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Shoppers Use 'Retail Therapy' to Ward Off Stress

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Perhaps you've heard a friend say they're headed out for a little "retail therapy" and thought they were being a tad dramatic. As it turns out, people really do shop to relieve stress. And, it's not just after a stressful event that people tend to hit the mall. In fact, new research finds that people go shopping to ward off potential stress before it happens.

"Retail therapy" is a common coping mechanism similar to emotional eating, the researchers said. After a stressful experience that challenges their self-image, consumers tend to increase their overall consumption in order to distract themselves and "forget all about it."

Present research shows that consumers use products to reactively cope with challenges to their self-image. In a new study, the researchers determined that shoppers also spend money on new purchases to proactively protect themselves against potential challenges.

New research from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, however, shows that people also shop when they know a stressful situation is coming. However, shoppers are very selective in choosing only products that are specific to the potentially negative situation.

For example, a student might buy a bottle of electrolyte-enhanced Smartwater before taking a math test. A consumer might splurge on some expensive jewelry prior to attending a high school reunion to guard against the perception that they have not been successful in life. Another shopper might purchase a designer suit prior to presenting at an important meeting where their business savvy might be scrutinized.

"Prior to receiving any negative feedback, consumers select products that are specifically associated with bolstering or guarding the part of the self that might come under threat," said authors Soo Kim and Derek D. Rucker, both of Kellogg.

The selective shopping habits exhibited prior to an anticipated stressful event change after a stressful event has occurred, the researchers said. After receiving negative feedback, consumers seem to increase their shopping more generally as consumption may serve as a means to distract them from the negative feedback, the authors conclude.

The research appears in the current issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

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Jeanette Mulvey

Jeanette has been writing about business for more than 20 years. She has written about every kind of entrepreneur from hardware store owners to fashion designers. Previously she was a manager of internal communications for Home Depot. Her journalism career began in local newspapers. She has a degree in American Studies from Rutgers University. Follow her on Twitter @jeanettebnd.