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Retail Therapy

One more thing you can do from home this year.

So much of our shopping experience has shifted since early 2020. We used to shop online and in brick-and-mortar stores; now we shop online, sometimes exclusively, often not even touching the items we've purchased until they are delivered to our doors.

But, the other big shift has been mood—the national mood has been, to put it bluntly, bad. In July 2020, 53% of U.S. adults 18 and older said that worry and stress related to the COVID-19 pandemic have had a negative effect on their mental health. These numbers were up from reports earlier in the year, meaning more people reported more negative mental health experiences as the impact of the pandemic continued. Now that we are several more months into the pandemic, we are balancing some light at the end of the tunnel with ongoing uncertainty and continued loss.

That said, “consumer spending has been one of the few bright spots in the pandemic-battered economy,” according to business and retail reporters Michael Corkery and Sapna Maheshwari. “Since the spring, Americans have spent more each month even in the face of mounting job losses, political turmoil and recurring virus outbreaks.”

What’s to make of our purchases? Are our shopping habits a form of retail therapy? Are we trying to make ourselves feel better by shopping? And, is our thinking along these lines a good idea?

When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping

I was curious about retail therapy as a healing art not only because I have found myself engaging in this form of therapy, but because I have been in touch with others who also are finding themselves seeking comfort through shopping. Was there actually something scientifically proven about why we seek out sneakers at a time that we don’t even really need sneakers?

I turned to research on retail therapy completed by consumer behaviorists, specifically a multi-part study examining three ideas about retail therapy (Atalay & Meloy, 2011):

  1. We do treat ourselves to small indulgences to cheer ourselves up.
  2. Though most of these treats are unplanned, they are part of a “strategic effort to repair a bad mood."
  3. Retail therapy doesn’t make us feel bad about ourselves later—we don’t regret the decision to treat ourselves.

Psychological research shows that we try to create more stable internal environments, engaging in activities we hope will help us feel better while avoiding risky activities that might make us feel worse.

At the same time, we want to feel better faster and may be more likely to make choices quickly—some may say impulsively—so that we can get out of a bad mood before it gets worse.

On the whole, it seems that retail therapy can be quite effective—we use it when we want to feel better, faster, with few regrets.

As with any other behavior, if something is getting in the way of our everyday wellness, or is becoming closer to an addiction, it can’t really be characterized as positively therapeutic (though it certainly may have properties that feel therapeutic in the moment). So, paying attention to how often and why we might be engaging in retail therapy is important. But, it seems like a relatively safe way to help ourselves in times of stress when things feel so out of control.

From a social justice perspective, engaging in retail therapy in a way that supports Black-owned, women-owned, or locally-owned-and-operated small businesses with your purchases, you are also doing social good and putting resources into communities that have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic (not to mention, for Black folks, the financial impact of years of institutionalized racism).

What can you do to be sure your retail therapy is staying within the lines? Treat yourself to small indulgences, view them as a strategic effort to help yourself feel better—and maybe even have a positive impact in a socially-conscious way—and if you do feel guilt or regret, consider that you may be on the line and need to scale it back.

Copyright 2021 Elana Premack Sandler, all rights reserved.


Atalay, A.S. & Meloy, M.G. (2011). Retail therapy: A strategic effort to improve mood. Psychology & Marketing, 28: 638-659.

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