve as a reminder of these experiences, but they add no additional value to the experience itself.
We don’t need to empty our wallets to build up a collection of souvenirs to commemorate our experiences. We hold our experiences in our memories, which are completely free to collect.
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