A lot of discretionary spending—-like online shopping for clothes, jewelry, watches, home meal kits, or whatever else is being pitched to you on your phone or desktop via microtargeted ads—-is psychological. We shop because we are always seeking the “rush” of going to find that Next Great Thing. Once upon a time (the 80s—yes, I’m old) the pop-culture expression was Shop Until You Drop. Now given the demise of malls and the rise of Amazon, it’s more like Shop Until You Click.
You see, way back in my youth when dinosaurs roamed the earth, there was such a thing as window-shopping. You could go to the mall, see/touch/even try on tons of stuff—just for fun—and never spend a dime. Sure, window-shopping could always lead to purchases if you lacked self-control, but if you didn’t have the cash in your pocket to pay for something, you generally didn’t buy it even if you tried it on and bought it. Credit cards were around then, but usually with lower spending limits that tended to keep you honest. (This changed by the mid-90s, but that’s a topic for another post).
Here’s the thing though: shopping is addictive. Our brains are hard-wired to seek serotonin rewards, and the “hunt” of shopping offers those rewards in spades. In the age of brick-and-mortar shopping, it was easier to cut your shopping addiction off at the pass if you just didn’t go to the mall and tossed those mail-order catalogs into the trash. But times have changed.
E-commerce experts understand that shopping is primarily emotional. And as such, web developers, psychologists, and marketing gurus have worked together to develop targeted online ads and shopping apps that are specifically designed to manipulate your emotions into spending more, more, more.
Big Data has been collecting information on all of us, our day-to-day behaviors, our personalities, and yes, our shopping habits—via social media and other data-collection tools for at least 2 decades now. Remember when we thought Facebook was just for connecting with long-lost high school classmates and sharing cat videos? Well, we were wrong—-Facebook is really there to collect our most personal information so they can micro-target us with advertising, shopping apps, and the like. (Yes, it really is a conspiracy). And now thanks to machine learning, “discount cards” at stores that track what you buy in exchange for discounts or freebies (here’s a hint: NOTHING IS FREE, sometimes the product is YOU), the average American consumer is bombarded by messages to BUY BUY BUY everything, marketed in a way designed to prey upon your emotional inadequacies, your need for positive reinforcement, or even your desire to succeed at work, or school, or parenting.
You could argue that shopping has been weaponized.
Yes, that is a pretty loaded statement. But I’m very confident that it is the truth. I am just about as skeptical as you can get when it comes to marketing and targeted, manipulative messaging tactics because that is exactly what I do for a living. Since I know how to manipulate highly sophisticated people via manipulative messaging tactics (which I get paid handsomely for, natch)—you would think I’d be immune to it if someone or something else tries it on me. Well, most of the time, that’s true. Except not always. Because I am human and as such, my human brain craves positive serotonin reinforcement as much as most other humans. Sure, I can condition myself to resist temptation better than most because I understand the psychology and physiology involved, but I’m not infallible.
Case in point: discount shopping apps like Zulily.
I am a cheap middle-aged skank who likes to dress well but hates paying retail. I work in publishing/media so I am hardwired to meet deadlines. And I hate going to the mall, and I hate rooting around aimlessly for something I want even more.
You might say Zulily was designed with shoppers like me in mind. You see, Zulily sells higher-end goods at deep discounts according to a narrow deadline window, microtargets possible crap for you to buy based on data analytics and past buying behavior, AND does things like remember your exact measurements and the measurements of your kids, AND serves up freebies like extra discounts and free shipping to get you to BUY BUY BUY when you ordinarily wouldn’t. (That’s a road to a certain perdition known as Shopping Addiction).
Okay, I confess—Zulily got to me, you might say I was addicted (though only for 1 month). A lot. To the point some stuff arrived on my doorstep that I didn’t remember buying. (BAD! VERY BAD! It’s OK though, I returned it). Zulily got to me SO much that I had to delete the app from my phone and block the site on my desktop browser.
Fortunately, I know better than this. I recognized the warning signs early and did something about it. And I wasn’t out much money—-the stuff I actually needed, I either kept or used as Christmas presents. The rest I returned (Free return shipping! Yay!). And then I resolved not to do any more shopping for the first quarter of 2019.
Alas, I am but made of mere flesh and flood. Let this be a lesson to all of you: SHOPPING APPS ARE NOT YOUR FRIENDS! THEY ARE JUST DOPE DEALERS MADE OF PIXELS. PUT. THE. SHOPPING. APP. DOWN. Now back away, slowly…….
I remain your Cheap Yuppie Mom.