Retail Therapy

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For the last couple of days I've been out of sorts and down. Before I started my year of not shopping, I probably would have gone browsing at stores and purchased some little bauble or toy to cheer myself up. That's quite a common thing to do. It even has a name, retail therapy. I don't know a single person who doesn't practice it at least sometimes.

I thought about retail therapy as I indulged in my own therapy yesterday - eating lunch out while doing my Japanese homework - and had some thoughts about why we shop to try to feel better. Shopping isn't good therapy in the least. However, it does supply:

We need space and time away from our problems. Retail environments offer lots of distractions, including mood-setting music, eye-catching displays, demos and testers to explore, and other shoppers to watch. Oh, shiny kittens!

Whether these distractions help us process our issues in the background of our minds or just keep us from finding a resolution may depend upon the situation. Problem solving often benefits by distraction so that the subconscious can reach the eureka moment, but this only applies when one can solve the problem solo. If the problem is of the relationship variety, I think shopping becomes procrastination of a difficult conversation with another person, or avoidance of action or therapeutic thought.

New things are exciting. They promise a better future, an easier life, an improved you. The anticipation of listening to a new album, the beauty claims of a face mask, the imagined compliments from wearing the latest fashion all offer a mental lift and mood boost. Whatever is distressing us in the rest of our world can be momentarily forgotten as we fantasize about ourselves with this new object.

But future-building via acquisition rarely comes to much. After playing with, listening to, wearing, or using the item we bought, it's likely that we are back to our original unhappy state. Unless we gained some insight from playing/listening/wearing/using it, nothing is changed. Or worse, we're disillusioned because the hope placed in the improvement and curative power of the purchase didn't come to anything after all. Worse yet, the item broke or didn't function as it was designed. Hope truly shattered.

Being part of a group helps us feel better about ourselves and makes our problems seem smaller. When we become the proud owner of a new iPhone, BMW, Gap sweater, or the latest novel by Haruki Murakami, we join a tribe of people who also bought these things. We are connected both to other owners and to the company that spawned the products. We associate with a brand image; we are now a cool hipster; someone who has made it in the world; on-trend but practical; a quirky intellectual.

Real connections and community are important, but the connection we get from shopping is pretty shallow. We are one of 14 million iPhone owners. Aside from earning profit via our wallet, any corporation wants little to do with us. Shopping doesn't build connections that help our troubles much after the initial glow of association.

Shopping puts us in control when our life feels a mess. It gives us something to "do". Retail therapy involves lots of small actions based on personal decisions - where to shop, what to look at, when to make a buy, which color/size/model to choose, whether to pay in cash or on credit - and while they are mostly minor choices, they are still decisions to be acted on. Making a decision and following through with it is empowering.

Maybe empowerment explains the crux of retail therapy and its extreme cousin, shopaholic behaviour. "Gee, I might not be able to get a promotion/stop my husband from drinking/cure my aunt's illness, but I can buy this pretty green shirt and shoes to match. Yes, I'll do that." This same action and control factor plays a role in eating disorders, too.

Is consumerism in general a huge blanket for soothing society's and individual's woes, fears and sadness? Now that is a depressing thought. What do others think about this?

I was sure that retail therapy would be a subject of great exploration and research, but there isn't much on this topic, at least not on the Internet. Paco Underhill is a subject expert with books like Why We Buy and Call of the Mall. I found a 2004 paper by Andy Pratt at the London School of Economics that starts out calling retail therapy "anti-therapy" but quickly moves into academic jargon like "acceptance of the quasi-anthropological dictum" and is actually discussing economic analysis of consumption.

In less academic circles, a report from Cotton, Inc's Lifestyle Monitor explains that women like the social aspects of shopping together. Discovery Health claims that women experience pleasure and power when they shop to improve their environment and express creativity. An ABC News article about a 2008 study says feeling sad leads to self-centered thinking and higher spending when shopping. Not to be outdone, CBS News discusses the release of dopamine in the shopping brain, creating a shopper's high. There's a Guardian article about how the walking involved in shopping is a health benefit.

So I am glad that I am not shopping as a therapy. Doing my homework offered the distraction, hope, connection and action that shopping might have, but didn't cost anything, improved my Japanese vocabulary, and inspired this writing, too.

1 Comment

Maybe because I'm older than you, I've never engaged in retail therapy. I find the concept somewhat alien. Even now I do not take particular pleasure in shopping for the sake of shopping and even less with buying. And yet, I do sometimes have an acquisitive streak. I do like to collect certain kinds of things. Overall, however, I feel stressed by shopping and would never go shopping to cheer myself up when I'm depressed or out of sorts. Shopping is something I have to face with batteries charged. I find it very draining.

There was an article in Time magazine about shopper's getting tired of the recession.,8599,1901902,00.html

I found it to be really a depressing article and very alien to my way of thinking. Perhaps we really are consumers and not citizens. It's a real disconnect for me.

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