Retail Therapy: The Psychology of Happy Shoppers
Ecommerce market research from a study conducted by Rokt has revealed that shoppers are most stimulated, engaged, open-minded, and focused when browsing online stores rather than brick-and-mortar isles. Researchers focused on consumers’ emotional responses to a variety of virtual experiences including browsing search engines, exploring social media, and shopping online. With over 80% of U.S. consumers at their happiest when online shopping, the validity people place in retail therapy has been solidified. This presents a timely and unique opportunity for marketers to accurately target customers who are already in a positive purchasing mindset.
There’s anecdotal evidence on both sides while arguing the legitimacy of retail therapy and whether online shopping is psychologically beneficial or detrimental. Some analysts view online shopping as guilt-inducing or a stressor, while others purport that online shopping is good for your mental health and wellbeing.
In a 2011 study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, a team of University of Michigan professors assert that feelings of sadness are often caused by situations in our life we feel are out of our control; by shopping online, we have direct control over a situation which can lead to the reduction of negative emotions. Regardless of negative or positive outcomes, the psychological differences in the emotional responsiveness and overall experience of traditional, in-person shoppers and digital consumers are in inherently different in most aspects.
“The opportunity that presents itself for brands to engage with consumers is significantly greater when they are in a buying state of mind, than search or social-based campaigns… the best opportunity in digital for brands to be introduced to and convert happy and engaged consumers.”
– Geoff Smith, Rokt CMO
Differences in digital attention spans
When we think of spending time on our laptops, cell phones, and other mobile devices, we often do so in the context of aimless browsing, getting sucked down a YouTube rabbit hole, or countless distractions in the form of social media. However, the short attention span and negative emotions that we associate with social media and browsing without purpose are not necessarily applicable to online shopping. Shopping digitally is linked to longer attention spans and a more positive emotional response.
On social media, consumers are at their least engaged and at the highest risk of becoming distracted by multitasking or viewing more than one screen. While surfing social media most participants may be simultaneously socializing or watching TV; this is not typically the case for online shopping, which requires higher levels of cognition, attention, and purpose.
Comparing satisfaction rates of online shopping vs. social media
The Rokt study report also proposed that when compared to online shopping (3%), more people cite negative emotional responses like frustration (13% of the time) when using social media. Anxiety, anger, disappointment, stress, and other negative emotions are commonly associated with social media; the research linking social media platform exploration and less-than-ideal emotional responses have been prevalently illustrated by a growing amount of research. However, findings produced in the research asserts that shoppers rank “excitement,” “productivity,” and “happiness” as the most frequently experienced emotions in the context of digital purchasing.
You’ve probably heard of the concept of delayed gratification: the psychological process associated with postponing your ability to experience something. Delayed gratification is commonly described as purposefully withholding an initial reward to be revisited later. This results in the brain’s interpretation of that reward as much greater than before.
Choosing to deny internal wants and wishes creates a sense of anticipation that concludes in more prevalent emotional pleasure responses when the reward is eventually received. In online shopping, this presents itself in the form of waiting 3-5 business days for your product to arrive in the mail after you order. This concept stands in contrast to instant gratification, something our society has come to understand as being quite… American. So then, why do we chose to order things online we could pick up in store in a matter of hours?
Subconsciously, there are psychological and physiological processes at work that we don’t necessarily consciously decide on; rather, delayed gratification is part of an extremely rewarding system of internal decision-making that can increase our appreciation of physical materials and keeps us tied to the buying process.
Physical convenience and psychological benefits
The most obvious factor affecting customers’ preference for online shopping is physical convenience. Many consumers attempt to prioritize digital buying experiences over waiting in packed lines at crowded stores. When shopping online, a variety of abilities become available to consumers: detailed customer and service reviews, heightened variety in products and availability, and the ability to search for promo codes, coupons, and rebates. Up to 62% of digital shoppers read online reviews before selecting a product or service provider.
Additionally, virtual shoppers are able to search for competitive pricing with readily-available price comparison. Shopping online saves time, travel expenses, and resources while allowing customers to avoid crowds and chaos during sales or promotions. Digital purchasing processes improve our decision-making skills, multitasking abilities, and cognitive function while calculating purchases and costs.
Positive shopping experiences are not only affected by physical, surface-level factors, there are intense biological responses involving chemicals and hormones that take place in our brain “reward centers” when we shop. When it comes to the purchasing process, dopamine is the neurotransmitter most cited in psychological explanations of internal gratification.
Dopamine is tied to the functions of our brain that deal with the pleasure of anticipating or receiving a reward; normal levels of this chemical spike when we buy ourselves a new product or receive a highly-anticipated purchase in the mail. Whether shopping in-store or online, the moment you decide to buy something it’s common to experience a rush of positive emotions– this hard-to-deny response is often referred to as “shopper’s high.”
‘Therapeutic’ benefits of online shopping
Although shopping is definitely not a replacement for genuine talk therapy or psychoanalysis, the act of shopping (in moderation, people) can hold real advantages and comforts for those who are stressed or anxious. A growing number of psychologists recognize the beneficial functionality of shopping and its ability to ease intense lifestyle transitions or recover from major life events. Shopping during periods of overwhelming emotion like getting married or divorced, moving away to college, having a baby, new job or promotion offer the opportunity, present an opportunity for mental preparation and visualization– two tools that reduce anxiety, encourage imagination, and increase performance.
In addition, shopping online can boost confidence, creativity, sense of mastery, and aesthetic value through digital contact with artful design, craftsmanship, and inspirational functionality. Shopping for art, clothing, technology, or home decor, fosters a person’s sense of creative expression and a newfound respect for a product’s beauty and convenience. Advances in technology and communication within the ecommerce industry have allowed for new levels of digital connection with friends, family, and strangers in regards to products and brands.
Now more than ever, shoppers can form direct relationships with companies, brand supporters and specific products. Seeking a friend’s digital input before making a purchase, interacting with fellow store visitors via chat room or social media, and reading other shoppers’ product reviews generates a sense of interconnectedness. All of these factors contribute to the ease with which a purchase decision is made and decrease consumers’ hesitation.
Personalization of the buying process
A less obvious (but increasingly important) process that plays a role in forming positive online shopping experiences is personalization. Shoppers see the ability to customize and alter product specifications online as a huge advantage over in-store buying. Ecommerce sites like Amazon utilize tailored product recommendations and items similar to previous purchases, in a hugely successful way. In pre-ecommerce eras, only the super wealthy or high-status were able to afford a personalized or tailored shopping experience, whereas now this luxury is attainable for anyone with internet access and a credit card.
Wrapping it up
In conclusion, the importance of a personalized, convenient online shopping experience and its role in providing positive customer emotions cannot be overstated. Narrowing the specific demographics of your customers’ buying behaviors can be tricky, as most online shoppers have a wide variety of motivations and situational reasons for buying digitally, but understanding the psychology behind online shopping can help you better target your marketing effort and ecommerce store operation.