"When I shop, the world gets better, and the world is better. But then it's not, and I need to do it again," admits Confessions of a Shopaholic's Rebecca Bloomwood, right after she was shamed during a live in-studio interview for her multiple attempts at dodging a debt collector.
The 2009 film overdramatises the act of shopping—or rather, over-shopping—to some incredulous degree. Bloom, for one, owns multiple credit cards and even has one frozen in a block of ice in case of emergencies. Then there's the happenstance of her landing a job as a columnist for a finance magazine, dishing out advice as she battles her own financial issues.
But as Bloom details her penchant for spending way above her means to her fellow Shopaholics Anonymous members, there's a relatable sense of déjà vu that almost any person who finds some semblance of pleasure in shopping can relate to—"The joy you feel when you've bought something, and it's just you and the shopping." Idyllic, perhaps, but it sure does sound therapeutic.
Retail therapy is a concept that was first referenced in the '80s. The Chicago Tribune is said to be among the first published uses of the term, in an article referencing research which suggested that time spent on shopping per week (in 1986) "remained stable for decades" at 113 minutes for the average adult. The statistic solely refers to what the article calls general shopping and is separate from shopping for groceries or services. In essence, it's a suggestion that retail therapy is non-essential and is brought about by the increased purchasing power of an individual, beyond the most basic necessities.
The way that wearing a suit can be adopted as an instant confidence-booster is similar (albeit in a more outlandish fashion) to the relationship between some men and their luxury super cars.
That has often been the general consensus to what retail therapy is: the act of splurging to effect a positive change in one's mood. It usually refers to things that one doesn't necessarily need but by purchasing them elicits feelings of instant happiness, or at the very least, results in the maintenance of one's mood.
But there's more to retail therapy than just rocking up to a luxury boutique and buying a bag that you've been eyeing (and constantly deliberating on) for the past few months, in a matter of seconds. As Leonard Lee, professor of marketing at the National University of Singapore Business School, writes in his 2015 journal article, The Emotional Shopper: Assessing the Effectiveness of Retail Therapy, there are a few theories that relate to how retail therapy affects one's mood, based on three aspects—motivational, behavioural and emotional.
The first accounts for the goals and motivations that urge a person to shop, and in turn are achieved through the act of shopping. Behavioural, on the other hand, refers to shopping as a sequence of actions, and that by completing them effects a change in mood. And the emotional aspect counts shopping as a hedonic experience that brings about a range of emotions.
Even within those three aspects of retail therapy, there is a multitude of variations and specificities. We are complex beings after all and there rarely is a one-size-fits-all scale of behaviours that can account for every individual. But with retail therapy regarded as a form of treatment of sorts, at least to those who consciously undergo it, it does seem like an antidote to a number of problems.
Highlighted by journals and books on the matter by researchers—dating as early as the '80s—retail therapy has been found to be a mechanism to deal with several personal issues. These can range from the simplest of motivations ("I go shopping when I want to treat myself to something special") to the more abstract ("I like the visual stimulation that shopping provides"). But they can also include 'symptoms' that could allude to bigger issues which perhaps the mere act of shopping cannot serve as a cure-all; at least, not one that's sustainable in the long run.
Quite possibly, the most destructive is what consumer behaviour researchers refer to as compensatory consumption. It's the act of using retail therapy as a means to hopefully compensate for something that one lacks, be it psychologically or physically. And again, the range is wide and differs from individual to individual. It could be buying body-shaping innerwear to feel better about one's body. Or as comically depicted by Ross Geller in Friends, purchasing a pair of leather trousers as part of a resolution to try something new every day, but deep down it's to make up for the character's inherent lack of edge. As expected, that turned out quite disastrously for Geller and involved being trapped in his date's washroom covered leg-deep in a paste of powder and body lotion—a cautionary tale indeed.
Compensatory consumption is more often than not a product of wanting to conform to societal norms and that old adage of keeping up with the Joneses. For men, there's a semblance of toxic masculinity in the way that retail therapy is seen as a means of overcoming their lack of manliness. It's especially apparent in the way that, for example, Porsche used to advertise its cars back in the '80s. A copy would read, "Small penis? Have I got a car for you" in bold font right above the side profile of a Carrera 4 model. It perhaps was rather tongue-in-cheek back in the day, but now that we've become more aware of the effect such language could have on a person's psyche, it's not something that should be lauded.
Having said that, compensatory consumption is one of the more extreme reasons a person would opt for a bout of retail therapy. But let's not negate the possibility that retail therapy works in this instance. The way that wearing a suit can be adopted as an instant confidence-booster is similar (albeit in a more outlandish fashion) to the relationship between some men and their luxury super cars.
At the very core of retail therapy is its perceived ability to elevate moods. A study published in 2011 and documented by professors A Selin Ataly and Margaret G Meloy, Retail Therapy: A Strategic Effort to Improve Mood, suggests that the notion is indeed true. This is backed across three different field experiments conducted with a sample of about 400 adults to determine if the positive effects of retail therapy would lead to further negative emotions in the long term. The study found that people in relatively bad moods tend to make more unplanned purchases as opposed to those who are happier.
One of the experiments also concluded that purchases made to repair one's mood do not lead to any feeling of guilt, anxiety or regret after. Participants were told to complete two consumption diaries over a period of two weeks—the first detailed events and experiences that happened before purchasing a self-treat, while the second tracked participants' feelings of their purchases after a period of time. Results revealed that engaging in retail therapy seems to have very few downsides, with an overwhelming number of participants valuing their purchases as positive consequences (and not regretful decisions) well after the act of therapeutic shopping is over with.
That's where retail therapy gets most of its flack, doesn't it? The fact that buying something—a luxury apart from the most basic necessities—is done in the name of making one feel better about themselves or the situation they've been put in. It's the very idea that we place such importance on a material object to effect positive change. However, that's not exactly the case all the time.
Contrary to popular belief, retail therapy doesn't necessarily need to result in the purchase of an item. Researchers over the years have found that taking part in the shopping process without actually spending money serves the same purpose as function-oriented shopping where products are acquired.
Shopping in itself is a recreational activity. And as compared to function-oriented shopping, researchers in 1977 found that recreational shopping accounts for longer shopping hours with little to no concrete goal in mind, and a higher propensity to do so with others while fostering bonds. There's a hedonic value to what has become known as window shopping and, in most cases, is just as effective as (if not more) buying something at the end of the day.
Think back to when what you thought was a quick stroll along rows of stores or a brief scroll through new arrivals on multiple e-commerce platforms, turned out to have taken significant chunks out of your time. While shopping with a focused goal in mind can tend to be a straightforward and rather quick jaunt, window shopping is more idle in nature. Without a singular purpose to the activity, it's an opportunity for the mind to wander and get lost in browsing and looking at things that could potentially end up in a purchase. In some ways, it's akin to daydreaming—a positive distraction from any worldly concerns, even if just for a few moments.
There's a hedonic value to what has become known as window shopping and, in most cases, is just as effective as (if not more) buying something at the end of the day.
Conversely, if one isn't subconsciously distracted, they're visually engaged. Visual merchandising and everything else but the items of potential interest act as stimuli to capture their attention, and in turn cause them to discover things they wouldn't normally thought of and end up spending more time being distracted.
In other words, as long as you're window shopping, chances are you're bound to momentarily forget about the negative emotions. This would then possibly lead to dealing with those emotions at a more rational state, or even realise that they aren't as grave as initially thought to be.
There have been countless of consumer behaviour researches done surrounding retail therapy over the decades. While there are still many studies to be researched on to target more focused conclusions, it's pretty safe to say that science posits that retail therapy does work. It shouldn't by any account be the go-to method of dealing with negative emotions, but one shouldn't discount the benefits that it does provide.
For one, a recent example is the socially distanced crowd lined up outside luxury boutiques, the very moment that the first wave of lockdowns ended in many cities around the world. Women's Wear Daily reported that Guangzhou's Hermès flagship boutique, for instance, fetched at least USD2.7 million in sales on the first day of reopening back in April 2020. This influx of sales and shoppers gave rise to the term revenge shopping—a phenomenon caused by the sudden change in lifestyle and seclusion from society. Or quite simply put, a pandemic-driven variation of retail therapy.
With Asian countries being faster than the West in adapting to the new normal brought about by COVID-19 and executing various forms of lockdowns to stamp out the pandemic within their borders, brands such as Louis Vuitton and Dior have seen surges in demand in the third quarter of 2020. In fact, LVMH reported that revenues from handbags and ready-to-wear rose by 12 percent during that period when compared to the same time the year before in spite of the global situation, beating analysts' estimates.
Who's to say for sure that the positive trend isn't due to hordes of customers exercising their own versions of retail therapy? Even if it was due to diverting their spending power because they're unable to travel like they're used to, from vacations to luxury fashion, it may still be a reactionary response to the feelings of helplessness and uncertainties faced during lockdown.
Bloomwood reasoned that her excessive spending was done to continuously make herself and her environment feel better. While her motivations may pose underlying issues that certainly require more than what retail therapy could offer, they don't negate the fact—as studies have shown and probably unbeknownst to the financially illiterate shopaholic—that retail therapy does work.
At the very least, retail therapy helps in buffering negativity, even if just momentarily and temporarily. It may not be something that should be prescribed regularly but, like any off-the-counter medication, should always be taken as instructed (in this case, a quick look at your finances). And if the symptoms of dipped moods and negative emotions persist, seek professional help.
Shopping, after all, is supposed to generate pleasing feelings but never used as a crutch to constantly maintain a positive outlook in life. That's what actual therapists are for.
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