Can't resist splurging in online shopping? Here's why

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Adrian R. Camilleri, University of Technology Sydney and Eugene Y. Chan, Purdue University

The demand for online shopping has obviously increased since COVID-19 restrictions were put in place.

But less obvious are the subtle psychological drivers behind our collective online shopping splurge. In fact, online shopping can relieve stress, provide entertainment and offers the reduced ‘pain’ of paying online.

In the last week of April, more than two million parcels a day were delivered across the Australia Post network. This is 90 per cent more than the same time last year.

More recently, data based on a weekly sample (from 11-17 May) of transactions revealed food delivery increased by 230 per cent, furniture and office goods purchases rose 140 per cent and alcohol and tobacco sales rose 45 per cent.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen thousands of retail job losses, with Wesfarmers announcing plans on Friday to close up to 75 Target stores around the country, and Myer finally reopening stores after nearly two months of closure.

Why the shopping frenzy?
Online sales of many product categories have increased, including for food, winter clothes and toys. This isn’t surprising given people still need to eat, winter is coming and we’re bored at home.

But beyond the fact most people are spending more time at home, there is a range of psychological factors behind the online shopping upheaval.

Recent months have been stressful due to financial uncertainty, the inability to visit loved ones and changes to our daily routines.

Shopping can be a way to cope with stress. In fact, higher levels of distress have been linked with higher purchase intentions. And this compulsion to buy is often part of an effort to reduce negative emotions.

In other words, shopping is an escape.

A 2013 study compared people living close to the Gaza-Israel border during a period of conflict with those from a central Israeli town that wasn’t under duress. The researchers found those living in the high-stress environment reported a higher degree of ‘materialism’ and a desire to shop to relieve stress.

When mall trips aren’t an option
Indeed, in a time when typical forms of entertainment such as restaurants and cinemas are inaccessible, shopping becomes a form of entertainment. The act of shopping alone produces increased arousal, heightened involvement, perceived freedom, and fantasy fulfilment.

It seems the stress and boredom brought on by this pandemic has intensified our will to spend.

What’s more, psychology research has demonstrated humans’ inability to delay gratification.

We want things now. Even with stay-at-home orders, we still want new make-up, clothes, shoes, electronics and housewares.

Another pleasant aspect of online shopping is it avoids the typical ‘pain of paying’ experienced during in-person transactions.

Most people don’t enjoy parting with their money. But research has shown the psychological pain produced from spending money depends on the transaction type. The more tangible the transaction, the stronger the pain.

Simply, paying for a product by physically giving cash hurts more than clicking a ‘buy now’ button.

Clear browsing history
Interestingly, online shopping also allows high levels of anonymity. While you may have to enter your name, address and card details – no-one can see you.

It’s easier to buy ‘embarrassing’ products when no-one is looking. Apart from lockdown restrictions making it more difficult to date, this may also help explain why sex toy sales have surged during the pandemic.

Sales of lingerie and other intimate apparel have also reportedly jumped 400 per cent.

COVID-19 aside, shopping addiction (formally known as compulsive buying disorder) is a real disorder that may affect as many as one out of 20 people in developed countries. Shutterstock

How have businesses responded?
With advertising spend down, businesses have responded in different ways to recent changes in online shopping.

Many are offering discounts to encourage spending. Last week’s Click Frenzy became a central hub for thousands of deals across dozens of retailers such as Telstra, Target and Dell.

Others have moved operations online for the first time. If you scroll through any major food delivery app, you’ll see offers from restaurants that previously specialised in dine-in services.

Meanwhile, existing meal delivery services such as HelloFresh and Lite n’ Easy are updating their methods to guarantee hygienic packing and transport.

Several small Australian businesses have also pivoted. Clarke Murphy Print responded to slowing print jobs by starting Build-a-Desks.

Even established brands are getting creative. For example, Burger King outlets in the US are offering free burgers to customers who use one of their billboards as a virtual backdrop during conference calls.

Don’t buy better, be better
Unfortunately, with the ease of online purchasing, and our increased motivation to give in to improve our mood or seek entertainment, many people are now at risk of overspending and landing in financial stress.

It’s important to control spending during this fraught time. Simple ways to do this include creating a budget, avoiding ‘buy now, pay later’ schemes, recognising your spending ‘triggers’ and planning ahead.

As isolation increases materialism, it’s also important to keep in touch with family and friends, whether that’s in person (if allowed in your area), via video calls or phone.

So the next time you’re thinking of pulling out your credit card, why not get Skype up on the screen and play a virtual game of Pictionary instead?The Conversation

Adrian R. Camilleri, Senior Lecturer in Marketing, University of Technology Sydney and Eugene Y. Chan, Associate Professor, Purdue University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Total Comments: 5
  1. 0

    I missed all those feelings, should have been told how to feel in advance.
    I guess uni prof’s got to do something.
    One casualty of the virus seems to be expert credibility.
    Probably a bit cynical, but I’m sick of conflicting opinions from self appointed experts.

  2. 0

    I cannot understand why anyone would want to shop online for everyday items, especially for clothing and footwear. How do you know they’re going to fit? And food? I wouldn’t trust anyone else to choose what I’m going to eat. Then there are postage/freight costs…. A totally ridiculous innovation, even stupider than self-service checkouts.

    • 0

      I have been doing online shopping forever it feels like. It is so handy and you can compare and shop around really easily. You look for sales and deals and no delivery fee. Even our daughter has been doing it lately. I cannot imagine trudging around shops especially now. You get to know where to buy from and what suits you best.

    • 0

      BillW31, careful on-line shopping would mean there are no shipping costs! Also it is frequently cheaper to shop on line and by far more than the 10% GST on-line stores must now add. This is precisely why people bought in to on-line shopping in the first place.

      Those who buy clothing and such on line tend to buy from specific stores so they know the item will fit. However, almost all on-line stores have a free returns policy so you can send the item back for free. Of course this does mean a trip to the post office, (unless they provide courier pick up) but a small inconvenience for many.

      I never buy clothes or food on-line. However, I do use it to buy gifts from people overseas. I buy items in that country and have it delivered free. A much cheaper option that works well and I am not subjected to the vagueries of Australia Post and its sky high postage and long delivery times!

  3. 0

    We have indulged in on-line grocery shopping, mainly because our children insist we stay home and away from shops. Our local pharmacy home delivers now and we have opened an on-line tatts account so we can buy tickets on-line. We do not feel entirely comfortable not selecting our own produce or goods, like to see and feel what we are buying. When the covid-19 dust settles we will go back to in-store shopping. The only other thing we bought on-line was some accessories for my computer as she-who-must-be-obeyed refused me permission to go down to JB HiFi. She will not even let me go to Bunnings for a new washer for our toilet cistern. Still the lockdown is no more than a mild inconvenience, we were bought up in a time when entertaining oneself was the norm,



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