Retail Binge for the Mental Twinge

They say, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.” This is more commonly known as Retail Therapy. It is a phenomenon where people shop to improve one’s disposition and raise spirits. People in distress often resort to this as a source of solace. A study published in the journal Psychology and Marketing states that retail therapy has a lasting positive effect on mood. While its findings pointed out that these are impulsive purchases, the survey suggested that feelings of guilt or regret were not associated among the respondents. The name in itself is ironic. Shopping is a concept deeply rooted in materialism. As its positive impact is temporary, it does not qualify as a ‘therapy’ in the medical sense. However, it is a fairly popular phrase used around the world. 

In a 2001 survey conducted by the European Union, it was found that 33% of the shoppers surveyed had a “high level of addiction to rash buying”. The study also revealed that ‘binge purchasing’ was most common among the Scottish youth. Another study of 1,000 American adults, conducted in 2013, detected that more than half of the respondents indulged in retail therapy. It also threw light on the gender aspect of the practice, stating that it is more common among women than men. It was found that 64.9% of women and 38.9% of men binge purchased while women mostly bought clothing, men indulged in ‘comfort food’. This was further reinforced by the Youngstown State University with similar male-female percentages, showing that relief from stress was the most common reason behind the practice. A more adverse extension of retail therapy is Oniomania or Compulsive Buying Disorder, which is an obsession with shopping, resulting in serious financial and mental consequences. 

The Whys behind the Comfort Buys 

While stress, anxiety and sadness are a part of daily life, they can be tackled through other means such as reaching out to others, practicing yoga, mindfulness and meditation, journaling, exercising and consulting experts in more severe cases. Despite there being these solutions, which on an average are cheaper than shopping, why do people indulge in purchasing things to boost their mood? To understand the causes behind retail therapy, the behavioral aspect of individuals needs to be analysed in a twofold manner. Even though, at first glance, these reasons seem simple — associated with daily life, a deeper analysis suggests that the root cause can be traced back to psychological theory. 

Firstly, we examine the relatively straightforward causes.  When everything goes wrong and nothing falls into place as you imagined it to, how do you feel? Out of control, right? Thus, one of the reasons people indulge in retail therapy is that shopping is a coping mechanism that helps people feel more in control. From deciding where to shop, to choosing what to purchase, it allows people to exercise autonomy and make decisions. In my personal opinion, shopping can also make one feel a sense of achievement. Utilising good offers and deals, applying coupons to get discounts and sometimes even getting goods for free certainly makes one feel happier as they ‘save’ along with fulfilling a guilty pleasure. 

Secondly, retail therapy can be a useful mechanism for smooth transitions of life as it enables people to envisage their lives post such changes. For instance, people often shop excessively before they are going to live alone for the first time, shifting to a new house, getting married or having a baby. Shopping may ease anxiety by making people feel more in control by helping them to prepare themselves for such huge transitions through the process of ‘visualisation’, which is a process that boosts performance, confidence and reduces anxiety. 

Another way in which retail therapy boosts mood is through a pleasant gush of creativity. Specifically, clothing of various kinds of colors and textures, accessories like jewelry, footwear, bags, sunglasses, etc, home decor items may induce a positive breeze of art and aesthetics. For example, the arrival of a new outfit may stir your creative juices in thinking about what shoes, jewelry and bag to pair it up with. This may certainly bring about a calmness in a way similar to art therapy, a well-known method of healing and reducing stress. 

Some people treat shopping, both online and offline as a source of refreshment from the humdrum of daily life. Being a mindless activity, it enables people to relax and take some time off from their sources of stress. This form may vary from window shopping to scrolling on an online website or going to a shopping-mall for a break. Yet another reason behind binge-purchasing may be the need to ‘feel connected’. For instance, one may shop for a sweater with a snowman or bells, candies and wreaths for decoration during Christmas, to feel more socially connected to the festival. Or someone may shop for a beret before visiting Paris to feel a part of the culture of the fashion capital. Thus, retail therapy may help individuals to feel closer to society and culture. 

An extensive scrutiny of the idea suggests that the root cause lies in Sigmund Freud’s Pleasure Principle of psychology. The principle claims that individuals instinctively seek immediate pleasure to avoid experiencing feelings of stress, pain and sadness. In the context of impulsive purchasing, the principle fits well, as it is only a short term coping mechanism rooted in instant relief from stress. As compared to the Freudian Reality Principle, the Pleasure Principle is the inability of individuals to defer immediate gratification of certain desires and wants that rationality and reality may disallow. 

The Sadness Cycle  

Even though retail therapy eases the anxiety and pain in people’s lives, such a positive impact may be short-lived. While retail therapy can be supported by psychological reasoning, Economics does not go hand-in-hand with the concept due to its assumption of rationality among all individuals. From the point of view of rationality, the problems of running out of budget and debts arise due to limited financial resources. Impulsive overspending may lead people to become even more anxious and distressed due to the inability of paying bills and lacking a sound financial base, in the long run. A rough patch after having run out of budget may seem more dramatic and difficult to handle, due to a lack of finance to purchase something to feel better. In desperate times like these, individuals addicted to the method, may resort to desperate measures like taking loans from others or stealing. This might be complemented with feelings of guilt due to unrealistically high expenditure patterns. 

Thus, retail therapy, to an obsessive degree can lead to reverse effects by introducing a cycle of stress and anxiety for an individual rather than helping one fight the tough times. 

The ‘Viral’ Remedy 

With the Coronavirus pandemic hitting the world, people across the globe felt paralysed due to being restricted homes all the time. While this altered the work culture among people, the norms of schooling among students and put a halt to dining out, it had an impact on the shoppers. Research suggests that elements appealing to an individual’s senses, like aroma, music, a creative arrangement of products in a store, temperature contribute to the experience of shoppers. Unfortunately, with the lockdown implemented across the world, this ‘sensory’ experience was no longer available. As a result of this, one would expect sales to fall. However, the online retail industry led to a different turn of events.

According to Forbes, as of March 2020, several online retail categories experienced a 74% year over year increase in sales, as compared to March 2018. Some of the top categories that saw a surge in the sale are home goods like furniture and home decor items and athletic and loungewear. While it may be argued that these categories resonate more with individuals in the current scenario due to the need to stay home, it must be noted that none of these items are essentials. Thus, it can be suggested that individuals binge purchased during the pandemic to escape the fears and stress of the situation and its uncertainty, thereby serving as a recent instance of retail therapy. 

The impact of retail therapy on an individual’s life depends upon the degree of engagement. On one hand, retail therapy in the form of window shopping, purchasing with adherence to one’s budget or buying pre-planned things can help to reduce stress and sadness both in the short term and long run. On the other hand, if the simple habit intensifies to become an addiction, it results in adverse problems which in turn brings more distress, thereby defeating the purpose of the ‘therapy’. 


Nirikta Mukherjee

Nirikta is pursuing B.A. Economics (Hons) from SRCC, Delhi University. Development Economics and Public Policy intrigue her. Apart from being a vivid reader and an Indian classical dancer, she enjoys writing poetry, travelling and photography.

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