Shopping: The Psychology of Retail Therapy

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Shopping: The Psychology of Retail Therapy

The consumer is not a moron — she is your wife. (David Ogilvy)

A consumer is a shopper who is sore about something. (Harold Coffin)

Is there a science to shopping? Can we predict how, what, why and when people buy in shops or online? This is an area of research called ’consumer behaviour’. Certainly, many myths surround the topic. Take the top three theories for supermarket layout.

First, the two staples, bread and milk, are furthest apart to keep you walking the aisles and then, en-route, inevitably impulse buying. No, they are in different places mainly for temperature reasons.

Second, super-marketers deliberately try to disorientate you by moving the stuff around. No, they do not, because relocating goods really annoys shoppers and sales drop if they do this regularly. Sure, changes are made but the aim is to accommodate new stock or eliminate poorly selling ranges.

Third, they pile up big fruit and veg at the front of the shop to encourage you to take a trolley which you feel compelled to fill. No, shopping trolley decisions are usually made before you enter the store.

But there are people watching and measuring behaviour in all stores to try to understand consumer behaviour. There are three methods of collecting shopping science data:

First, a careful examination of stock, cash and sales. That is quite simple and reliable. Loyalty cards make it easier. These can provide good data on consistency over time and exact details of your purchases. It can also examine associations, i.e. those who buy pesto are more likely to buy balsamic vinegar. Those who buy own-brand also buy BOGOFs (buy-one-get-one-free). This data tells us about behaviour but it can’t inform us about motives, which we have to infer.

Second, if we believe people both will (and can) tell us about their real (conscious and unconscious) motives we could interview them. Or they can be stopped before they enter and after they leave shops (noting differences between shopping intentions and actual purchases) or in ubiquitous focus groups or even on the phone.

Third, we can watch people shop. Through security cameras or using anthropologically trained observers, you can describe how people move through stores: what seems to slow them down or attract them to particular areas while shunning others and why they appear to inspect physically some produce and not others.

Retailers are interested in particular questions: the conversion rate (the number of people entering stores who actually purchase anything); the interception rate (the number of customers who interact with staff members); how long people actually spend in a store and how long they have to wait for service, especially paying.

Time spent in a store is the single best predictor of how much is spent, so slowing people down is a good thing. But it is not a good idea to slow them down with poor signage and blocked aisles. Mirrors slow people down, intriguing displays do likewise. Equally, having to wait is the single best predictor of dissatisfaction, so it pays to ensure waiting is at a minimum.

Studies show many pretty obvious things. Signage is very important; people like to sit down in shops; music and smells can affect moods and thence purchases. People need ways of easily carrying things and they tend to have habitual ways of moving around the store.


Are there demographic differences? Naturally shoppers have been classified by age, sex and class. Observers notice, people self-report and loyalty card information indicate sex differences.

Females spend more time shopping than men. They seem to be more aware, inquisitive and patient in shops. Men, it seems, move faster, look less and are less inclined to ask questions. Men seem to worry less about the price and seem more anxious to get out of the store.

Men inhibit women shoppers. Women accompanied by men spend half the time than if accompanied by other women. Women advise, consult, talk and suggest to each other…men get on with it.

Women, some socio-biologically inclined researchers note, find shopping relaxing and rejuvenating. But men are hunter-gatherers. They need a clear objective (i.e. a list) and to know precisely what brand, colour, size and style. Where to go, how long to stay, etc. Men go for a quick kill.

And then there are the pathologies associated with shopping addictions and compulsions, including shoplifting. There seem to be a disproportionate number of women suffering from these. People shop to confirm their identity (you are what you wear), to find external symbols of missing internal needs, to restore a feeling of group belonging. Addictive shoppers are like anorexics — they feel empty inside, they need control and to feel admired.

The thesis is developed further with the concept of retail therapy. The shopper really is a profoundly unhappy person trying to ’buy relief’ in big stores.

There are probably more ’shoppophiles’ than ’shoppophobes’. And there does appear to be a sex difference in shopping preferences and predilections. Males, whose need is to make a quick kill and take it home, need a target and a timetable. Research believes men can be motivated to shop only if given clear criteria for the purchase (brand, style, colour and size); a map or directions of where to shop, even criteria for how long they should be at it!

People do spend a lot of time in malls and shopping centres. And in the modern world they spend hours surfing the web ’shopaholically’. But what are their motives? Are there clearly different types based on different reasons for shopping?

Over 30 years ago the marketing experts tried to offer a list of motives. But more recently the retailing analysts have identified six clear different ’hedonic shopping motives’.

Adventure Shopping: Shopping is seen as an exciting adventure. Shopping offers a sensory world of new sights, sounds and smells. Shops are like adventure playgrounds.

Social Shopping: This is the bonding shopping experience. It is a way to spend time with friends and family.

Gratification Shopping: This is more akin to retail therapy. This is shopping for stress relief; shopping to indulge; shopping to pick oneself up. For some it’s winding down while for others it is a distraction.

Idea Shopping: The fashion conscious and presumably fashion victims in particular have to find a way of keeping up with what is new. They need to know what is in and what is not. There are trends in everything from boys’ toys to girls’ fashion.

Role Shopping: Shopping for others can be, for some, deeply satisfying and gratifying. People feel good about gift shopping.

Value Shopping: This is the discount-seeking, bargain hunter who sees the whole shopping experience as a challenge and a game to be won.

Of course, the trouble with all typologies or even dimensions is that they offer an irresistible temptation to the obsessional to split one category, add another or combine two or more. Few people fit neatly into each box. But it is a start.


Baker, A. (ed.) (2000). Serious Shopping. Psychotherapy and Consumerism. New York: Free Association Books.

Markham, J. (1998). The Future of Shopping. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Underhill, P. (2004). Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping. New York: Simon & Schuster.