It might not be possible to buy happiness, but you can buy relief from low mood. That’s according to an investigation of retail therapy by Selin Atalay and Margaret Meloy. Through three separate studies the pair concluded that retail therapy generally works, that people deploy the practice strategically, rather than impulsively, and that there are few if any negative emotional side-effects.
But before you head off for a quick spending spree, note the caveats: the study relied on US participants, mostly university students; measures of mood were self-report; and there was deviation into a study of chocolate consumption, as opposed to actual buying behaviour.
The investigation kicked off at a US shopping mall, with nearly two hundred shoppers surveyed on their way in and way out. This confirmed that people use retail therapy as a mood enhancer. Those participants who reported being in a bad mood on their way into the mall were more likely to admit on their way out to having made an unplanned self-indulgent purchase.
For a second study, dozens of students thought they were taking part in a taste test to do with developing new ice-cream flavours, for which they had the opportunity to sample a number of chocolate snack bars. Half these participants had been primed earlier with a short passage of text that said impulsive people are far less creative than more restrained folk. These same participants also completed an earlier word search task that included restraint-related words like “careful”. All this was intended to set them a goal of wanting to be restrained.
The subsequent finding was that participants in low mood at the study outset tended to eat more of the sample snack bars, unless, that is, they’d been exposed to the restraint-based text and word-search. Eating more chocolate led to a lift for those in low mood at the study outset, but so too did succeeding at restraint for those primed with that goal. Atalay and Meloy said this result shows that consumers are strategic rather than impulsive. “If there are mood reparatory benefits associated with showing restraint, individuals are capable of not acting on their impulses,” they said.
Lastly the researchers had 69 undergrads complete two retrospective consumption diaries, two weeks apart, documenting their purchasing behaviour, mood and regrets. All the participants admitted in the first diary to having bought themselves a treat (mostly clothes, but also food, electronics, entertainment products and so on). Sixty-two per cent of these purchases had been motivated by low mood, 28 per cent as a form of celebration. Surprisingly perhaps, treats bought as a form of mood repair were generally about half the value of treats bought for celebration, reinforcing the notion that retail therapy is constrained, not out of control. Moreover, according to the diaries, the retail therapy purchases were overwhelmingly beneficial, leading to mood boosts and no regrets or guilt, even when they were unplanned. Only one participant who’d made a retail therapy purchase said that she would return it, given the opportunity.
“It is not suggested here that every retailer suddenly make a small treat item available at checkout to tempt consumers, or that mall planners strategically locate candy stores near every mall exit,” the researchers said. “What is suggested is that perhaps practitioners have it ‘right’ when they appeal to consumers with slogans that encourage them to buy themselves small splurges. There seem to be positive consequences to buying oneself a small treat; one does feel better.”
Atalay, A., and Meloy, M. (2011). Retail therapy: A strategic effort to improve mood. Psychology and Marketing, 28 (6), 638-659 DOI: 10.1002/mar.20404
A related study was published recently: The Plastic Trap: Self-Threat Drives Credit Usage and Status Consumption.