Psychology Behind Online Shopping: Why It’s So Addicting

OFor those who love the thrill of shopping online, it’s more than just a hobby. It’s also a sport.

How else to explain Monica Corcoran Harel’s reaction to the news that there’s a flash sale at one of her favorite online stores? “I get very, very excited and incredibly competitive,” she says, hitting refresh over and over to land the best deal. If a family member happens to enter the room while she’s hovered over her computer, “I’m like, ‘flash sale! I have a flash sale!’” In other words: do not disturb.

Corcoran Harel (53), a Los Angeles resident, runs Pretty Ripe. She is a lifestyle newsletter for over-40 women. She relishes the ability to visit dozens of shops at once, comparing prices before clicking “buy now,” and the promise of quick delivery, all without stepping out of her house. Online shopping is “beyond intoxicating,” she says. “I’m probably partially responsible for the downfall of brick-and-mortar stores.”

What makes online shopping so enjoyable? Experts explain the psychology behind online shopping—along with tips on how to show restraint if your virtual cart is overflowing.

The pandemic saw an increase in online sales

The advent of online shopping was a novelty that became a commonplace years ago. Amazon, which began in 1995 as an internet bookseller, launched almost three decades ago and reports that its customers now buy approximately 7,400 items per minute from U.S. vendors. The pandemic changed consumer behavior and made it easier to buy basic items like toilet paper online. According to the Annual Retail Trade Survey, e-commerce sales increased by $244 billion—or 43%—in 2020, jumping from $571 billion in 2019 to $815 billion in 2020.

This was at least partly due to a desire not to go indoors. Experts believe it may also be due to self-soothing behavior. The therapeutic potential of retail therapy is well-established. An article published in The Journal of Consumer Psychology in 2014, for example, indicates that making purchases helps people feel instantly happier—and also fights lingering sadness. The study authors suggest that purchasing helps people feel more in control of their lives and have greater autonomy.

A second study was published in Psychology & Marketing in 2011, found that going shopping leads to “lasting positive impacts on mood,” and is not associated with feelings of regret or guilt about spontaneous purchases.

Jorge Barraza is program director and assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s online master of science program in applied psychology. He says that shopping can be motivated in many ways by emotions. “When we’re sad, when we’re stressed, we’re more likely to engage in this kind of behavior,” he says. In some cases, he notes, the spark of joy a fancy new dress or gadget triggers might not last, especially if the buyer knows they’re mismanaging their money. “That boost in mood might be transitory, if you’re spending more than you can afford, but at least temporarily it does appear to restore a sense of control, and reduce any residual sadness that people might be experiencing.”

The reasons why online shopping can make people happy

Shopping online can be a great way to enjoy the same pleasures as in-person shopping, but it’s also a new, overwhelming experience. “It’s psychologically so powerful,” says Joshua Klapow, a psychologist and adjunct associate professor of public health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. (He’s also the new owner of three inflatable pool floats, a collapsible whisk, two jars of almond butter, and 50 pounds of bird seed, all of which he ordered online.)

Compared to shopping in person, “it’s a much more gratifying experience overall, because there’s less friction, less barriers, less behavioral cost, more specificity, and more choice,” he says. Plus, “the shopping is totally tailored to us. We can shop quickly or slowly.”

Online shopping has many advantages. When we go shopping in-person, Klapow points out, we have to walk or drive or figure out some other way of getting there, and then we have to stride through aisle after aisle to locate what we’re looking for. Even at stores that offer contactless pay, there’s some effort required to make a transaction: swiping a credit card or Apple Pay on your phone, for example. After that, the customer must return home. “For a lot of people, these incredibly minor inconveniences just start picking away at the overall perceived value of the purchase,” he says.

Online shopping is convenient and offers the convenience of accurate ordering. If Klapow heads to a big-box store, he might not find the shirt he’s looking for in the right size or color. If he’s shopping online, he’s more likely to snag exactly what he wants with far less hassle.

Doing so is a form of immediate gratification, which we’re all wired to crave, says Joseph Kable, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. “This is a tendency that’s universal among people and is shared across much of the animal world,” he says. “People and other animals tend to discount outcomes in the future, relative to outcomes that are immediate. This means we prefer to have good things as soon as possible, and to postpone bad things as far as possible in the future.”

Interestingly, online shopping is also associated with another, more delayed type of gratification: anticipation for the order’s arrival. Awaiting something exciting is “like Christmas every day,” Klapow says, likening the ability to track a package to monitoring Santa’s whereabouts on Christmas Eve.

Corcoran Harel, a home-based worker who enjoys checking the windows to make sure a package is delivered, agrees. “I’m vigilant about getting my packages,” she says. “I’m so excited to rip it open and try something on—and the knowledge that you can return something easily just makes it better.”

How to handle a situation where you suspect you may have a problem

Researchers define compulsive buying as “a preoccupation with buying and shopping, frequent buying episodes, or overpowering urges to buy that are experienced as irresistible and senseless.” There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to whether your online shopping habit is problematic, Barraza says, but it’s generally a good idea to ask yourself if your purchases are interfering with your quality of life.

Compulsive purchasing disorder, or any type of shopping addiction, is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. However, it’s been recognized for more than a century: the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin is credited with first describing the disorder in 1915, calling it “oniomania”—the Greek word “onios” means “for sale,” and “mania” was interpreted as “insanity.” As the authors of a 2012 article in Improvements in Psychiatric Treatmentt point out, experts continue to debate whether shopping addiction is “a valid mental illness or a leisure activity that individuals use to manage their emotions or express their self-identity.”

A study was published in 2014 by the Journal of Behavioral AddictionsResearchers identified several factors that could lead to an addiction to online shopping. They included low self-esteem, poor self-control, an insatiable penchant for anonymity, low self control, and an excessive exposure to pop-ups and graphics.

A second research article was published in 2017. Frontiers in PsychologyThe scale could be used to measure the addiction to online shopping. According to the authors, six elements are required to meet the definition of addictive behaviors, including salience (which means online shopping would be the most important activity in the person’s life); mood modification, like feeling a buzz after placing an order; conflict, perhaps with family members; and relapse, or resuming the behavior after trying to stop. Klapow suggests that a person who is addicted to shopping online might be able to benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy and working with professionals.

With inflation at its highest level in nearly four decades, concerns over shopping addiction and spending too much are more relevant than ever. Klapow suggests focusing on intentional buying decisions. “There’s nothing wrong with saying, ‘I want this, so I’m going to get it,’ but we do need to be careful that we’re not calling all our wants ‘needs,’” he says.

Here are a few tips if you’re concerned about over-spending online:

Before checking out, review each item in your online cart and ask yourself: “Do I want this, or do I need it?” Klapow teaches his clients this cognitive exercise. It can prove to be very helpful. “It forces you to kind of look in the mirror, and you’d be amazed at how many items you end up putting back or saving for later.”

Post-it notes can be used to attach a note of assistance to your screen. This is one of Klapow’s favorite ways of modifying the environment to resist the siren call of e-commerce. Write your monthly budget in big letters on the sticky note, or a message directing yourself to check the total cost before clicking “buy now.” The visual reminder can help ground you when you’re caught up in the excitement of a new find.

Don’t store your credit card information online.Many people save information online for multiple credit cards, which makes it easier to purchase. Ideally, you wouldn’t store even a single card, Klapow says—”not from a safety standpoint, but from an impulse standpoint.” Having to manually input your payment details requires an extra minute to breathe and perhaps reevaluate the purchase.

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