How Retail Therapy Can Help You Get Through a Crisis

Safe shopping. It means a lot more these days than keeping 6 feet from fellow consumers.

As many Americans’ stress level continues to build during times of crisis, a dose of retail therapy can provide a safe and effective outlet to relieve anxiety.

Brick-and-mortar stores may be closed, but that doesn’t mean consumers lack opportunities to shop as they stay at home. Extended hours at home as we shelter-in-place is leaving some with extra time on their hands to scour the internet for items they may — or may not —need. However, retail therapy should not be confused with compulsive buying. Below, FN explains where the line can be drawn between retail therapy and compulsive buying, and how to ensure that your habits fall into the former category rather than the latter.

Retail Therapy & Compulsive Shopping: What’s the Difference?

Unlike retail therapy, the pleasure associated with compulsive shopping doesn’t last past the moment. Thus, after a purchase is made, consumers often feel guilty or regretful, rather than feeling a therapeutic benefit as a result of their buy.

According to Healthline, an online resource for physical and mental health, those who shop when feeling down or stressed can experience a mood boost from browsing — even if they don’t buy anything at all. And while it’s assumed people engaged in retail therapy can walk a slippery slope toward overspending, it’s not always the case. Most are able to stay well within their budgets.

How Retail Therapy Can Go Wrong

For many of us, shopping can act as a form of stress relief during a difficult time. Wearing a new sweater or pair of shoes can help our days feel a little brighter, even when we’re working from home and aren’t seeing many other people. And while many can gain a therapeutic benefit from shopping, for others so-called retail therapy can result in a cycle of overspending, This in turn could lead to debt — in some cases resulting in significant stress for the consumer.

Professor Lynn Kahle, PhD, a professor of consumer psychology and visiting professor at Pace University, and emeritus professor at University of Oregon, told FN people can overdo any kind of activity, from shopping to gambling.

For example, most people are able to gamble reasonably for recreational purposes, according to Kahle, but he said 5% get carried away and use money they don’t really have to spend. The same, he explained, can be said for shopping.

“A lot of the therapeutic benefit of retailing is from the shopping part as opposed to the buying part,” Kahle said.

As noted above, purchasing a larger quantity of goods is unlikely to result in increased happiness on the part of the consumer — just clicking through a retailer’s online site can already help lift your spirits, but if even if you do end up buying something, realize that you can get the mood boost without breaking the bank.

Online Versus In-Store Retail Therapy

While retail therapy might conjure up images in your head of a big shopping spree at the mall, in-store shopping just isn’t possible for many at the moment, given the current stay-at-home orders impacting the majority of Americans. For that reason, many are ditching their physical carts for virtual ones, at least for the time being.

However, there is some good news when it comes to online versus in-store shopping. When in store, there are others around us buying, which can cause a sort of social contagion affect, said Dr. Kahle. Meanwhile, there is a more isolated experience when it comes to e-commerce.

“The social pressure you get on Amazon is less than you would experience in Walmart,” he noted.

Due to this lessened social pressure, shoppers may be less likely to overdo it when they’re on the internet versus shopping brick-and-mortar. This, in turn, may make e-commerce buying a more wallet-friendly options.


Nonetheless, not everyone may feel the need to tighten their purse strings amid the current crisis. Although over-buying can throw those who’ve been furloughed or laid off into debt, other people who are still employed and continuing to receive their scheduled pay may find themselves with some extra cash. After all, there are certain expenses that have been lessened due to the crisis, such as costs associated with commuting, going out to eat or entertainment like sporting events, movie tickets and concerts.

Still, even those who are receiving full pay might be in danger of going over their budgets, Kahle cautions.

“Some people are good at managing their budget and some aren’t,” said Kahle. “There’s always a danger of someone getting carried away.”

Why Shop for Fashion During a Crisis?

During the crisis, many have cut back on their discretionary spending, saving their hard-earned dollars for necessities, but that doesn’t mean everyone is cutting their fashion and footwear spend — or that they should. Many factors go into someone’s decision to spend,  and even the United States federal government’s stimulus checks (qualifying individuals receive $1,200, married couples receive $2,400 and parents receive $500 for each child under $500) can make a difference.

“For a lot of people getting the $1,200 check, the question is how will they handle it,” said Kahle. “If you’ve lost your job, you’ll probably spend it for rent, utilities or groceries. But, if you haven’t lost your job, it’s like found money as opposed to earned money, with people more willing to spend it frivolously.”

Whether Americans have job security or are among the millions who have filed for unemployment since the crisis began, it’s certain that the stay-at-home situation has created stress for all — and our reactions to that stress are quite varied.

According to Dr. Kahle, “The mechanism we have for dealing with stress are many and varied. You see a lot of evidence of people dealing with stress.” he noted. “Gun and alcohol sales are way up, and for that matter domestic violence is way up.”

And for some, shopping can provide some stress relief in these uncertain times. So, while you may think twice when it comes to hitting the buy button online, let moderation be your guide.

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