Can’t resist splurging on online shopping? Here’s why

The demand for online shopping has obviously increased since COVID-19 restrictions were put in place.

But less obvious are the subtle psychological drivers behind our collective online shopping splurge. In fact, online shopping can relieve stress, provide entertainment and offers the reduced “pain” of paying online.

In the last week of April, more than two million parcels a day were delivered across the Australia Post network. This is 90% more than the same time last year.

More recently, data based on a weekly sample of transactions revealed food delivery increased by 230%, furniture and office goods purchases rose 140% and alcohol and tobacco sales rose 45%.

Why the shopping frenzy?

Online sales of many product categories have increased, including for food, winter clothes and toys. This isn’t surprising given people still need to eat, winter is coming and we’re bored at home.

But beyond the fact most people are spending more time at home, there are a range of psychological factors behind the online shopping upheaval.

Recent months have been stressful due to financial uncertainty, the inability to visit loved ones and changes to our daily routines.

Shopping can be a way to cope with stress. In fact, higher levels of distress have been linked with higher purchase intentions. And this compulsion to buy is often part of an effort to reduce negative emotions.

In other words, shopping is an escape.

A 2013 study compared people living close to the Gaza-Israel border during a period of conflict with those from a central Israeli town that wasn’t under duress. The researchers found those living in the high-stress environment reported a higher degree of “materialism” and a desire to shop to relieve stress.

When mall trips aren’t an option

Indeed, in a time when typical forms of entertainment such as restaurants and cinemas are inaccessible, shopping becomes a form of entertainment. The act of shopping alone produces increased arousal, heightened involvement, perceived freedom, and fantasy fulfillment.

It seems the stress and boredom brought on by this pandemic has intensified our will to spend.

What’s more, psychology research has demonstrated humans’ inability to delay gratification.

We want things now. Even with stay-at-home orders, we still want new makeup, clothes, shoes, electronics and housewares.

Another pleasant aspect of online shopping is it avoids the typical “pain of paying” experienced during in-person transactions.

Most people don’t enjoy parting with their money. But research has shown the psychological pain produced from spending money depends on the transaction type. The more tangible the transaction, the stronger the pain.

Simply, paying for a product by physically giving cash hurts more than clicking a “buy now” button.

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