Why Do We Buy? Twelve Hidden Motivations for Your Shopping Behaviour

If you’re serious about reducing the number of things you buy, a good way to start is to look at your underlying motivations. They’re probably more complex than you realise! Below are some of the main reasons why we shop. Being aware of these motivations can reduce their hold on you, and put you on the road to more conscious shopping. Which of them apply to you?

Humans have always used material goods to advertise high social status. Many of us are more than willing to buy things that have a higher price tag simply to tell the world how wealthy we are. In some cases, the extra quality is in the packaging only. And marketers and advertisers are constantly encouraging us to believe we’re entitled to spend up big. We’re as good as the next person, so why can’t we have those sleek Italian ankle boots or the latest Audi?

These days, status isn’t just about luxury goods. Many of us (me included) inadvertently use material goods to tell people how with-it we are, how hip and original, or even how green.

Independence and power
In 2006, Stella Minahan and Michael Beverland conducted a landmark study on why and how Australian women shopped in retail stores. They discovered that many women enjoy the feeling of mastery that they get from being able to afford certain goods.

But this led to a paradox. For Minahan and Beverland’s shoppers, feeling powerful sometimes hinged on being able to afford a specific item; these shoppers felt compelled to buy another, equally expensive item if what they really wanted wasn’t available.

There’s nothing wrong with a desire to demonstrate financial independence. But wanting to feel powerful can lead to powerlessness if you feel compelled to buy. Men may feel a similar kind of pressure: the need to demonstrate their financial success and masculinity by producing their wallets and spending up big at call.
Brands have symbolic meaning and emotional appeal: we experience certain feelings, access happy memories, or affirm our values simply by buying a particular brand. And we advertise our spending power and good taste by wearing or using goods of a luxury brand.

Branding is reaching ever deeper into our psyches: increasingly, it’s also about our identities, activities, interactions, and even our self-esteem. A 2010 study found that not only did certain brands have appealing ‘personalities’, but that the positive traits associated with those brands could rub off on consumers. In other words, some of us actually feel that we adopt more appealing personalities when we use a particular brand!
Because we’re so inundated with choice these days, brand loyalty can seem like a convenient shortcut for decision making: ‘I trust this brand – I’ll try the company’s new anti-ageing moisturiser / wireless headphones / hiking boots’.
Urban geographer Jim Pooler suggests that these days ‘we shop to self-actualise’. Minahan and Beverland’s research found that one of the main reasons that women shop is to express themselves and their identity. Social theorists Jane Pavitt believes that we create our identities, our very selves, through the goods we buy: we often ask the question ‘Is that me?’ before forking out for a piece of clothing, choosing a restaurant or planning a holiday.

The internet has only increased the trend of self-expression through buying. It’s dead easy to download an exclusive recording of your favourite progressive rock band’s latest offering, buy anything you need in the way of freshwater-fishing tackle, or order your preferred style from a huge variety of designer nappy/diaper bags.
Retailers know that the longer we’re in a shop the more likely we are to buy. The lighting, music, smells, signage, display fixtures, colour scheme and layout all work synergistically to create an inviting ambience that encourages us to hang around and inspect the merchandise. Even the staff are chosen for their attractiveness.

Wide aisles make it easier to look at and examine the goods. Evocative scents trigger positive memories that we then associate with the store’s brand. Some stores boast dramatic, architect-designed interiors that create a powerful statement about the brand.
Some researchers claim that the shopping centre has taken the place of other social spaces such as churches and public squares. Many women love nothing more than hitting their favourite shopping zone with a group of close friends and a credit card in tow. And some shoppers relish casual chitchat with sales staff and the acknowledgement they receive from stores they shop at regularly.
Neuromarketers such as Martin Lindstrom have found that we are strongly motivated by the desire to buy the items we see other people using or wearing. This tendency is the reason why some items become fads, taking off in an irrational way until they’re popping up everywhere. According to Lindstrom, it’s all due to the fact that our brains contain what he terms mirror neurons.

Mirror neurons are a specific type of brain cell that enables feelings of empathy when we watch someone else perform an action. Mirror neurons are the reason why, despite vowing and declaring you would never buy a pair of harem pants when they started appearing in fashion magazines, one day you suddenly found yourself at the checkout of an upmarket department store, grasping a black satin pair of – harem pants.
Many of us shop to reward ourselves, to give ourselves a pat on the back for all our hard work. We even reward ourselves for doing mundane shopping like grocery shopping! Simply being aware that you do this can help you to distinguish between useful and wasteful rewards. One option is to set aside a set amount of reward money for a specific period of time. Alternatively, if you want to stop or cut down on buying expensive rewards, give yourself treats that aren’t necessarily related to shopping.
The satisfaction of snagging a red-hot bargain is a major motivation behind the urge to shop. In Australia, Boxing Day sales get more chaotic each year as people clamour for the hottest deals. In the USA, frenetic crowds storm stores on Black Friday, and websites are inundated on Cyber Monday and Green Monday.

The internet provides bargains all year round. This represents a potential danger if you want to save money: the capacity to snag a bargain becomes almost infinite, no longer limited by time of year or your ability to visit particular stores.

Finding a bargain can fuel the production of dopamine that gives us a shopping high. It can swell your self-esteem, give you a sense of power, and reassure you that you’re a skilled shopper.
Desire – the gap between what we already have and what we crave – is the basis of consumerism. We decide that we need a product or item and go out looking for it. This desire can turn to frustration and annoyance if we don’t get what we want.

In fact, underlying the retail high some of us seek is often a general sense of deprivation. We all experienced loss as children; memories of these early experiences can resurface whenever we crave material objects. The losses of the present produce additional wounds while they reawaken old ones. And according to writer Oliver James, the world we live in encourages us to believe that objects can supply non-material things that we may not have, such as ‘love, or a better character or higher self-esteem’.

Feelings of deprivation are part of being human and they’ll come back after the shopping fix is over. Once you can acknowledge these needs they will have less power over you, and will be less likely to impinge on your purse and your time.

There is a bit of the collector in most of us, I suspect. Collecting is a tricky area, standing perilously close to both hoarding and shopping addiction, with all the disastrous consequences of these habits. If your collecting impacts badly on your life, financially, space-wise or otherwise, it could be in danger of turning into hoarding. If you think you may be a hoarder, seek professional help.
The human thirst for novelty is one of the main reasons we pound the pavement or sidewalk, or trawl the web, desperately in search of something fresh and different. We get sick of our doona (duvet) covers, lounge furniture, crockery, clothes, cars and mobile phones, even if they’re still in perfectly good condition. But some of the need for novelty can be satisfied without having to actually buy.

According to neuroscientist Gregory Berns, dopamine is produced in the brain when we see something new or unexpected – that’s an important part of the shopping high many of us experience. But while dopamine fuels the desire to buy, actually finding and anticipating buying the item is what matters in the production of dopamine. There are plenty of no-cost and low-cost ways of satisfying the thirst for novelty in your shopping life.

Until next time!

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