Ah, the shopping spree. It’s the stuff that daydreams are made of: A limitless bank account, access to anything and everything, and a total lack of shame or guilt are the ultimate accessories to a boatload of conspicuous consumption! Let me be clear: I’m not talking about those mini-sprees where you put a few too many items into your online cart before clicking “place order now.” I’m talking about the kind of shopping spree that exists only on TV and in movies: a frantic, ridiculous spend-a-thon that often involves literally throwing items into a cart or maxing out a credit card. It’s a dumb thing to do in real life, of course. It’s unrealistic, selfish, unnecessary, and possibly harmful. That’s why it’s SO MUCH FUN to watch other people do it on our various screens.
The first such shopping spree that ever caught my eye was the Toys “R” Us Nickelodeon Super Toy Run, a contest that promised one lucky winner a chance to run through a Toys “R” Us for five minutes, filling as many carts as she could with precious, precious toys. At the end of the five minutes, the winner kept whatever she managed to grab. Aside from a talking unicorn and the ability to turn peas into french fries, I couldn’t think of a more amazing thing to happen to a kid. Imagine! Five minutes to run through a store and take whatever I wanted! The kids in my neighborhood used to sit around strategizing what we’d do if one of us got a chance to compete—there was an unspoken rule that we’d try to find room in our carts for at least a few toys for friends. But like all things with a “many will enter, few will win” disclaimer, the contest came and went and none of us ever got the chance to live the dream ourselves. Still, the mere idea that such a fantasy was real was enough for me. It proved that incredible things can happen to ordinary people, which is exactly the kind of magic I appreciated most.
It may surprise you to learn that I actually hate shopping in real life. But I find the exercise mostly boring, and ultimately frustrating, because in the end the best you can hope for is to go home with a new something that you can both stand and afford. But you’re the same old you. Real-life shopping doesn’t hold any transformational magic. Movie shopping-spree montages are another story. I love a good shopping-spree montage. At their best—even at their most mediocre—they make boring old shopping seem fun and glamorous. This is largely due to the fact that in most movies there are no spending limits, and no one gets tired or cranky, and everything fits, and there’s never a long line to check out. Plus, in movies, a shopping spree is never just an errand—it’s an important storytelling tool, a shorthand way to show us that someone is changing their lives for the better. And although I’ve watched enough episodes of What Not to Wear to know better, it’s so super satisfying to watch a simple day of shopping change someone’s life in a drastic way. Take this scene from 2011’s Crazy, Stupid, Love:
When Ryan Gosling tells Steve Carell to “be better than the Gap,” he’s not just exhorting him to dress snazzier, he’s telling him to be a better version of himself. And he suggests rather powerfully that this can be achieved…through shopping. It’s an irresistible idea—if only it were that easy for us to shed the loser-y, self-defeating parts of ourselves and emerge better, smarter, and happier.
Of course, Ryan Gosling wasn’t the first big-screen shopping coach. There have been tons of them through history, the most famous probably being Richard Gere in this scene from Pretty Woman (1990):
But my favorite shopping-spree montage in any movie is from 1962’s That Touch of Mink, wherein Cary Grant, playing a rich playboy hoping to win over a chaste but interested Doris Day, woos her with a private shopping session at Bergdorf Goodman. They are treated to an exclusive fashion show with some of the most gorgeous clothes I’ve ever seen. All Doris Day has to do is sit there and pick out whatever she wants! Putting aside the disturbing gender dynamics on display here and above, it’s beyond fabulous—the perfect combination of glamor and laziness.
Even that scene, however, isn’t the absolute, undisputed, #1 greatest onscreen shopping spree of all time. I’ve saved the best spree for last, and it doesn’t involve clothes, or toys, or anything that accrues Sephora VIB points. It’s a spree that no longer exists (except in my heart), and it comes from a legendary (at least in my mind) game show known as Supermarket Sweep. Quite possibly the most perfect game show ever, Supermarket Sweep pitted three teams against one another in a race through a studio-built grocery store. After racking up extra “sweep” time during trivia rounds, the teams were let loose with their carts, and the team that ended up with the highest total in their cart (i.e., bought the most expensive groceries) won the game and a chance to do a bonus sweep worth $5,000. It was THE BEST.
I’m not sure it was intended to be a hilarious show, but my kid sister and I watched it every day after school, and we were usually crying with laughter by the end, because watching people buy as many groceries as possible in under three minutes is an incredibly bizarre and delightful experience. There were tricks you’d learn if you watched the show often enough: Turkeys, hams, and baby formula were expensive, so you could expect a sweeper (who usually looked like someone’s mom or dad or fourth grade science teacher) to rush down to the meat aisle and start chucking hams into a cart with the strength of an Olympic weightlifter while their partner stood at the checkout, screaming things like “Diapers, Joan! Get the diapers!” in a hysterical tone usually reserved for apocalyptic scenes in major motion pictures. Like I said: the greatest.
My sister and I loved that show so much that we started playing Supermarket Sweep whenever my mother took us grocery shopping (it was the only thing that made it fun). We’d mimic the rhyming clues given in the show’s bonus round whenever my mother asked us to get something: “If it’s morning time and you need a treat, try these…Frosted Mini Wheats!” and then we’d run to the cereal aisle like lunatics, grabbing a box of Mini Wheats with such joy that you’d think we’d discovered the Holy Grail. It was fun to pretend! And that’s the point of ridiculous shopping sprees, right? For a little while, you get to see what it’s like to live without boundaries or restrictions, in a fantasy world where nobody ever makes a bad purchase, goes into debt, feels any sense of guilt or social responsibility, or finds it strange to run screaming down aisle 17 with a cartload of hams.
I imagine that the kids who actually won the Super Toy Run back in the day have long outgrown their prizes. Toys break, and kids turn into adults, and only the marvelous memory of running down the aisles remains. And the story, as always, becomes the one prize worth hanging on to. ♦