Retail therapy: Does it work?

Brett Graff
Miami Herald

As the spa and retail director for the Ritz-Carlton, South Beach, in Miami Beach, Florida, William Arango has made a profession of helping people pick themselves up after traveling through one of life’s letdowns.

From cancer to career setbacks, the products and services offered at his hotel present the promise of a fresh start. That’s particularly true, he says, if you happen to arrive with an entourage of friends after a bad break-up, ready to invest some money in new workout clothes and a fresh skin care regimen.

“These people want things that help them to look and feel great,” says Arango. “These things make them feel better.”

No doubt. While professionals from psychologists to economists — and from stylists to retail directors — offer varying opinions on what happens when we spend money making ourselves feel good, they’ll manage to agree on only one thing: It usually works.

But come on.

If we’re already bummed out and spending money, wouldn’t it be nice if retail therapy would always buy us better feelings? Now, in teasing out the links between human psychology and physical purchases, researchers have found the very specific instances in which this form of healing fails. At the same time, they have uncovered the very shopping circumstances — ones we can ourselves create — in which spending money will most effectively smooth bumps in the road.

“People are inherently adaptive,” says Derek Rucker, professor of marketing at Northwestern University, who put nearly 120 subjects though experiments that threatened either their intelligence or their social skills. “So these retail strategies must work in some circumstances. But there’s a risk.”

The risk, it turns out, is that the item we were hoping will heal our wound could actually wind up reminding us about the incident that caused it in the first place, says Rucker. That will happen when we buy something that falls in the same domain as the failure — say, a briefcase after a botched business meeting — and go home and continue to sulk. In those cases, we’ve wasted our money on an item that will only prolong our pain.

However, if we head to a cocktail hour and get a compliment — or two — on our new brown leather valise, we’ll identify those kind words with our overall professional identities. And soon we start to feel pretty good about the whole career domain, says Rucker.

“Consumer products serve many purposes beyond their functional utility,” says Rucker. “They have psychological value. In some cases, purchases in the same domain remind you of a failure. But in other cases, they can validate your sense of self.”

What if we buy something outside of the failure’s domain — say, a new bike instead of a briefcase? We’ll get a quick retail rush, says Rucker. But we won’t feel better about the troubling matter.

Like most indulgences — alcohol and dessert, for example — retail therapy in moderation is perfectly fine, says Dr. Frances Berman, a licensed clinical psychologist. But beware of signs that could mean we’re over-shopping, she says. For example, stashing purchases in a closet and never opening them means we feel a sense of shame. That’s not healthy, she says. What’s more, shopping should not cause us to miss important events. And along with our emotional health, we should consider our levels of credit card debt.

“Anytime you abuse something to forget about a problem,” says Berman, “you end up with two problems.”

Ellie Kay, a financial literacy expert and author of “Lean Body, Fat Wallet” offers what she calls a 3-D strategy — determine, distract and delay — to help us avoid unwanted shopping. First we paint a mental picture of ourselves being financially disciplined. Then — if tempted by stores — we steer ourselves toward buying a cup of coffee or making a phone call. Then finally, we delay any purchases by giving ourselves permission to return in 24 hours if we’re still longing for the item later.

“You are what you think,” says Kay. “So if you think about yourself sticking to your budget, you will.”

Problem is, online shopping doesn’t give us enough time to think, says Bruce McClary, vice president of public relations for the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. So we shouldn’t store our credit card or shipping information on retail sites, he says, or use features such as single click purchasing. If we see something awesome, let’s add it to a “wish list” before adding it to our carts.

“Retailers have taken a lot of the barriers away from the point you think you want to buy something to the point that it’s sitting in a package in your mail box,” says McClary. “And those barriers are important. Because every time you have to put in extra information gives you time to think about whether you can afford to make the purchase.”

Brett Graff is a former U.S. government economist and the editor of, where she reports on the economic forces affecting real people.

Shop until you smile

Do you use retail therapy to cure the blues? A study from, which provides cash back and other benefits to a roster of retailers, bets that you do. Some 51.8 percent of adult Americans — 63.9 percent of women and 39.8 percent of men — report shopping to improve their moods. Here’s what they buy.






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