Home > Lifestyle

Can We Give ‘Retail Therapy’ New Meaning in 2021?

Nearly half of Americans say they’ve used shopping to improve their happiness during the pandemic. But the crisis has highlighted all of the ways we’ve been doing it wrong.

Photo courtesy of freestocks via Unsplash

I used to think my wife was exaggerating when she teased me about my propensity for online shopping. But looking around my place the morning after Black Friday was like waking up with a strange kind of hangover. The cardboard boxes looked different in the harsh light of 2020, and so did my shopping spoils—did I really need to upgrade from steel to titanium camping cutlery when we only camp twice a year? As I contemplated how to recycle all of the Amazon boxes without being judged by my neighbors, I felt slimy.

There’s no doubt we’ve been engaging in plenty of “retail therapy” online; nearly half of Americans, in fact, say they’ve used shopping to improve their happiness during the pandemic. But the crisis has highlighted all of the ways we’ve been doing it wrong. Buying something may make you feel better in the short term, but it won’t make the global health crisis go away. Over time, purchases can actually make you feel worse, as reminders of experiences you’d rather forget. And our hunter-gatherer impulse to buy when things are scarce was a big contributor to all of the panic shopping in March that made toilet paper a hot commodity.

Related Annals of Attraction, Vol. 3 Annals of Attraction

As a new year dawns, I think it’s important to ask: Can we shop better? I don’t mean stopping shopping altogether, or even shopping less. I mean, can we orient our retail habits in a way that supports our personal wellness, rather than detracting from it? We hear plenty about ethical and fair-trade shopping—and this is supremely important—but I’m talking about something a little more elemental: Can we shop in a way that makes us feel good, for real? 

This question isn’t merely academic to me. I grew up in retail, helping my parents run a chain of jeans stores. Today, the company I founded builds and optimizes e-commerce sites for hundreds of consumer brands, from Wild Fork Foods and Anine Bing to Jamieson Vitamins. I love retail. But I know that we can shop in a way that’s better for our health as individual consumers. For 2021, here are some ideas on shopping better.

Hack Your Brain With Delayed Gratification

Now that we’re spending our lives online, we’re bombarded with opportunities to shop impulsively. Nearly 20 percent of Americans say they’re spending more online than before, and one survey found that impulse spending is up by 18 percent in the United States. So how do we dial back that impulsivity, while amping up the benefits of shopping more intentionally

One low-tech hack I use is keeping a running list of stuff I want and imposing a strict 30-day probationary period before buying. If I’m still as enthralled by that fancy fountain pen on day 30 as on day one, it’s a sign to buy. If not, I saved myself time, trouble and stress-inducing clutter

Related Designing Your Family’s Future: Lessons from 2020

And the act of buying isn’t as important as it seems. Studies show browsing can confer the same physiological benefits as buying, minus the impact on your wallet. Plus, resisting the urge to buy gives us a self-affirming feeling of being in control that’s comparable to the buzz we get from shopping. 

Failing that, mentally rehearsing life with your shiny new object can be a handy technique. Close your eyes and try. Do you feel bored with that new gadget already? Can you see it sitting idle and unused in a couple weeks? Probably a sign to “delete from cart.”  

Give Yourself the Gift of Altruism

After my Black Friday shopping hangover, I committed to a buy nothing December. Then my wife reminded me that she, and lots of people in my life, were still expecting holiday gifts. So, I committed to only buying for others in December. And you know what? I’ve never felt better.  

There’s science at work here, too. Shopping for others gives us the same satisfaction as buying for ourselves, but it also comes with altruistic rewards that boost our well-being. A survey of 136 countries showed that using our financial resources to help others is associated with greater happiness worldwide. Over time, a habit of buying for others can improve our health, our sleep and even make us stronger. 

Good Buys Reinforce Good Habits

One shopping truism I’ve found: You rarely regret purchases that help you invest in yourself. Buying stuff that reinforces your good habits, goals or aspirations is money well-spent.

Related Worth Trying: A Fall-Forward Escape From the City at River House at Odette’s

Exercise and sports equipment, books and puzzles, crafts and music, online courses and travel (post-COVID, at least)—these are all buys that make you a better person, not just a person with more crap. Critically, in all of these cases, the thing you’re buying isn’t an end in itself; it’s a means to self-improvement.

The pandemic canceled the dream European cycling tour I’d planned, but I invested in a Wahoo Kickr, a smart exercise bike, instead. I’ve never been in better shape, it’s been a good antidote to long days at the computer and, when travel is allowed again, I’ll be back on track to take my long-awaited trip.

Vote With Your Dollars

The crisis drove home the importance of voting with our dollars. What do I mean by that? It’s all about using our purchases as a direct extension of our value system, to reflect and reinforce our beliefs around fairness, justice and ethics. 

This can take so many forms—and opportunities to vote with our dollars are multiplying all the time. There’s buying from independent retailers online for instance, instead of defaulting to huge, impersonal marketplaces like Amazon or Walmart. There’s thinking local, first, rather than giving your money to a big, faceless corporation. 

Related Art in the New Normal: Art Buying 101

There’s buying stuff that’s ethically made or sourced. Emerging marketplaces like Goodee and Verticale make this easier than ever to do, and the margins for buying healthier and more sustainably are narrowing all the time.   

There’s buying from companies with a sincere commitment to diversity or social justice or improving the world. B-Corp certification is a powerful indicator that a brand is committed to balancing purpose with profit.

In the end, that local business, fair-trade retailer or sustainable supplier benefits. But so do you; research shows that ethical consumerism can make us feel good, moral and powerful.

Last year was rougher than most. But we’ve also had extra time to reflect on what brings us lasting happiness and what kind of world we want to return to when all this is over. The stuff we buy is a small but important part of that. This year, small changes in how we shop can make retail therapy mean something, for real. 

Ben Crudo is CEO of Diff Agency. A retailer-turned-technologist, Ben is an e-commerce expert helping retailers win today and tomorrow.

Related Articles