We joke about retail therapy all the time, but as it turns out, there is some merit to the idea that people spend more when they’re stressed—just, maybe not in the way you’d expect.
According to recent research from the Journal of Consumer Research, when people feel like they’ve lost control of their environment, it can affect their purchases—even at the grocery store. In fact, it’s there that they’re more likely to spend money on cleaning products—along with tools, painkillers, stationery and skim milk.
In one experiment, researchers asked participants to write a short essay about either a time they felt high levels of control over a situation (like acing an exam) or a time they felt like they lacked control over their surroundings (when an important flight got canceled or a time they lost their job, for example) and then sent them into a grocery store to go shopping as usual. Researchers then checked the participants’ receipts upon leaving the store to analyze the differences, if any.
In the end, those in the latter group (who wrote the essay on lacking control) purchased more than double the amount of utilitarian products than those shoppers who wrote the essay on having high control.
According to the report, high control shoppers spent an average of $3 on utilitarian items, while low control shoppers spent an average of $5.91 on similar products.
The study’s authors explained the results, writing, “Consumers who experience a loss of control are more likely to buy products that are more functional in nature, such as screwdrivers and dish detergent, because these are typically associated with problem solving, which may enhance people’s sense of control.”
These utilitarian products may not solve the problem at hand—cleaning solutions obviously aren’t directly related to facing a problem like a canceled flight or unemployment—but they seem to help people who feel stressed out regain control, even if it’s in a small way.