Ononline shopping is more than a pastime for those who like to browse the largest shopping mall in the world: the Internet. It is also a sport.
Otherwise, how to explain Monica Corcoran Harel’s reaction to the announcement of a flash sale at one of her favorite online stores? “I’m very, very excited and incredibly competitive,” she says, pressing refresh again and again to land the best deal. If a family member happens to walk into the room while she’s hovering over her computer, “I’m like, ‘flash sale!’ I have a flash sale!’ In other words: do not disturb.
Corcoran Harel, 53, who lives in the Los Angeles area and runs Pretty Ripe, a lifestyle newsletter for women over 40, has been shopping online for years. She appreciates the ability to visit dozens of stores at once, compare prices before clicking “buy now” and the promise of fast delivery, all without leaving her home. Online shopping is “beyond intoxicating,” she says. “I’m probably partly responsible for the downfall of physical stores.”
But what makes these commands so enjoyable? Experts explain the psychology behind shopping online, plus tips on how to exercise restraint if your shopping cart overflows.
Online shopping has increased during the pandemic
Online shopping went from novelty to normality years ago: Amazon launched nearly three decades ago, in 1995, as an online bookseller, and now reports that customers shop around 7,400 products per minute from its US salespeople. But the pandemic has changed consumer habits in a way that has favored the online purchase of basic necessities like toilet paper. According to the Annual Retail Trade Survey, e-commerce sales grew by $244 billion, or 43%, in 2020, from $571 billion in 2019 to $815 billion in 2020.
This push was at least partly driven by a desire to avoid indoor halls. But experts say it could also be linked to self-soothing behaviors. Research has long suggested that retail therapy may in fact be therapeutic. A study published in the consumer psychology journal in 2014, for example, says shopping helps people feel instantly happier and also combats lingering sadness. One reason, the study’s authors speculate, is that making purchase decisions confers a sense of personal control and autonomy.
Another study, published in Psychology & Marketing in 2011, found that shopping has “long-lasting positive impacts on mood” and is not associated with feelings of regret or guilt about impulse purchases.
Shopping is, in many ways, driven by emotion, says Jorge Barraza, program director and assistant professor in the online master of science program in applied psychology at the University of Southern California. “When we’re sad, when we’re stressed, we’re more likely to engage in that kind of behavior,” he says. In some cases, he notes, the spark of joy sparked by a fancy new dress or gadget may not last, especially if the buyer knows they are mismanaging their money. “This mood boost may be transient, if you’re spending more than you can afford, but at least temporarily it seems to restore a sense of control and reduce any residual sadness people may be feeling.”
Why online shopping makes people so happy
In many ways, online shopping catapults the pleasure of in-person shopping into a different, almost overwhelming stratosphere. “It’s psychologically so powerful,” says Joshua Klapow, a psychologist and adjunct associate professor of public health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. (He’s also the new owner of three inflatable pool floats, a collapsible whip, two jars of almond butter and 50 pounds of birdseed, all of which he ordered online.)
Compared to in-person shopping, “it’s a much more rewarding experience overall, because there’s less friction, less hurdles, less behavioral costs, more specificity, and more choice,” says- he. In addition, “shopping is totally adapted to us. We can shop fast or slow.
Part of the reason online shopping is so appealing is convenience. When we shop in person, Klapow points out, we have to walk or drive or find another way to get there, and then we have to browse aisle after aisle to find what we’re looking for. Even in stores that offer contactless payment, effort is required to complete a transaction: swiping a credit card or Apple Pay on your phone, for example. Then a buyer has to go home. “For many people, these incredibly minor inconveniences simply begin to reduce the overall perceived value of the purchase,” he says.
Besides being easier, shopping online offers the satisfaction of accuracy. If Klapow goes to a big box store, he might not find the shirt he’s looking for in the right size or color. If he’s shopping online, he’s more likely to get exactly what he wants with a lot less hassle.
It’s a form of immediate gratification that we’re all hardwired to crave, says Joseph Kable, a cognitive neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania. “It’s a universal trend among people and shared by much of the animal world,” he says. “People and other animals tend to ignore future outcomes over immediate outcomes. This means that we prefer to have good things as soon as possible and postpone bad things as far into the future as possible.
Interestingly, online shopping is also associated with another, more delayed type of gratification: anticipation of the order’s arrival. Waiting for something exciting is “like Christmas every day,” says Klapow, likening the ability to track a package to monitoring Santa’s whereabouts on Christmas Eve.
This resonates with Corcoran Harel, who works from home and likes to look out the window to see if a package has arrived. “I am vigilant about receiving my packages,” she says. “I’m so excited to open it up and try something – and knowing you can flip something easily makes it better.”
What to do if you think you have a problem
Researchers define compulsive buying as “preoccupation with buying and shopping, frequent buying episodes, or urges to buy that are experienced as irresistible and irrational”. There’s no single answer for whether your online shopping habit is problematic, Barraza says, but it’s generally a good idea to ask yourself if your shopping is interfering with your quality of life.
Compulsive shopping disorder (or any other type of shopping addiction) is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). However, it has been recognized for over a century: German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin is credited with first describing the disorder in 1915, calling it “oniomania” – the Greek word “onios” means “for sale”. and “mania” has been interpreted as “madness”. As authors of a 2012 article in Advances in psychiatric treatmentsTo emphasize, experts continue to debate whether shopping addiction is “a valid mental illness or a leisure activity that individuals use to manage their emotions or express their identity.”
In a study published in 2014 in the Behavioral Addictions Diaryresearchers presented several factors that may predispose someone to develop an addiction to online shopping, including low self-esteem, low self-control, a negative emotional state, a penchant for anonymity, and an internet diet that includes exposure to numerous graphics and pop-up messages.
Another research article, published in 2017 in Frontiers in Psychology, focused on developing a scale that could measure online shopping addiction. According to the authors, six elements are necessary to meet the definition of addictive behaviors, including salience (which means that online shopping would be the most important activity in the person’s life); mood change, such as feeling a buzz after placing an order; conflict, perhaps with family members; and relapse, or resume the behavior after trying to quit. In these cases, someone addicted to online shopping might benefit from working with a professional and undergoing cognitive-behavioral therapy, Klapow says.
Concerns about shopping addiction and overspending are particularly relevant now, as inflation hits its highest level in the United States in four decades. Klapow recommends focusing on making intentional decisions about what to buy. “There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘I want this, so I’ll have it’, but we have to be careful not to call all our wants ‘needs’,” he says.
Here are some tips if you’re worried about spending too much online:
Before checking out, review each item in your online shopping cart and ask yourself, “Do I want this or do I need this?” Klapow asks his clients to do this cognitive exercise, and it can be helpful, he says. “It forces you to look at yourself in the mirror, and you’d be amazed at how many items you end up putting off or saving for later.”
Stick a helpful post-it on your computer screen. It’s one of Klapow’s favorite ways to alter the environment to resist the siren call of e-commerce. Write your monthly budget in large letters on the post-it note, or a message asking you to check the total cost before clicking “buy now”. Visual reminder can help ground you when caught up in the excitement of a new find.
Do not store your credit card information online. Many people store information for several credit cards online, which speeds up the possibility of making a purchase. Ideally, you wouldn’t store even a single card, Klapow says — “not from a security standpoint, but from an impulse standpoint.” Having to manually enter your payment information takes an extra minute to breathe and maybe reevaluate the purchase.
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