Addicting You to Christmas


It’s a great time of year. The lights, the Christmas music and the spirit of giving all combine to make the holiday season something you’d have to be a Grinch not to enjoy. Except that perhaps, your friendly retailer is using techniques to bring out your inner shopping addict: getting all of us to spend more by using psychological tricks of the trade.

To see it in action, we first have to know the cycle of addiction from a shop-a-holic’s point of view. There’s the craving to go to the store, often in response to life’s stresses. While there, they can forget their troubles and feel the reward that comes from choosing their “stuff” and making the purchase. It’s only afterwards, faced with the bills and piles of merchandise they don’t need, when the shopping addict gets hit with the shame and guilt.

Of course, the shame and guilt from the last “fix” then helps build the stress for the next one.

So how do retailers tap into this cycle? According to a New York Times piece, it’s called “suffer, spend, repeat” and it works like this:

While seeming to be a friendly environment, a retail store is actually designed to assault your senses and confuse you. They irritate you by setting the temperature lower, by using garish colors, by overwhelming your sense of smell, and, if they can, they’ll even attack your taste buds with a free sample or two. This, along with a disorienting store layout, causes confusion and keeps you from thinking clearly. It also makes you stressed. Remember our shopping addict? They shop to relieve stress.

The over-stimulation and stress leads to momentary loss of control – also called an “impulse buy.” Retailers know that you will think the longest and hardest about your first decision to purchase. Getting you to pick up the first item is critical. After that, you are an easier target. It's called "shopping momentum" by the experts.

And don’t you feel a bit better, now that you’ve found that neat little “something”? Sure you do. Next we move into cognitive closure – continuing on with an action we’ve lightly committed to (the purchase) through to the end. After all, what sort of person would we be if we didn’t stick to our decisions?

The resolution of our store-induced stress comes after we check out. You probably know the “big sigh of relief” that comes after an hour or so in a store. Now that we’ve left the arena, the assault is over and we feel oh so much better. Job well done. There's actually a sense of accomplishment.

Unlike the truly addicted, we probably haven’t spent this month’s mortgage payment, so the guilt and shame don’t necessarily follow. Instead, we tend to remember the last feeling in the series, the accomplishing a goal part. And guess what? That felt pretty good. The good feeling is associated with the shopping trip and the rest is largely forgotten or set aside, priming us for a return trip.

So now you know why the music is too loud and why everything smells so strongly. You know why there are must-have-sale-items right there to pick up (the first purchase hurdle). Welcome to Christmas in the new millennium.


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