Does Retail Therapy Work? An Investigative Experiment

July 28, 2018

About a month ago, I found myself in the Diesel showroom at my local mall. The brand had been in my sights for a while—I’d been drooling over their rock-inspired, slightly pricey clothes for years, but had never built up the courage to buy anything from the store. Now, since summer sales were in full effect, I had my chance. I had already visited the regular retailers that make up my wardrobe (H&M, Armani Exchange, Zara) and was preparing for my final purchase of the day. I was determined to go out with a bang, and no clear-skinned, nose-pierced sales associate would stop me from leaving the store without a shopping bag the size of a dog carrier. After an over-300-dollar hit to my debit card, I thanked said salesperson, shuffled my bags into a stable position on both arms, and proceeded to my car.

 

 

Let's get one thing straight before I continue with this story: I am not a shopaholic. Thanks to minor teasing from friends and the inspired Sophie Kinsella book, I’d entertained the idea before—but I consistently save more of my money for larger purchases, regularly keep up with my card and utility payments, and make monthly budgets. None of my money typically goes towards clothes to such an extent that it cuts into necessary expenses, or brings my account into the single- or double-digits. I don't have a shopping problem.

 

After finally fixing up and registering my new, used car this spring, I had a fair amount of disposable income left. However, instead of saving the extra money, my eagerness to abandon prior car difficulties manifested itself when I … disposed of it. And I disposed of it on things I did not need. Upon arriving home and viewing the spoils of my shopping trip, I had two realizations: One, nothing I'd bought was anything I’d previously thought of acquiring beforehand, or anything I'd told myself I should buy before I left the car. And two, I could see exactly how much money I had spent—but rather than the burst of excitement I usually feel upon acquiring new pieces, the final sum filled me with regretful gloom.

 

In this particular life episode, aside from new clothes, I was looking for something: a material solution to alleviate an internal struggle, also known as retail therapy. I'd spent over three months wasting away under the stress of school, an internship, and two jobs in order to purchase my car, repair it, and safely drive it. I had survived the ordeal, and now that the majority of my savings had been spent on the vehicle, I was ready to spend the rest on my closet.

 

 

As a fast-fashion retail employee, I'm surrounded by wearable ways to spend my income, and depending on the department I'm stationed in, every shift can feel like a paid window shopping session. It's difficult to create and stick to a budget when you can see exactly where your money could go. $30 for a sweater here, or $50 for a discounted jacket there, doesn't seem like much at the time—especially in small increments, with a sizeable employee discount and any number of promotions and in-store deals. However, all this spending starts to add up, taking away from the larger amount of my yearly earnings. And when most of that amount is gone, retail therapy sessions may feel like they need to be canceled in favor of actual therapy.

 

When I went on my own mini-spree, I didn't anticipate the fallout of what I'd spent. Did it feel fabulous walking out of that final store with a massive shopping bag, on top of the bags I was already holding? Absolutely. Did it feel painful seeing that I'd bought not one, not two, but three polo shirts in different shades of blue when I only needed one? Absolutely. Excess in shopping can be fun, but if it goes to our heads and feels more like a burden than a blast, the "therapeutic" aspect is gone—and it isn't enjoyable anymore. I felt the need to spoil myself a bit, but not so much that it made me feel worse about the clothes and accessories strewn across my desk and hanging in my closet immediately afterwards. 

 

Hence my return to Diesel several days later, tail between my legs, to return the bag I'd impulsively grabbed at the last minute. I had no need for the reversible nylon tote, which cost me nearly $200 just for the sake of feeling fabulous. It, like returned pieces from other stores (a cerise polo, straight-fit cream twill pants, and a cobalt baseball-style bomber, to name a few), just wasn’t worth the money that I shouldn’t have spent on unnecessary purchases.

 

So, did I learn if retail therapy actually works? Yes, I realized, but only under certain conditions. Despite the fictional examples of Rebecca Bloomwood, Carrie Bradshaw, and Blair Waldorf, retail therapy only truly works if 1. you have more than enough money to blow on impulsive purchases you won't immediately regret (because, let's be honest, they'll probably all be impulsive), and 2. there's something worth recuperating from that justifies the spending. Saving two jobs’ worth of paychecks towards a replacement car took sacrifice, but didn’t necessarily require actual therapy (though some R&R was much-needed, and I had earned a self-endowed gift or two). Therapy tends to involve treatment for a personal issue, with the ultimate goal of reaching a cure. If we feel deserving of compensation in return for any minor inconvenience, retail “therapy” can become a consistent cycle. A purchased “cure” can feel permanent, but if this becomes habitual a stream of problems can result from justifying more “cures.” In-the-moment purchases can grow over time to drain your account balances, and also take money away from things you need if you don’t have a set budget. Plus, if what you’re buying remains unused, there was no reason for the original purchase and you’re left with regrets and less money. It’s even trickier when the shopper’s role is that of both therapist and patient. There’s nothing wrong with items sparking joy, but if shopaholic-level tendencies arise from minimal problems, the shopper does themselves more harm than good.

 

Much like retail therapy, psychotherapy aims to find a cure and put the patient’s problems to rest—but that requires a trusting relationship between therapist and patient. Psychotherapy is traditionally used to treat emotional and mental problems with the help of a trained professional. By contrast, retail therapy requires the subject to treat their own condition by way of material solutions. Retail therapy aims to fix problems which an individual can solve on their own through a deeper analysis of said problems—unless, of course, the issue at hand requires serious medical attention (in which case, licensed therapists should actively be sought out). The shopper needs to recognize when their own “therapy” has gone overboard, and if a professional therapist should take the place of therapy at the mall. 

 

I personally believe if shoppers don’t feel an essential joy when they buy an item, there’s no need for it to have a place in their homes. If that’s the case more often than not, retail therapy might be best left out of one’s routine. Instead, it’s worth taking time to reflect on one’s role in one’s own problems, taking action to make positive changes to one’s behavior in order to settle the issue at hand. Finding an alternative to retail therapy is also a simple fix. I find unhealthy food and Netflix binging have high rates of success, and won't break the bank.

 

Aaron Royce, 20, is a student and journalist with writing experience for print and online publications. His journalism interest began when he started reading back issues of Entertainment Weekly, Rolling Stone and Vogue before entering high school; he was a co-editor for the school’s newspaper and arts magazine. Post-graduation, he attended Christopher Newport University before transferring to NOVA’s Annandale campus, where he is currently a sophomore pursuing a Communications major. He recently completed a summer as Northern Virginia Magazine’s style intern, and now writes for online publications and interns with ArtJamz Creative Director, RMCI Senior Designer and fashion blogger Anchyi Wei.
 

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