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Why Shopping in Some Apps Comes as Retail Therapy

Berkem Peker
November 28, 2022

You may have heard the term "retail therapy" before. It's often used by people who describe the act of shopping as an activity that helps them deal with stress or other negative emotions. What you may not have known is that there's scientific evidence to back up these feelings. As the owner of a shopping app, it helps to understand what retail therapy is, when it's a good thing, when it's a bad thing, and how you can help your customers experience the therapeutic effects of shopping through your app. 

Woman shopping online

What is Retail Therapy?

Much of the shopping we do is the result of necessity. If you don't buy groceries, you'll starve to death. Without hygiene and cleaning products, you and your house will be unappealing, stinky, and unhygienic. These types of shopping trips do little to boost your mood, and can even feel like a chore. However, sometimes it feels good to just go out and buy something you really want just for the sake of doing it. Retail therapy is when you do this for the express purpose of improving your mood. 

If you've ever treated yourself to something special on a shipping trip to improve your mood, you're not alone. Online therapy service Talkspace makes note of a study where 62% of participants purchased something as a self-treat in order to make themselves feel better. Additionally, it was found that most people who engage in retail therapy stayed within their budget and had lasting improvement in their moods. 

Man making online payments

Does Retail Therapy Work?

When used in moderation, retail therapy does indeed work. The evidence for this comes from more than the study referenced by Talkspace as well. At least one other study has found that retail therapy makes a significant improvement to a person's mood, resulting in a sustained reduction of residual sadness. However, like most things, it doesn't work for everyone. Some people find the process of shopping inherently stressful. They get overwhelmed by choices and don't like the idea of spending money. Such people are unlikely to choose retail therapy as a way to relieve stress, however. Those who do see shopping as stress relief are likely to see prolonged benefits, as long as they don't become compulsive shoppers. 

Retail Therapy Versus Compulsive Shopping

Because they both involve shopping to make you feel better, many people confuse retail therapy with compulsive shopping, but the two are quite different. As Healthline points out, compulsive shopping often makes the shopper feel worse afterward, rather than better. That's because the compulsive shopper is making their purchases to get a dopamine hit that feeds an addiction to shopping. Someone who is a compulsive shopper will end up regretting the purchase, because they didn't want the item, shouldn't have spent the money, or for some other reason. Like many addictions, it isn't the act itself that causes problems, but rather the inability to control the act. With retail therapy, shoppers are purchasing things they actually want and feeling good about themselves for making the purchase. 

Benefits of Retail Therapy

We've looked at two studies now that have examined the benefits of retail therapy. However, those have been fairly complex to read for someone without a scientific background. Thankfully, we can find plain English readings on the benefits of retail therapy from Verywellhealth. In addition, Psychology Today has an entire blog dedicated to some of the ways in which retail therapy has helped those dealing with stress to better cope with their negative emotions. Let's examine what some of those reasons are. To balance things out, we'll then take a look at some of the potential downsides to retail therapy. 

Reducing Sadness

An interesting aspect of the study showing that retail therapy reduced sadness is how much the factor of feeling in control played on the process. Those shoppers who made a purchase for themselves of something they wanted showed a significant and sustained decrease in residual sadness versus those that didn't. All of the experiments conducted during that study showed strong evidence that returning a feeling of control to the person played a key role in this reduction. A person who feels in control is better able to cope with sadness and less likely to have that negative emotion manifest itself as anger. 

Easing Transitions

The Psychology Today article gives several examples of how shopping can help ease transitions. One of the most obvious is that replacing items that remind you of a bad time in your life with all new ones can help you to move past those bad times and create new, happier associations with the objects around your home. Other examples include preparing for a big transition in your life. New parents might get stress relief from buying important items they'll need for when the baby arrives. Someone who is getting married, or wishes to get married, might enjoy the emotional outlet of purchasing items that make their home more welcoming for a potential partner. 

Improving Confidence

Confidence plays a big role in how we perceive ourselves. Someone who doesn't own any nice clothes can go out and buy themselves a fancy new outfit and immediately feel better about themselves when they go out in public wearing it. This same concept applies to many areas of one's life. A bland house, a tiny TV, inadequate power tools, pretty much anything can make someone feel as though someone else has it better. Purchasing items that are closer to that person's ideal will help them feel better about themselves and the lot in life whenever they use those products. 

Increasing Aesthetic Pleasure

This one is similar to the last one. After all, if a person with a bland house buys a bunch of stuff to make their house look better, their confidence in their house will improve. But in this case, it isn't just the confidence that improves. Seeing objects that are aesthetically pleasing is, in and of itself, a good way to improve one's mood. When someone purchases something that will make them happy to look at, they're taking tangible steps that improve the ratio of pleasurable to unpleasant triggers in their daily lives. Many people also enjoy the act of decorating itself, providing an additional mood-lifting benefit to such purchases.

Boosting Creativity

We've seen the scientific evidence that feeling in control helps a person to reduce feelings of sadness. The creative process is not only highly rewarding in and of itself, but it is a process that inherently puts control into the hands of the person doing the creating. Whatever hobbies a person may have, purchasing products that allow them to utilize that hobby to express their creativity and take a few moments to take control of something that will provide them with a sense of accomplishment afterward can be a double whammy in the fight against sadness and depression. 

Downsides of Retail Therapy

When discussing anything that impacts mental health, it's always good to discuss the bad along with the good. Retail therapy has shown to be a positive experience for most people, but that doesn't mean that it will help everyone with their problems, or that it won't make problems worse for some people. In this section, let's expand upon some of the downsides we've already mentioned about retail therapy and introduce some new ones. 

Shopping Itself Can Be a Stressor

As previously stated, some people simply get no stress relief from shopping. These people are often stressed out about financial situations and view spending any money at all, even on necessary things, as a stressful situation. Other times, people simply have a hard time making up their minds about which products to purchase, and the decision-making process itself brings them stress. While retail therapy has shown to be effective for those who engage in it of their own volition, that shouldn't be taken to mean that it's something everyone should try.

It Doesn't Work for Everybody

Even if one doesn't view shopping as a stressful situation, there are people who also don't receive the same level of pleasure from it that others do. For those people. retail therapy is unlikely to boost their mood. This can also be situational. In the benefits section, we looked at some unique circumstances under which people saw benefits from going out and making a purchase. For people who don't generally feel better after a purchase, it helps to think about which types of purchases might make a meaningful impact on their life beyond the simple joy of shopping itself. Doing so can help return some utility to the concept of retail therapy. 

Avoidance of Stressful Situations

Another common problem with retail therapy is something that is common to a lot of similar coping mechanisms. As Verywellhealth points out, retail therapy can become a form of avoidance coping. This means that a person turns to shop, or other stress-relieving activities, as a way of avoiding the problems they are facing. Because problems don't simply go away, using shopping in this way becomes a temporary fix that can actually increase the feelings of anxiety as the problems being avoided are prolonged. It's important that people who use shopping as a mood lifter don't do so at the expense of dealing with issues they are facing.

Increased Possibility of Compulsive Shopping

We've all heard that too much of a good thing is bad, and we've seen how compulsive shopping can make a person feel worse instead of better. Although most people who engage in retail therapy do so responsibly and stay within their budget, there's a possibility that someone will take it too far and purchase more than they should. This might be heightened if the person is using it to avoid stressful situations rather than because they simply enjoy purchasing something nice for themselves once in a while. Those who find themselves regretting purchases afterward should cut back on shopping and find coping mechanisms they can use in a more healthy way. 

Helping Customers Get the Most from Retail Therapy

Although there are some downsides, that's true of nearly any coping mechanism a person might employ. Many of the study participants who engaged in retail therapy discovered the benefit of reduced sadness. As a shopping app owner, there are some steps you can take that can help bring joy to the shopping experience. This will not only help those who are using your app as their own form of retail therapy but will help ensure that customers associate your app with a pleasurable experience and stick around.

  • Show Them Products They'll Like - Retail therapy comes from people purchasing something that they want or need. By using a product recommendation algorithm, you can present shoppers to your site with items that are likely to fulfill one of their needs or desires. 
  • Give Them Choices - This doesn't mean you should overwhelm your shoppers, but we've seen how retail therapy is primarily driven by a feeling of being in control, and how the feeling of having a creative outlet can help that process. Presenting reasonable choices for the customer to select from helps with both of these.
  • Keep Them Engaged - Shopping is supposed to be fun. We've seen how those who don't find enjoyment in shopping are unlikely to benefit from retail therapy. However, even someone who typically enjoys shopping might not find your particular shopping experience engaging or enjoyable. Focusing on customer experience can ensure that they do.
Woman shopping online with smartphone


As the owner of a shopping app, it's always been in your best interest to create a shopping experience that's enjoyable for customers to engage in. When you create an engaging experience, you're helping customers better find the products they're looking for and helping yourself earn more money in the process, but you may also be increasing the stress-relieving benefits for someone who has had a rough day and is looking to boost their mood. A great way to keep customers engaged is with Storyly, our platform's in-app stories help you create customer experiences that are rewarding for both them and you. The personalized and appealing stories created with Storyly will bring your content to life and build excitement for your products. 

Berkem Peker

Berkem is master of none, jack of all trades. Happens to be a Growth Strategist at Storyly. Knows/writes about growth frameworks and user behavior.

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