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Real Men Like Malls

Is your idea of "togetherness" rifling through the "33% Off the Lowest Marked Price!" sweater pile the day after Christmas with your man?

Me too! But dragging the big lug out of the La-Z-Boy and to the mall will only ruin your manicure and possibly your marriage -- unless you can convince him that it'll improve your retirement portfolios.

That's right: A day of shopping can reveal a world of investing lessons to the man who's man enough to endure it. (If you're a guy who actually enjoys shopping with your soul mate, well, aren't you a catch?) After all, what's a mall if not a real-world economics classroom?

So, fellas, sharpen your No. 2s and take notes.

Rule No. 1: Do hands-on research
Think of the mall as an economic biosphere -- an encapsulation of the larger world of supply and demand, where survival depends on speed, endurance, fiscal hijinks, and the ability, at 20 yards, to tell the difference between the crimson sign announcing new spring arrivals and the exact shade of red that denotes items are half off.

Do you own a few retail stocks? Accompany your honey to the mall for some live, in-person research. Abercrombie & Fitch (NYSE: ANF  ) , Ann Taylor (NYSE: ANN  ) , Gap (NYSE: GPS  ) , and my favorite, Urban Outfitters (Nasdaq: URBN  ) -- all are publicly traded companies and usually positioned within a stone's throw of one another at your local econosphere. Note to which stores women and teenagers flock. Do they emerge with shopping bags or scowls? Are the displays tidy and the help courteous? Or has management given training the short shrift in pursuit of higher profit margins?

This kind of research cannot be as easily gleaned from the black-and-white pages of a company's 10-Q (no pictures!). So grab a half-caff latte, sit patiently on the bench outside the stores, and observe.

Rule No. 2: Learn how to really hunt... from a woman
Women as gatherers? Bah. As our species has evolved, the hunting instinct has been honed. And with the supersizing of malls, it only gets stronger. We don't blanch at the idea of searching a two-mile stretch of stores for the perfect size-8 pump with a faux tortoise buckle. We have no problem asking store clerks to put out an APB to locate a particular trouser in our size.

Likewise, in the financial world, women are known to be more exacting when researching investments and less prone to impulse stock purchases. When we do find a 10-bagger or the perfect black dress, we can do a touchdown dance that would make a seasoned NFL pro blush. How's that for turning an anthropological certainty on its ear?

Rule No. 3: Don't be blinded by bling
Hunting and gathering doesn't always result in an acquisition.

Take, for instance, two friends out for a day of window-shopping. (Side note: Window-shopping does not mean you're forbidden from going inside the store, or even actually making a purchase.) They may enter the dressing room with armloads of potential new outfits, but the one who emerges empty-handed is triumphant. Why? It's about overcoming the power of "the wants." Denial is a powerful tool. It requires just as much resolve as the hunt. Knowing we can manhandle cashmere sweater sets and butter-soft leather pants, yet not feel compelled to buy (because you know the price isn't right or the fashion will soon fade), is true empowerment. Just try doing that after test-driving the TiVo. You'll see.

The same restraint is valuable in stock research. There's nothing uglier than a stock past its prime sullying your portfolio. It takes time to fully investigate a potential investment. And while you may love the company's product and find the recent stock performance alluring, the results of your legwork may reveal that it's a trend you should let pass you by. And by not buying something, you free up cash to find a bargain elsewhere. Which leads to Rule No. 4.

Rule No. 4: Use shopping math
Unlike the metric system and algebra trig, markdown math should be added to our national school curriculums. For example, I was recently standing in line to return a $39.99 skirt at Ann Taylor Loft (a cheaper offshoot of the mother ship, Ann Taylor). The line was three deep, and of course, those in front of me had complicated transactions, such as exchanging a pair of sunglasses. Right next to the register were neatly stacked piles of sweaters. Lo and behold, the perfect, irresistible black cowl neck -- on sale! After the exchange, I was $10 in the black!

That may seem like funny math to some, but the real lesson here is that it pays to keep your eyes peeled because you never know when a solid investment will be revealed.

Rule No. 5: Think long-term
This is an oldie but a goodie. Most of us have experienced the pain -- the sometimes-physical pain -- of watching a favorite investment hit the skids. If you believed in the investment and held on through better and worse, you may have been rewarded after the clouds parted. Short-term discomfort can turn into long-term payoff for those able to endure. So it goes with the Thanksgiving sales, post-Christmas sales, New Year's sales, and Groundhog Day sales. Crowds, long lines, and terse help are a short-term pain in the keister, but think of the long-term benefits -- dirt-cheap winter coats and piles of new sweaters for a song!

A male friend sarcastically noted the day after Christmas that he was sure some women had already finished next year's Christmas shopping by snapping up all the after-holiday sale items. Then he reconsidered what he said and wistfully repeated it. Not such a bad idea, eh?

See what can happen if you're willing to make a trip to the mall? The next time your sweetie suggests you accompany her to the store for "just a few things," play along and pay attention. You just might learn something that'll improve your investing skills.

Dayana Yochim is the author ofThe Motley Fool's Guide to Couples & Cashand is four mall trips shy of her accreditation as a shopping therapist. This column originally ran on Jan. 7, 2003. It has been updated. The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.

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