During the COVID-19 pandemic, many of us have been using online shopping to distract us from our worries but how will this impacting our spending with the reopening of stores on Monday 12th April.
Savoo has collaborated with psychologists to understand what causes emotional spending and analysed the connection between retail therapy and the psyche, why we use online shopping to reinforce a sense of personal control over our environment and how we can manage the behaviour in our day-to-day lives.
An awareness of how and why shopping can be therapeutic will help you to make empowered choices when it comes to spending out of lockdown. It will also provide a platform for us to explore what needs are we trying to meet by shopping, and how other activities may be able to provide similar benefits without costing us financially.
What is retail therapy?
Retail therapy is the act of using shopping to relieve emotional distress or worries in other areas of our lives. It is shopping with the primary purpose of improving the buyer’s mood and is often seen in people during times of stress, anxiety, or depression. Items purchased through periods of retail therapy can be referred to as a type of comfort buy. Retail therapy differs from typical shopping because it is triggered by emotions, rather than needs.
‘From a cultural perspective, we have been conditioned to see shopping as a reward,’ states Lee Chambers, an environmental psychologist and well-being consultant, ‘either an investment in ourselves or for the satisfaction of others. Shopping is likely to activate the nucleus accumbens in our brain, releasing dopamine and motivating us to repeat the behaviour.
‘Buying printed media taps into our desire to better ourselves, gain knowledge, understand the world around us and provide story and entertainment that can take us on a journey. And let’s not forget how lovely they look on your bookshelf on a video call, as books have become a decorative symbol over the past year.’
How the pandemic has increased our engagement with retail therapy
Since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a staggering increase in online shopping which added a projected £5.3bn to UK eCommerce sales this year. Our shopping habits have become ingrained into how we are hard-wired to keep safe and also in the early stages of the lockdown where we experienced a fight or flight response with the initial panic of early stockpiling.
Positive psychologist, Ruth Cooper-Dickson reveals that ‘online retail therapy has become a tool that we use to relieve stress, it allows our brains to feel positive and feelings of pleasure. And what may seem initially like a harmless task may leave a significant dent in your finances and even lead to substantial debt if you are unable to manage the behaviour. While online shopping has become a necessity for the majority of the population, it’s important to differentiate purchasing too many groceries from recreational retail.’
Online shopping can be a distraction tool and similar to other coping strategies, we use it as a way to feel in control and enable us to stay relaxed, but these habits can quickly become unhelpful. While some people do experience the release of adrenaline or a sense of control when buying a great sale or bargain, the behaviour is increasingly problematic when it is used for luxury items that may be over the shoppers budget.
What is happening in our brain when we are engaging in retail therapy?
When we purchase a new product or item online, dopamine is released into the brain with the anticipation of the reward or product, not when we actually receive the reward itself. It is in the following period of waiting to receive the product we have purchased online and the anticipation of waiting for the parcel to be delivered that creates the dopamine hit in our brain.
‘Online shopping has also given us the opportunity to release dopamine by trying something new such as visiting shopping websites we have not used before, where we cannot get out and be curious about the world. Online shopping can distract us from worries or anxieties by stimulating the senses, which we are greatly lacking during the pandemic and browsing online stores. This has been noticed with an increase in people taking up new lockdown hobbies and purchasing meal kits and grocery delivery boxes,’ reveals Ruth Cooper-Dickson
Lee Chambers reveals that ‘shopping has the ability to change our mood through a variety of mechanisms. Firstly, even in a world of plenty, we are still evolutionarily designed to consider scarcity. Because of this, acquiring new items, especially when discounted or limited, tends to make us happy, the feeling we have satisfied a need and potentially averted a future threat. This feeling has been heightened by the threat posed to our present and future by the turbulence and instability of living through a pandemic.
‘Shopping is also an exercise in control. We select from millions of items precisely what we want, and especially in the uncertain times we live in, we know we will get exactly what we have purchased, and it will be delivered straight to us. This control of selection and guarantee of receipt is powerful, as it becomes a defined event. We also build a level of expectation and anticipation from the moment we press the purchase button, as we believe we now have ownership over the item, but have a delay until it is with us physically.’
And why do we keep buying? Our brain is adaptive, and shopping can relieve stress, provide entertainment when bored and give us a hit of dopamine. The rewarding feeling will keep us finding new things to purchase, especially since our excitement and anticipation fade once we’ve received the item.
Can these retail therapy behaviours be harmful?
According to Dennis Relojo-Howell, the founder of Psychreg: ‘Regardless of the reason, when we shop, we feel good. The reward part of our brain lights up, dopamine floods our system, and we are happy – at least for a while. The problem comes when a person begins shopping compulsively and the brain begins to crave more shopping as a form of therapy. It is important to understand that a shopping high is only temporary and will not provide what you really need in the long run.’
Managing emotional spending behaviours
‘An awareness of how and why shopping can be therapeutic will help you to make empowered choices when it comes to spending,’ states Lee Chambers. ‘It will also provide a platform for us to explore what needs are we trying to meet by shopping, and how other activities may be able to provide similar benefits without costing us financially.’
It is worth considering how we shop, as often we become mindful in the process. This in itself can alleviate boredom, and cause less rumination on the past and worrying about the future. We can conceptualise purchases, from colour and texture to placement and use. There is an element of sensory processing that can be a positive, and this will be ignited further when shops reopen and we have access to a wider, more tangible shopping experience.
In order to manage the behaviour, it’s important to learn to recognise your triggers. This awareness will help you to think twice about any purchases before compulsively shopping or overspending online. It is important to learn your budget and be strict with sticking to it. If you are aware of your limitations, you can spend without worry and purchase items for yourself without feeling guilty.
You also don’t have to actually purchase the items online for our brains to recognise those perceived benefits. By digitally window shopping or browsing online, you can decide to hold off purchasing now which is our self-regulation kicking-in. This form of window shopping can still have the benefits of boosting your mood without impacting your wallet. It also gives you more time to consider the purchase meaning you’re less likely to splurge and more inclined to search for a better deal.
You should also make a list of items you want to buy whenever you are feeling impulsive, emotional or an urge to buy and then come back to it later. If you still feel like buying the items, go ahead and make the purchase once you’ve thought it through at a later stage for delayed gratification.
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