Let’s shop! exploring the experiences of therapy shoppers

Minjeong Kang, Kim K P Johnson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Retail therapy is casually defined as shopping for the primary purpose of making oneself feel better. Individuals’ desire to assuage their negative moods is an important personal need. Successful mood management affects emotional well-being and perceived quality of life. Thus, this research was designed to enhance understanding of retail therapy as a form of consumer behavior by investigating consumer’s experiences during three shopping stages: pre-shopping, shopping, and post-shopping. The following research questions were developed to achieve this goal. R1: What kinds of negative moods lead to therapy shopping? How often do people use shopping as therapy? R2: What reasons do people offer for their use of shopping as therapy? R3: What are the key components of a therapeutic shopping experience? R4: What is the profile of the therapy shopper? R5: What are the post therapy experiences of shoppers? R6: What is the role of the product purchased in alleviating mood? Retail therapy has been studied from two different approaches: mood-alleviative consumption (Kacen, 1998; Kacen and Friese, 1999; Luomala, 2002) and compensatory consumption (Woodruffe, 1997; Yurchisin, Yan, Watchravesringkan, and Chen, 2008). For the first approach, shopping and buying are considered mood-regulatory devices. Individuals experiencing bad moods shop and make purchases to repair or lighten their mood. In contrast, compensatory consumption researchers view shopping and buying as a form of compensation for perceived psychosocial deficiencies. The approach adopted in the current research was mood-alleviation consumption. Luomala (2002) emphasized the existence of qualitatively different negative moods and labeled them as irritation, stress, and dejection. Luomala also identified eight types of therapeutic power stemming from different mood-alleviative consumption activities. Shopping and purchasing were linked to three types of therapeutic powers: the ability to improve mood by distraction, by being self-indulgent, and by feeling activated (e.g., stimulation of senses) In the current study, self-identified therapy shoppers (n = 43) participated in in-depth interviews. All interviews were recorded and transcribed. To analyze the data, several cycles of analysis were conducted. Analysis began with identification of the details of each response. From the concrete level, statements were grouped together to identify themes of content. This process of interpretation was repeated for all research questions. Participants represented demographic diversity with the exception of gender. The majority of participants were women. About half of the participants were young adults between 20 and 39 years of age. Slightly less than half were middle-aged people between 40 and 59 years of age. About half of the participants were European Americans, while the other half represented Asian and African Americans. The majority of participants was employed full-time in a variety of industries and had annual incomes between $25,000 and $99,999. In the pre-shopping stage, all dimensions of negative moods (i.e., stress, dejection, anger) lead to therapy shopping. When experiencing negative moods, most participants went shopping to alleviate them more than half of the time. There was not a clear pattern exhibited linking the frequency of experiencing a negative mood with the frequency of going shopping to alleviate it. Participants provided various justifications for their behavior. Shopping provided a positive distraction, an escape, an indulgence, an elevation in self-esteem, activation, a sense of control, and a social connection. Improvement of mood stemmed from imagining consumption, experiencing retail environments, being well-treated by sales associates, shopping activity, and purchasing. In general, these shoppers shopped alone, made an unplanned purchase for themselves, spent more time and money than typical, and were store loyal. Participants’ post-retail therapy experiences reflected feeling better right after a therapy shopping trip, not regretting their therapy shopping, and rationalizing their shopping if they experienced regret. Overall, participants indicated their use of shopping as therapy was effective and successful and had little or no negative consequences. For almost all participants, products purchased played an important role in alleviating their mood initially. Many participants purchased apparel, used the items purchased, and remembered the good experience associated with their purchase when they used the items later. However, they noted that the therapeutic value of a product decreased over time. The primary contribution to the consumer behavior field is to support and significantly extend existing knowledge of shopping as therapy. For example, all three of the therapeutic powers identified in Luomala (2002)’s research were noted in our data and we identified four additional powers underlying the use of shopping as therapy in our research. Therefore, shopping entails a broader range of therapeutic powers than previously identified. For retailers, identifying various reasons why consumers choose shopping as therapy (e.g., escape, activation, sense of control) and different aspects of shopping (e.g., retail environment, purchasing) that alleviate their negative moods during shopping can greatly assist them in developing ways to make consumers’ shopping experience an effective therapy. For example, window displays suggesting fantasy can attract shoppers who seek escape from reality. Also, to help consumers feel activated, retailers can provide various educational experiences. For instance, an apparel retailer could provide a flower show in spring to entertain and educate shoppers.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)71-79
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Global Fashion Marketing
Issue number2
StatePublished - 2010

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