The Psychology of ‘Retail Therapy’

The phrase ‘retail therapy’ is a relatively common one. Usually, we understand it to mean that someone has experienced a setback— a failed midterm, a rejected internship application, a late phase one appointment— and dealt with it by going on a shopping spree. It might not be the best way to cope with problems, and it’s certainly no substitute for cognitive behavioral therapy, but there might be something useful behind the practice of retail therapy and its potential to make miserable students feel better.

The concept of retail therapy was first put into print in 1986 on Christmas Eve by the Chicago Tribune, who gave a rather deprecating review of the practice: “We've become a nation measuring out our lives in shopping bags and nursing our psychic ills through retail therapy" (Schmich). Of course, online shopping has changed the dynamic of spontaneous shopping sessions, making it possible for us to find and order any manner of product through Amazon at any hour of the day or night. An online survey conducted by Ebates in 2013 revealed that 51.8% of Americans shop to improve their moods (Ebates). The most common trigger for shopping to improve mood was a bad day at work, closely followed by a fight with a significant other. The psychological consequences of spontaneous shopping aren’t just a hot topic of conversation in America; Melbourne University asserts that ‘retail therapy’ is a disorder known as oniomania or compulsive shopping disorder (The Age).

Gary Lund

Gary Lund

Despite the condemning nature of these claims, many sources report that shopping with the goal of improving mood can be a healthy and fulfilling process. Psychology Today, for example, cites five cases in which retail therapy can be helpful for individuals: easing transitions between different stages of life, improving self-image, boosting creativity, relaxing and disengaging from immediate stressors, and facilitating social connection. Furthermore, there are ways for shoppers to ensure that they use retail therapy productively and healthily. One could add a ‘treat yourself after a bad day’ segment to their budgets and hold themselves accountable for gradually building up the funds for a day of spending in the face of misery. It’s simple to set out parameters for how often one chooses to engage in retail therapy and how much one is allowed spend in each case. In conclusion, don’t let people shame you for occasionally buying things to make yourself feel better— it might be a quick solution, and it might not fix the underlying causes of stress and anxiety, but it’s certainly a way to be kind to yourself after experiencing something negative.



"Shopping" by Gina

Schmich, Mary (24 December 1986). "A Stopwatch On Shopping". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 1 October 2017.

"Ebates Survey: More Than Half (51.8%) of Americans Engage in Retail Therapy - 63.9% of Women and 39.8% of Men Shop to Improve Their Mood". Business Wire. Business Wire, Inc. 2 April 2013. Retrieved 1 October 2017.

"Investigating retail therapy". The Age. 5 December 2004. Retrieved 1 October 2017.

“Why ‘Retail Therapy’ Works”. Psychology Today. 2 May 2013. Retrieved 1 October 2017.

OtherOlivia Lewke