the spa and retail director for The Ritz-Carlton, South
Beach, in Miami Beach, Fla., William Arango has made a
profession of helping people pick themselves up after
traveling though one of life’s let-downs. From cancer
to career setbacks, the products and services offered at
his hotel present the promise of a fresh start. That’s
particularly true, he says, if you happen to arrive with
an entourage of friends after a bad break-up, ready to
invest some money in new workout clothes and a fresh
skin care regimen.
people want things that help them to look and feel
great," says Arango. "These things make them
doubt. While professionals from psychologists to
economists — and from stylists to retail directors —
offer varying opinions on what happens when we spend
money making ourselves feel good, they’ll manage to
agree on only one thing: it usually works.
we’re already bummed out and spending money, wouldn’t
it be nice if retail therapy would always buy us better
feelings? Now, in teasing out the links between human
psychology and physical purchases, researchers have
found the very specific instances in which this form of
healing fails. At the same time, they have uncovered the
very shopping circumstances — ones we can ourselves
create — in which spending money will most effectively
smooth bumps in the road.
are inherently adaptive," says Derek Rucker,
professor of marketing at Northwestern University, who
put nearly 120 subjects though a series of experiments
that threatened either their intelligence or their
social skills. "So these retail strategies must
work in some circumstances. But there’s a risk."
risk, it turns out, is that the item we were hoping will
heal our wound could actually wind up reminding us about
the incident that caused it in the first place, says
Rucker. That will happen when we buy something that
falls in the same domain as the failure — say, a
briefcase after a botched business meeting — and go
home and continue to sulk. In those cases, we’ve
wasted our money on an item that will only prolong our
if we head to a cocktail hour and get a compliment —
or two — on our new brown-leather valise, we’ll
identify those kind words with our overall professional
identities. And soon we start to feel pretty good about
the whole career domain, says Rucker.
products serve many purposes beyond their functional
utility," says Rucker. "They have
psychological value. In some cases, purchases in the
same domain remind you of a failure. But in other cases,
they can validate your sense of self."
if we buy something outside of the failure’s domain
— say, a new bike instead of a briefcase? We’ll get
a quick retail rush, says Rucker. But we won’t feel
better about the troubling matter.
most indulgences — alcohol and dessert, for example
— retail therapy in moderation is perfectly fine, says
Dr. Frances Berman, a licensed clinical psychologist.
But beware of signs that could mean we’re
over-shopping, she says. For example, stashing purchases
in a closet and never opening them means we feel a sense
of shame. That’s not healthy, she says. What’s more,
shopping should not cause us to miss important events.
And along with our emotional health, we should consider
our levels of credit card debt.
you abuse something to forget about a problem,"
says Dr. Berman, "you end up with two
Kay, a financial literacy expert and author of
"Lean Body, Fat Wallet" offers what she calls
a 3-D strategy — determine, distract and delay — to
help us avoid unwanted shopping. First we paint a mental
picture of ourselves being financially disciplined. Then
— if tempted by stores — we steer ourselves toward
buying a cup of coffee or making a phone call. Then
finally, we delay any potential purchases by giving
ourselves permission to return in 24 hours if we’re
still longing for the item later.
are what you think," says Kay. "So if you
think about yourself sticking to your budget, you
is, online shopping doesn’t give us enough time to
think, says Bruce McClary, vice president of public
relations for the National Foundation for Credit
Counseling. So we shouldn’t store our credit card or
shipping information on retail sites, he says, or use
features such as single click purchasing. If we see
something awesome, let’s add it to a "wish
list" before adding it to our carts.
have taken a lot of the barriers away from the point you
think you want to buy something to the point that it’s
sitting in a package in your mail box," says
McClary. "And those barriers are important. Because
every time you have to put in extra information gives
you time to think about whether you can afford to make
TIL YOU SMILE
you use retail therapy to cure the blues? A study from
Ebates.com, which provides cash back and other benefits
to a roster of retailers, bets that you do. Some 51.8
percent of adult Americans — 63.9 percent of women and
39.8 percent of men — report shopping to improve their
moods. Here’s what they buy.