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Why do we buy stuff we don't need?

posted by on April, 17, 2015 in Discussions tagged with Discussions

Why do we buy stuff we don’t need?
Have you had a look in your loft lately?  It’s full isn’t it and there’s no car in the garage either is there, because that’s rammed too, stuffed with all things you thought you wanted - but didn’t.

You only have to look at e-bay to realise we don’t really want half the things we buy in the shops. It’s hard to know why we part so easily with our hard-earned cash, just to give it away to a charity shop, sell it for the fraction of the price, or lob it to rot in the attic? 

Whether they’d be presents from family that haven’t got a clue what you need, that advertising campaign that was just too damn good, or you just lost the plot one day and randomly filled your boots with more clutter.  Clutter that gradually takes over your house and ends up owning you...

So why is your car rusting away on the drive and the Christmas decorations buried so deep in the loft that it’ll take until January to dig ‘em out? The short answer is that our lives are jam-packed with stuff we never really wanted in the first place, but it’s more complicated than that. Maybe it’s all that Retail Therapy the shrinks tell us is so good for us?

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Are there really any therapeutic benefits of shopping?

We’ve all heard the mantra, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping”. When you are fed up, the theory goes, something must be lacking, and so buying something nice might just fill that gap. It makes sense, doesn’t it?  Something is missing, you choose to buy something you want and you feel better. I’ll never be miserable again, well, not until the next time. The thing is there might be some truth in that immediate gratification makes us happy, but sadly, it doesn’t seem to last and what were once those mood-saving pair of luxury of knee-length boots are now just slumped with the others under the stairs...

Recent studies suggest that six out of ten of us buy things to “cheer themselves up”, with one in three shoppers revealing that they bought as a “form of celebration”.  The product itself, was incidental, it could almost have been anything.  The reward (the positive reinforcement, to use the psycho-speak), or pleasure of shopping appeals real. Here are a few reasons why retail therapy works.

We can’t resist a bargain

Everyone loves a bargain.  It’s a kind of conquest, a battle against the corporate retail giants.  Little me against the World.  This happened to me: Swelling with pride I romp home with the spoils of battle.  A good suit for £22.  It fit perfectly too, but it was red and it’s literally NEVER been worn. Have you got a story like this? Of course you have. Why do you think the labels are still on many of the clothes you buy on e-bay?  e-bay’s not buying and selling really, it’s more recycling other people’s rubbish... 


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Life events, shopping and stress and mental preparation

Marketing psychologists believe that as people shop they visualise the things they later buy. Out with the old and in with the new.  Imagining possessing their new material goodies, like an athlete visualising a winning performance, provides pleasure before the purchase and reinforces the sale before it happens.  Clever advertising helps here too. Watching the salivating faces tucking into a family size KFC triggers the imagination and the “victim” is off to town already licking his fingers in anticipation.  It’s the same for anything.  Advertisers depict people having fun with something they want to sell and other’s follow.  The advertisers have done what they do best, persuade us that we want something that we never knew we did and help us fill the garage a bit more every time.

Advertising campaigns conjure up needs out of nothing, but when their clever ways are combined with genuine need, at Christmas, a wedding, a new baby and so on, it’s a shopping frenzy.  This all might sound like shopping Armageddon, but it really does seem to have a beneficial function.  Significant life events, like having a baby or getting married carry with them anxiety and shopping can help people mentally prepare.  Psychologists have described new parents as “excited, but overwhelmed” and getting the pram months before the baby comes somehow helps alleviate the worry of it all.

We all know a hoarder too, buying presents years in advance for fear of running out of time at the last minute.  Retailers help with this anxiety, by stocking up early and millions of shoppers take advantage of the extra time and are free to relax a little easier later.  Helping shoppers take control of things too early though has its dangers.  What’s trendy in October may be passé by Christmas and what if you buy for a boy and it’s a girl, but then there’s always that under stairs cupboard?

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Is buying for that special event just an excuse to spend?

We’ve all splashed out for a new suit for a new job, or bought a dress for a wedding that’ll never be worn again.  You just don’t feel right in the “wrong” clothes though do you?  If we wore jeans to a wedding we’d be all out of sorts, be viewed differently by others and we’d probably behave differently too. The beauty of buying for a special event though, is that it’s pretty much guilt free.

Experiments in Social Psychology suggests that by wearing, for example, a Dr’s white coat, causes people to be far more attentive and do better in concentration tests. It’s as if the people used in the experiments somehow took on the persona and attributes of the Drs because the kind of clothes they were wearing.

Window Shopping, the unconscious and the internet mini vacation...

Get away from it all – go shopping. This idea suggests that when we engage in and I’m sorry about this, mindless activities, the effects can be very relaxing.  While the brain can easily browse and enjoy the shopping experience, another part of the brain can be solving a more important problem without you even knowing it.

Personally, I view online shopping as a mental vacation.  As long as you don’t get too bogged down with credit card security issues, internet shopping is an hour off with a cup of tea. Shopping online is a little bit of “me” time with the added bonus that my cerebral side can help me work out how I am going find the time to put a few shelves in the loft to find space for that synthetic Christmas Tree and sundry baubles I’ve just bought eight months in advance.

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The gathering instinct and the social shopper

Instincts are things we can’t stop even if we tried.  Things that satisfy our basic needs: Shelter, food, and a particularly popular instinct, procreation.  The men traditionally did the hunting (hence the red suit) and the woman did the food gathering.  Apart from the odd forager there’s not much opportunity to gather these days, but the retail market is a pretty good substitute and it might well explain, from a basic instinct perspective, why it’s so compulsive.  

Gathering was traditionally done in groups and the retail market is still a great place to connect with other people.  Let’s face it girls love shopping together and it doesn’t really matter what they buy either. They might spend most of the time having lunch, but shopping is the reason they choose to go out and they’ll come back with something for the loft I’m sure.

Shopping by any of these measures is therapeutic.  I like to view it as a kind of antidote to the stress and strains of modern life where, one way, or another, we can tap back in to our inner psyche, whether that be a basic human instinct, or whimsical social need. It’s as if we are somehow connecting with the real world, and it makes us feel part of it all. Whether it be trudging on the high street, or surfing here on the web, shopping, on the whole, does you good.