Retail therapy: why we love to buy

This article originally appeared in Inside Retail Australia

By Dr Jenny Brockis, the Brain Fitness Doctor who specialises in brain health and the science of high performance thinking.

Whether we’re online or offline, there is something quite special about buying things beyond those essentials required to keep us alive.

Should we dismiss retail therapy as a modern malaise linked to comfort eating and sadness? Current research suggests no, with one study showing how shopping was up to 40 times more effective at helping people regain a sense of control over their lives and were three times less sad than those who merely browsed.

Buying makes us happy

Retail therapy is pleasurable because the brain loves novelty. It’s exciting and a clever display laid out to entice us with beautiful colours, textures or smells engages all our senses. Evoking a previous memory especially if it was enjoyable, heightens our desire.

Our level of happiness associated with shopping depends on the “what” we buy. A luxury item such as your first car, house or washing machine will feel extra special, especially if you’ve had to wait a while before being able to get it. Buying makes us feel good through the release of dopamine, the brain’s reward hormone, and it’s the anticipation of that reward that motivates us to repeat our buying behaviour.

We keep going back because that ‘feel-good’ sensation of the new purchase doesn’t last. You might have been thrilled with your new bagless vacuum cleaner three years ago, but there’s a new model now available, which looks sooooo much better and has all number of really cool additional benefits the old one didn’t have.

Retailers have cottoned on to this adaptive effect on our happiness, and so supply us with regular upgrades to existing models to feed our need the next best thing.

Spending smart is about identifying your needs, checking out the alternatives and determining how long you want this item to last. If it’s a six-month wonder you might be more willing to buy a cheaper item, though if this is an item that has to go the distance in product longevity, you may be better off paying more for a more durable and reliable product.

We buy to make someone else happy

Taking time to carefully select a particular present for a special person increases our happiness. That’s because the pleasure centre in our brain, the nucleus accumbens is activated more by the giving of a gift than when we receive a gift ourselves.

While deciding between buying Uncle Wilfred socks or a tin of his favourite biscuits for Christmas might not make us hugely happy, buying a gift you feel certain will have special meaning will make two people very happy.

Knowing he had always been interested in flying, I bought my husband a flying lesson as a birthday gift one year. This triggered a new hobby and passion that has endured. Buying something that allows us to do, or experience over the longer term, whether a camera, a bicycle or a saxophone increases happiness and enhances well-being.

Shared experiences make us happier too because we can share stories and memories of the event. That’s why buying a joint hot-air balloon ride, trip to Moldovia or spa treatment with a friend is so much more fun than going on our own.

For the experience

The tourist industry focuses on the experience of travel. It’s the same for shopping. If you loooove shoes, going into a shop full of beautiful shoes that are exquisitely presented, and with an attentive sales assistant who appears genuinely interested in helping you get that perfect pair, means your enjoyment will encompasses the entire event.  Naturally that really pleasurable memory means you’ll want to go back and experience it all again (and preferably soon.)

It’s such a bargain!

We all love a discount. Maybe we wouldn’t normally have chosen a bright yellow jacket with silver brocade, but when it’s a designer label marked down by 50 per cent, the lure of the bargain becomes irresistible.

Everything comes with a price tag – we know that. The problem is our shopping bias to pay less for a given item can blind us to the fact we actually don’t need the item at all, it doesn’t suit us, or is the wrong size.

When “it’s too expensive” the part of the brain called the insula is activated helping us to choose not to buy. But when that item is then discounted, the medial prefrontal cortex engages in a tug of war, trying to rationalise between the pleasure of acquiring the item vs the pain of paying money. It boils down to just how much we loved the item in the first place as well as the size of the discount.

That’s why many of us have that perfect pair of designer jeans one size too small sitting forlornly in our wardrobe alongside that pair of Jimmy Choos that look so divine but defy our ability to walk in them.

It’s a reflection of who we are

Where we go to shop and what we shop for reflects who we are and our personality. What matters is having access to those outlets that interest us the most. If you’re a book worm, the pleasure you gain from immersing yourself into the depths of a book shop will be far greater than going to your local hardware store to buy a new tin of paint. Whereas a dedicated DIYer will happily spend hours in a hard ware store, but may actively avoid shopping malls full of clothing retailers.

Shopping. We love it, it makes us happy and that has to be a good thing for shoppers and retailers alike.

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