Taming The Shopper Within

What do I need?

We ask ourselves that question a lot, don't we? We ask it when we prepare our grocery list and look in the fridge and in the pantry. We ask ourselves the question when we prepare to look through the weekly flyers for deals our favourite stores offer us. What if we were to ask ourselves that question, but not about "stuff"?

What need are we fulfilling by shopping?

The desire to shop is a learned behaviour.
— Mary Carlomagno, Give It Up! (2006), p. 31.
I believe that our national obsession with buying and consuming is just going to escalate, as marketers become better and better at targeting our subconscious wishes and desires.
— Martin Windstorm, Buyology (2008), p. 199.

In North America, shopping has turned into a sport. Whether you're a bargain hunter, a power shopper, a browser or a shopaholic, we all seek to fulfill a specific set of needs when we shop.

Sure, we need to house, clothe and feed ourselves, but the act of shopping is far more than acquiring the necessities of life. If it were just that, there would be far less need for marketers and advertisers.

Shopping for stuff is exciting.


Shopping offers a momentary rush. That rush can be associated with the the feeling of seemingly infinite possibilities that present themselves when we shop with no plan, no stated purpose. That rush can also stem from all the money we'll "save" by taking advantage of a special offer for a good or service. It can also be associated with feeling we're doing something useful, purposeful with our time as opposed to wasting it watching TV or feeling bored and idle.

The rush can even come from the feeling that life will be so much better once we finally have the item that will give us what we "need". We know it'll be our key to short-term happiness because we've imagined ourselves enjoying the new item or service. Finally we'll have arrived...for a while at least.

For most of us, however, self-control issues arise because we underestimate the effect of arousal.
— Richard H. Thaller & Cass R. Sustain, Nudge (2009), p. 42.

I wish that feeling would last. It's quite the buzz, almost a drug-like state, really...if only for a while. If we're lucky, it lasts for a few hours, even for a few weeks/months if the purchase is REALLY significant to us. Given the "hit" only lasts for a short amount of time, why do we do it over and over again?

We know it won't last, but we go ahead and engage in the activity anyway. Why else would "going shopping" without a list or specific intent be considered an appropriate, even desirable activity? 

In his book, Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely suggests it's our heightened state of arousal—the thrill of the moment and the associated FOMO—that leads us to act in an irrational way. That’s why delaying a purchase can spare us from buying something merely to experience the rush itself as opposed to filling a need for some material good or service. 

Evaluating need vs want is the key.

[S]elf-justification is more powerful and more dangerous than the explicit lie. It allows people to convince themselves that what they did was the best thing they could have done. In fact, come to think of it, it was the right thing.
— by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), p. 4.

Speaking of need...when did the word "need" become a substitute for "want"? The word "need" seems to remove all personal responsibility from the decision to spend money, similar to how "have to" has replaced "choose to" in our vocabulary. When it comes down to it, there's very little we actually need but a HUGE amount of stuff and experiences we want

That’s a lesson we can all learn: the more we have, the more we want.
— Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational

The amount of real "needs" is quite small and we can easily be satisfied once these real needs are met (hunger, sleep, warmth, housing, clothing, hygiene). The problem is that the amount of "wants" is as big as we let it be and tends to snowball the more we acquire! Like a hamster on a wheel, you can keep accumulating mileage (stuff) faster and faster but never get to the finish line. Because there is no finish line. 

I’ll admit that I’ve struggled with that myself. The best ways I’ve found to slow down my personal hamster wheel is to:

  • Automatically throw out flyers for stores other than grocery and hardware stores I regularly visit for our immediate requirements.
  • Avoid commercials of all types, regardless of the delivery method (TV, Internet, radio, apps, podcasts).
  • Consider the source of my motivation for a purchase BEFORE I head to the store—is it a want and if I merely want it, how does it measure up to my other wants?
  • Wait at least 24 hours before going to get it (and up to 1-6 months for significant purchases) to increase my odds of thinking about the purchase rationally.
  • Investigate whether I'd be able to find the same item second hand (I've found many things this way and have saved a bundle over the years...not to mention it's more difficult for it to be an impulse buy).
  • Be grateful for what I already have and realize how much of my personal property I underutilize, making it less likely I need more to occupy my limited time.
  • Determine whether I'm using shopping or seeking a service as an activity to alleviate boredom or to procrastinate. 
  • Decide what will be leaving my personal space to make room for the new item. If I don't want to discard of or sell anything to make room for it, do I really want it?
  • Think of other things I could do as opposed to rely on stuff, such as reading, writing, cleaning, fixing things I already own, cooking, calling up or emailing a friend, walking/biking/exercising, etc.

...and if all else fails...

  • Take a look at my net worth (yes, I'm serious). It leads me to consider that any money spent unnecessarily interferes with the growth of our stash of peace of mind. Talk about a great reason for a buzz kill!
When people experience situations that do not support the satisfaction of their basic psychological needs, the resultant feelings of insecurity may lead them to adopt a more materialistic outlook on life as a way to compensate for these feelings.
— Tim Kasser and Allen D. Kanner, Psychology and Consumer Culture (2003), p. 15-6.

Whatever the reason(s) behind the rush we seek in acquiring goods and services (status, self-confidence, comfort, alleviating boredom, identity, power, pleasure), we can tame this beast and see it for what it is: short-term perceived gains that are quickly forgotten or deemed irrelevant in favour of the next item we set our sights on. And there will always be a next item. 

How do you deal with your wish to shop? Do you force yourself to stay out of stores? Do you play the waiting game?

Further Reading:

Image credit/copyright: thaikrit/freedigitalphotos.net

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