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Is Retail Therapy Real?

Is Retail Therapy Real?

Written by

Abbie Dawson


March 6, 2023


Latest research

Lots of us find treating ourselves therapeutic. But is ‘retail therapy’ a real thing?

At Startle, we’re huge fans of retail. Buying, browsing and everything in between - the industry is so important. 

If you’ve gone shopping when you’re feeling sad or stressed - you’re not alone. You might have purchased that new top you’ve wanted for ages, or treated yourself to an overpriced latte, and immediately felt better. But why is this? 

What is retail therapy?

The idea of retail therapy has been around for decades. It’s defined as “the act of buying special things for yourself in order to feel better when you are unhappy”. The phrase was first used in the 1980s in the Chicago Tribune newspaper on Christmas Eve, 1986: “We’ve become a nation measuring out our lives in shopping bags and nursing our psychic ills through retail therapy.”

In a 2011 study, 407 adults were involved in 3 different experiments to do with retail therapy. The study showed that unplanned shopping seems to relieve bad moods, and doesn’t usually involve negative effects such as buyer’s remorse or guilt. Claire Brummel, an expert in human behaviour, says:

“Shopping has a surface-level benefit, rather than being something that is really going to fulfil our needs. More importantly, because retail therapy does not properly fulfil our needs, it just masks or satiates it temporarily, it is very easy for the behaviour to become a habit.”

So if it’s not a long term solution, why do so many of us take part? 

Emotional expression

The act of purchasing an item can trigger a feeling that can distract us from the sadness we’re experiencing. Anticipating the possibility of a treat or reward releases a hormone called dopamine in your brain, creating a positive response. So, on the surface level, retail therapy can literally alter our mood. 

If your sadness is linked to low self esteem, purchasing items that could be considered ‘cool’ or ‘attractive’ might be a method you use to feel better. This is a tool which is used in marketing frequently - the suggestion that their products will solve your problems, and buying one more thing will help how you feel. 


If you’re feeling down, getting out of the house to go shopping, or even just scrolling through online stores, can provide a valuable shift in focus. 

Sometimes all we need is something else for our brain to focus on - the brightly lit displays can be a welcome distraction. 

Retail therapy can be used to draw our attention away from emotions that we find uncomfortable. So, when we’re feeling sad or frustrated, we might buy items to substitute those feelings with different ones by making a purchase, for example excitement. 


Feelings of sadness, stress or anxiety are often rooted in feelings of powerlessness. The authors of a 2013 study suggest that retail therapy offers a sense of control that counteracts these feelings. 

Choosing to make a purchase (or not to make a purchase) helps people feel more empowered.

"In those moments when we feel helpless to change a situation, retail therapy can help us feel that we at least have a hold on at least one concrete outcome. It can remind us that we are still able to create some pleasure for ourselves in the midst of the challenges we are facing,"

-Claire Brummel


If you’re taking part in some physical retail therapy, it can be a great opportunity to reconnect with those around us. Sadness can be a very isolating feeling, and meeting up with friends or family to head to the shops can provide an excuse to get talking. Even if you’re doing it alone, you are amongst people and can feel a connection to society. 

The perfect store environment can be the setting for much-needed social connections. 

Things to remember

Although retail therapy might be real in some ways, it’s important to remember that it’s not a replacement for professional help, and can have some dark sides. 

Using shopping as a coping mechanism can be a slippery slope into possible money issues. So although it can provide an innocent and temporary solution to low moods, it can’t tackle the root of the problem. 

Charities like Samaritans are there to help if you’re feeling low, and the National Debtline is there if you need financial advice.

So, in a lot of ways, retail therapy is legit. It's one of the many reasons creating the perfect store experience is important. Taking something that can be seen as a commodity and turning it into a major driving factor to your retail brand’s bottomline. It’s getting music and atmosphere on your team and in all your shops.

Hey, we've just met you and this is crazy. But here's our number +44 (0)203 397 7676. So, call us maybe? Or get in touch here.

Is Retail Therapy Real?

Abbie Dawson

Marketing Manager at Startle. I'm in charge of our marketing activity, making sure to spread the word of Startle to as many brands as possible. When I'm not working, you'll find me vinyl shopping to add to my collection or working out at the gym (usually making enemies with a punching bag).

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Hey, we've just met you and this is crazy. But here's our number +44 (0)203 397 7676. So, call us maybe?

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