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Psychology and Shopping Habits

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So, in a bizarre turn of events, I ended up at the mammoth Trafford Centre shopping centre that lies on the outskirts of Manchester only a week before Christmas. My inane desire to wander Selfridges, mentally checking all the exorbitantly priced things I couldn’t afford outdid my sensibility and before I knew it, I was in a sensory overload of lights, music, noise, and interaction as a wealth of shopping assistants followed me round consistently asking if I needed help. While a few years ago I studied the covert computer science aspect of shopping, I couldn’t help but think about the psychological hacks of spending your hard-earned cash and what tips and tricks they’ll use upon us this Christmas season.

Of course, we expect advertising to talk us into sales, after all, we live in such a competitive world now that millions are spent on posters, adverts, and everything in between in the hope of luring us into having the urge to go out and invest in their product. How much can we all admit that we’ve spent on impulsive shopping in pre and post-Christmas sales, as well as perhaps indulging in particular brands to increase our sense of fulfilment? We’ll willingly put ourselves into the red by charging on our credit cards while some of us may still be paying off last Christmas, let alone this one. But what we may not expect is the subconscious hacks taken to persuade us into treating ourselves to give a temporary high of retail therapy, but that will only increase our personal debt.

First off, and we’ve all done it, is attend the mad rush of sales in the hope of getting our hands on something at a reduced rate. We’ll willingly battle the crowds and perhaps fill our baskets in desperation before feeling post-splurge guilt that maybe we lost control. Actually, psychologists have determined the effects on crowds and while it may seem a competitive nature, it’s actually a desire to fit in or what they call deindividuation. We strive to want to fit in and the best way to do that is to behave the same as others around us, even to the point that we will do so by mimicking behaviours. If everyone around us is in a mad dash to buy, then that behaviour will trigger us to imitate as we see occurring around us.

But the psychology of shopping isn’t all quite so obvious as following orders from those around us. The layout of shopping centres is built to keep us keen to hunt and will lure us from our path into finding something we didn’t want while the colours around us invigorate certain moods and build confidence in certain brands. Before we know it, our basket is full of items we weren’t going after but were taunted on a shelf as we passed by to get where we needed to go.

Our senses are corrupted as well; music can influence how long we spend in a store versus the actual products we may be influenced to buy and scents can similarly encourage us to indulge or stay in an area where we enjoy the sensory experience. While many of us go online for more convenient shopping habits, it has become more important than when we do make effort to go in-store, they have to step up their game to improve our overall experience. Sure, it would be boring if we went into a soundless store that was dismal and uninspiring? But on the other hand, could we be so overloaded that ultimately, it puts us off as well? Is there a fine line between how much psychological hacks can influence how we spend and what will actually stop us from bothering to leave the house?

While shopping is viewed as therapy for some, it is an addiction for others and the increase of anxiety in young people can only mean some will shun public spaces in order to suppress feelings of fear and panic. As I walked through Selfridges the other day to the pounding music of a DJ, the overwhelming flashing lights of branding and adverts as well as the incessant smells of each department, I couldn’t help but feel startled. It was as if I was a computer that was short-circuiting, struggling to comprehend everything going on around me. Could there be something to introducing a sensory-free shopping experience for those like me who struggle in the modern world of shopping centres? Or perhaps should we just stick at home to fill our virtual baskets? Either way, the psychology of shopping is a complex and perhaps intriguing world into finding how we become brainwashed to spend money that we maybe don’t even have.

Katie Bagshawe is currently a Student Diagnostic Radiographer at the University of Derby. She holds an MSc in Psychology from Sheffield Hallam University.


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