You know the phrase, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping”? There just may be some wisdom in that.
A survey conducted by TNS Global on behalf of Ebates.com found that more than half of Americans (52%, including 64% of women and 40% of men) admit to engaging in “retail therapy”—the act of shopping and spending to improve one’s mood. This echoes a previous study, published in the Journal of Psychology and Marketing, that revealed 62% of shoppers had purchased something to cheer themselves up, and another 28% had purchased as a form of celebration.
But beyond the quick rush provided by making a purchase, is “retail therapy” actually therapeutic? Renowned San Francisco therapist Peggy Wynne, who is known to personally appreciate the mood-boosting quality of a great pair of shoes, says that it can be. “We all enjoy a little retail therapy now and then,” she told me. “In small, manageable doses it can soothe the soul. Shopping isn’t a problem when it’s done in moderation, just like moderate use of alcohol.”
Of course, it’s possible to overdo consumption, in terms of drinking or shopping, or any number of other things for that matter. In fact, the warning signs that habitual shopping has become a problem have a lot of overlap with the classic tell-tale indications that you’re abusing alcohol. Wynne says that lying or hiding purchases from loved ones, feeling guilt or shame about shopping, missing work or other obligations to go shopping, and feeling that shopping is no longer fun but a necessity are all signs that your shopping habit has gotten out of hand.
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I wouldn’t exactly use the word “therapy” to describe the effects of shopping. And everyone can agree that “stuff” won’t make you happy in the long run. Still, based on the research and countless interviews with consumers I’ve conducted over the years, I can point to five genuinely therapeutic benefits of shopping—provided, again, that it’s done in moderation.
Janice was in a marriage void of intimacy for over a decade. When she finally divorced, the first thing she did was to buy all new bedding. “It was like I was possessed,” she recalled. “I spent hours shopping for just the right thing and I finally bought the most beautiful duvet, shams, the works. It did feel therapeutic — like I was shedding that old marriage and ready to start fresh.”
As part of a research project, I visited the home of Andre, a 39-year-old single tech entrepreneur. Inside, I was surprised to see he’d included a space for long dresses in his newly built custom closet. When I asked him about it, Andre said that he was “dating around” and hoped to get married soon. In an “if I build it she will come” state of mind, Andre did some remodeling that included what he thought were things his yet-to-be-identified future wife would want. “I assume she’ll need someplace to hang her dresses,” he said.
Shopping can be a rich source of mental preparation. As people shop, they’re naturally visualizing how they’ll use the products being considered, and in doing so they’re also visualizing their new life. And as many great athletes will attest, visualization is a performance booster and an anxiety reducer.
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It’s no wonder, then, that two of the most shop-intensive times of our lives are also two of life’s greatest transitions: getting married and having a baby. We go shopping — and visualize the future — as a means of preparation for these big transitions. These activities help people feel more control and less anxiety about the unknowns lying ahead.
“Some types of purchasing can serve a higher purpose,” says Sara Levin, a psychologist specializing in child development, who often counsels what she describes as “excited but overwhelmed” young parents. “Retail purchases can be helpful if the product inspires self-confidence and a sense of mastery.”
Whether it’s shopping for dorm equipment with your teenager or buying a special outfit to wear on vacation, the act of browsing and purchasing can help us anticipate, imagine, and mentally prepare.
Dressing for Success
When Annie moved from her small rural hometown to Boston for a new job, she admits she went overboard shopping for new clothes. “Everyone looked better than me,” she said. “I had to get new stuff. I know I should be judged by just my work, but I really felt so much better when I’d come in with a great outfit. It’s probably wrong that I wasn’t confident without getting new clothes, but it was true, and it still is something I think is important.”
What’s unusual isn’t that Annie purchased new clothing for her new job, city and lifestyle — what’s unusual is that she felt guilty about it. Who among us hasn’t purchased something for a special date, a new job or a big event?
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Turns out that dressing appropriately not only increases our confidence, but may even help us perform better. In a study published by The Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, participants who were given white doctor’s coats were far more accurate on test of attentional focus and concentration (traits associates with physicians) than the control group that simply wore street clothes for the experiment.
On the flip side, there’s proof that people can and do actually judge a book by its cover — or in this case, judge a person by their shoes. In a study published in the Journal of Research in Personality, participants were able to guess a person’s age, gender, income and agreeableness based solely on photographs of their shoes.
The Pleasure Boost of Creativity and Aesthetics
Jules, a young administrative assistant, prides herself on her taste. “I love decorating and styling outfits,” she told me. “The texture and colors — I can think of just the right thing to tie it together. It’s so fun.” Jules enjoys shopping for creative inspiration. She says she visits shops at least once a week. “It’s just fun to see what’s new, and it gives me ideas.”
Over the years, I’ve asked many consumers to describe products they love. The responses are often similar to how someone might describe a piece of beautiful, inspiring art. Jim, a 60-year-old businessman, showed me a birthday gift from his wife, an expensive Panerai watch that he’d craved for years. He made sure I noticed every detail, including the suppleness of the strap. He was clearly enraptured by the beauty and functionality of the watch. Some think that owning a luxury item is about status, but for many it’s more a deep appreciation of craftsmanship and design that enlivens the senses.
Relaxation and Escape
When people think of the benefits of “retail therapy,” concepts like escape, entertainment and rejuvenation are usually at the top of the list.
In my most recent consumer interviews, online shopping is increasingly mentioned as a type of mini mental vacation. This makes sense. It’s a relatively mindless, relaxing activity, and since many times the browsing session ends without anything being purchased, it’s often harmless as well. As a bonus, when faced with a difficult decision or arduous task, short breaks like these can actually improve performance and decision-making. Studies show that our unconscious mind continues to work out problems while we’re engaged in a different activity, provided we don’t switch over into tricky multi-tasking—juggling several things at once and not focusing on anything deeply.
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Christina, a senior human relations professional, shopped for light fixtures nearly every day for a couple of weeks during breaks from her job. “I’d just scroll and scroll. I kind of missed it when I finally bought one,” she said. Another consumer named Chanelle takes breaks from her family by shopping. “It’s me time,” she told me. “Sometimes it’s crazy at home, and so I go to the mall for some me time.”
Be it window shopping, online scrolling or pawing through racks at outlet malls, shopping really can be a mental refresher — like a blip of a vacation, without any packing or planning.
Since the dawn of human society, people have gone to the marketplace to connect with other people. “When I go on vacation, I always go to where people are shopping,” says Elaine, a retired teacher. “I get a feel for the place and the people, especially if I’m traveling to a different country.” Others, especially young people, meet friends and compare notes about tastes. “It’s how I get to know someone,” says Taylor, a stylish 15-year-old.
Some people, like Jim, the guy who is crazy about Panerai watches, find new friends based on a mutual appreciation for products or brands. After receiving his watch, Jim attended a store-sponsored party and now regularly visits a website where Panerai owners post photos of their watches and share advice and news.
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If there’s one antidote to emotional distress, it’s human connection. We’re a species that’s meant to be with others. Whether that takes place over dinner, at home, or at the mall, it’s therapeutic.
Kit Yarrow chairs the psychology department of Golden Gate University and was named the university’s 2012 Outstanding Scholar for her research in consumer behavior. She is a co-author of Gen BuY and is a frequent speaker on topics related to consumer psychology and Generation Y.