Hold On!

Hold Up

Please select a minimum of three sectors in the menu above.

Got It
  • How can a little indulgence ease the mind?
  • How can a little indulgence ease the mind?
    Harold Wijnholds (2018) ©

Treat yourself! The science of retail therapy

Money can’t buy you happiness, but splashing out on a treat can sometimes be a perfect emotional pick-me-up. Canvas8 spoke to Dr. Satoko Suzuki, an associate professor at Hitotsubashi University, to discover how indulgent consumption can bring people joy and impact their overall wellbeing.

Location Global

In April 2019, fast fashion retailer Primark opened its biggest-ever outlet in Birmingham. Spanning 160,000 square feet, the megastore is set to employ more than 1,000 people and reportedly drew in some 5,000 shoppers on its first day alone. But how did the store manage to attract so many people amid economic uncertainty and the global decline of the high street? 

By blending experiential shopping and brand partnerships with customer-centric design, Primark is tapping into people’s tendency for emotional spending, leaning into the feel-good effect that splurging can induce. The brand is leaning into its reputation for providing good value for money, thereby encouraging small, indulgent purchases. Treating oneself to little luxuries is a regular occurrence for many people who view retail therapy as a sure-fire route to happiness – a quarter of Americans say they habitually splurge on themselves over the Christmas holiday season to make themselves feel better.

“Indulgent consumption has always been a part of our lives,” says Dr. Satoko Suzuki, an associate professor of marketing at Hitotsubashi University and the co-author of ‘Emotional fortification: Indulgent consumption and emotion reappraisal and their implications for wellbeing’. “Both situationally and behaviourally, it is becoming easier to indulge on an everyday basis.” But does retail therapy really make people happier? Canvas8 spoke to Suzuki to understand how indulging oneself through shopping can be a powerful way of regulating emotions and improving overall wellbeing.


Why is this topic important to understand?
Indulgent consumption happens when people allow themselves to choose something that feels like a pleasurable treat, as opposed to a necessity. It has been a part of human behaviour for such a long time that there must be value in it. However, marketing and consumer behaviour studies often consider it something to be avoided and portray it as a loss of self-control. The logic is that we can do without indulgent consumption because it’s not a basic human need like warmth, food, or sleep. Studies have shown that people get caught up in indulging and then feel guilty or experience negative emotions immediately afterwards.

In my research, we wanted to figure out what the relationship is between indulgent consumption and consumer wellbeing, and eventually came to focus on the idea of emotional regulation. Within social psychology, theories suggest that the regulation of emotion is very important for humans to be in good health. This makes certain kinds of consumption – or other acts that elevate our mood and emotions – pretty meaningful for maintaining our emotional wellbeing.

Motivations to indulge can be categorised into four main types. The first is around relieving negative emotions. The second is around maintaining or elevating positive emotions. Another kind of indulgent consumption is around celebrations – birthdays, anniversaries, and other occasions – and is less emotion-based than situation-based. People also indulge when they come into a little extra money, like a bonus.

Indulgent consumption is a kind of ‘retail therapy’. However, it’s consistently been verified in behavioural research that if you are overspending or getting into credit debt, that’s really harmful to wellbeing. Emotional regulation strategies are not a stand-in for actual therapy sessions, but are instead little practices that help to maintain everyday wellbeing. We argue that doing too much indulgent consumption can be very bad for your health, but a little of it is probably good for you.

Retail therapy requires moderation to stay healthy Retail therapy requires moderation to stay healthy
Artem Beliaikin (2018) ©

How did you go about conducting your study?
What we were trying to discover was whether or not indulgent consumption could have positive implications for people. Our hypothesis was that indulgence was associated with emotional reappraisal – a conscious act that happens when people are aware of how they’re feeling and want to change it.

We reached out to an online consumer panel and conducted two surveys, speaking to over 100 consumers in each. First, we created a scenario in which they were asked to imagine experiencing success and whether or not they would be indulging to celebrate. Another group was asked to imagine being in a bad situation and whether or not they would be indulging to feel better. We measured their willingness to engage in this indulgent consumption and then we measured their emotional reappraisal tendencies using a social psychology questionnaire that recorded their responses to statements like ‘I control my emotions by not expressing them’ and ‘when I want to feel more positive emotions, such as joy or amusement, I change what I'm thinking about’. 

We then ran a second study that replicated the first but had the added component of examining the implications of indulgence and reappraisal specifically for consumer wellbeing. Here, we reran the first experiment to check our findings and also got respondents to indicate how satisfied they were with their lives using a nine-point scale. We then measured their general wellbeing using a similar psychological scale.

We found that a willingness to indulge in emotional reappraisal did have a strong association with the tendency to indulge. The higher your tendency is to revisit how you feel, the more willing you are to indulge. We called this ‘emotional fortification’ – when people use both indulgent consumption and emotional reappraisal as strategies to make themselves feel better. Our data showed that people who engage in indulging are also likely to engage in managing their emotions in the first place, and when combined, the two serve to reinforce emotional wellbeing. In the second survey, we found that this correlation has a positive impact on life satisfaction and emotional wellbeing. So, as we originally hypothesised, indulgence can sometimes be good for your psychological state or wellbeing – buying and consuming can actually make people happier. 

The average American shells out $1,652 a year on feel-good purchases The average American shells out $1,652 a year on feel-good purchases
Victor Xok (2018) ©

What do your findings mean?
People are looking for routes to happiness and indulgent consumption fits into that endeavour. In the US and Japan, for instance, premiumised food is becoming very popular and people are enjoying little indulgences on an almost daily basis, and that can be explained by the psychological mechanism we've described.

Our findings are very encouraging for brands that are highly involved in indulgent consumption. But, at the same time, neither brands nor researchers should simply be telling people to indulge more. Brands that use indulgence in their communications should keep in mind they have a responsibility for wellbeing. Their brand identities can be positioned in ways that show they are supporting and caring for people. Our work could also apply well to brand taglines. For example, ‘Have a break, have a KitKat’ is a really good tagline – people sometimes need to savour, indulge, or have fun. Life can be stressful, so people sometimes need to break out and KitKat can be a way for them to do that.

Finally, mainstream understandings of retail therapy often centre around the risk of overspending or becoming addicted to shopping. Our research shows how indulgent consumption can also be preventative. If small indulgences become part of an everyday emotional regulation system, there’s less of a chance of people overdoing things.

Treating oneself can be a way to maintain emotional health Treating oneself can be a way to maintain emotional health
Mark Zamora (2019) ©

Insights and opportunities

  • Retail therapy is big business – 79% of Americans say they have engaged in it and 68% say that shopping serves as a pick-me-up when they’re feeling blue. In the US, the average shopper shells out $1,652 a year on purchases to make themselves feel better, with retail therapy accounting for over a fifth of all buying. In the digital age, however, this behaviour is taking on new forms. Whether it’s shopping from the comfort of your bed or seamlessly while on-the-go, 66% of people think e-commerce feels more therapeutic than going in-store. For brands, tapping into the different emotional need-states behind indulgent consumption, like elevating joy or relieving stress, can allow them to keep up with the varied ways in which people shop to feel good.
  • As people craft indulgent regimes that help them feel good, they are increasingly open to spending on little luxuries that can be woven into their everyday routines. This commitment to therapeutic purchasing is really taking off – the global wellness industry grew by 12.8% over 2016-2018 and is now valued at $4.2 trillion. Still, people continue to have a lingering unease about spending on themselves – over half of Americans feel guilty when they shop, with this emotion accompanying one in every five purchases. Brands like Cocofloss and Boy Smells help alleviate this by reframing mundane items like floss and candles as little treats, emphasising their potential to bring joy and showing how they can actively improve everyday self-care.
  • While indulgent consumption boosts wellbeing, it still needs to be kept in check to be healthy. Retail therapy can be a slippery slope and Dr. Suzuki suggests that an important distinction needs to be drawn between treating yourself and uncontrollable stress spending – something 74% of people say they have engaged in. Overspending can turn even the holiday season into a stressful time – 7% of stress shoppers have spent over $1,000 on a single impulse purchase. Brands like Plum and Money Diaries are offering personal finance support and advice to help people indulge responsibly without breaking the bank.
  • As the rise of self-gifting shows, treating yourself in small ways can be an effective coping mechanism to deal with the time pressures of hectic lifestyles. When coupled with emotional reappraisal – which the mindfulness movement actively advocates – it can form a powerful defense against everyday stressors. And with 39% of American adults feeling more anxious in 2018 than a year prior, retail therapy has an important role to play in easing personal pressures, allowing people to indulge themselves guilt-free. As we move towards a subscription economy, Scentbird and Freddie’s Flowers are meeting the demand for small and regular indulgences by allowing people to get feel-good purchases sent right to their doorsteps.

Featured Experts

Dr. Satoko Suzuki

Dr. Satoko Suzuki is an associate professor of marketing at the Hitotsubashi University Business School. She researches cross-cultural consumption and brand management, and has worked for L’Oréal and the Boston Consulting Group.