Harper Grey: The Stress of Shopping


The Savvy Shopper - Harper Grey

Shopping is considered an American pastime, with consumer spending accounting for about two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, according to a recent Reuters article. (1) And shopping can certainly be fun. But it can be stressful, too.

Self-Induced Stress

Several months ago, we’re sitting down to dinner and my daughter announces, “Oh, by the way, I need a shirt for the school program tomorrow.” What kind of shirt? “Well, it has to be red. And it has to have long sleeves. And it has to be plain—no decorations or cartoon characters or anything.” Oh. Well. Inhale that dinner and let’s get to the mall. I didn’t have anything important to do tonight anyway (so much for that writing deadline).

If my daughter had given me some advanced notice, I could have ordered the shirt via several online or catalog shops. But no… that would be too easy. Still, I figured that we’d be able to find something at the mall. Turns out that clothing designers are all about creating shirts with funny sayings or popular television characters. We went through the entire mall without finding anything. Then my stress level increased as we drove from one big box store to another. Finally, we found a little boy’s long-sleeved t-shirt at the biggest box store that carries the crappiest merchandise. I forked over $12.99 for it and we headed for home, two hours past bed time. She wore the shirt the next day, then we washed it and it shrunk two sizes. Turned out to be an expensive school program.

My answer for self-induced shopping stress? I don’t have one. Maybe don’t have kids. Or only give birth to children whose DNA makes it possible for them to inform you of every upcoming school program two weeks prior to the event.

Retail-Induced Shopping Stress

There’s another kind of shopping stress that’s brought on by retailers. Shoppers report two main types of stress: ambient (crowded stores, lack of parking, messy racks) and choice-related (too many products, not enough information, confusing warranties, etc).

I’ve written several posts about ambient-related stress (which you can read here, here and here)

I don’t often run into choice-related shopping stress (too many shirts to choose from? Buy ‘em all, I say!). But for me, expensive, electronic items induce choice-related stress. There are so many products to choose from and the price point is high enough that I don’t take the purchase lightly. It’s enough to stress a shopper to the breaking point.

eReader Angst

My husband wanted a new eReader for his birthday. I didn’t think this would be difficult—he wanted a particular brand and I figured I would just go in and buy the latest edition.  I got to the store and was startled to find four choices. The reader my husband currently owned was only a year old and was the only version previously available. Now it was a different story. I stood staring at the four displays. Did I want a touch screen? A color version? A tablet version? One with a light? The price difference was pretty small and the features seemed really different. Knowing almost nothing about eReaders, I was stumped.

Stress and Avoidance

Research at Penn State University studied shoppers’ stress levels. Participants were asked to mention everything that stressed them out while they were shopping. 32% mentioned choice-related stresses such as comparing brands or choosing products when there are too many choices. 28% of the participants who reported choice-related stresses stated that they simply avoided the shopping trip altogether in order to mitigate their stress. (2)

Avoidance did briefly cross my mind. I could just get my husband a gift card and let him choose his own darn eReader, but that seemed a bit impersonal. Or, I could just head to the mall (my comfort zone) and buy him a shirt. But he didn’t want a shirt, he wanted an eReader. Argh. Being the thoughtful, loving wife that I am, I stuck it out and scrutinized the confusing eReader display.

Enter Helpful Clerk

A knight in shining armor! The store, which sells only its own brand of eReaders, has a specially-trained cadre of sales clerks who know everything there is to know about eReaders. Jeff quickly took charge of the situation. “Let’s figure out which eReader will be the best fit,” he said. Did my husband just want to read books, or would he enjoy surfing the net on the device, too? Did he care about battery life? Weight? Screen display? Jeff asked me several questions, all the while speaking perfectly clear English (as opposed to techno-speak, which is a language I don’t comprehend).

Jeff ruled out the two most expensive editions based on my answers to his questions and pointed out the basic differences between the other two eReaders. With his help, I was able to make a decision. He showed me the variety of covers and accessories available, rang up the purchase, gift wrapped the eReader and sent me on my way with a friendly smile.

Jeff (and those of his ilk) are the answer!

The researchers at Penn State recommended that exact kind of intervention for retailers. “Marketers can help consumers cope with their stresses by enabling them to use more effective strategies for coping. For example, retail stores can provide more in-store personnel that stressed consumers can approach for help.” Consumers shouldn’t have to educate themselves on every single feature of a product so they can quickly discern the pros and cons of different models. Instead, sales clerks like Jeff can be thoroughly trained so that they can help customers find the right model for their needs. Stress is mitigated, and the store sells its products. Everyone is happy.

1.  Stella Dawson, “U.S. Retail Therapy Needed.” March, 2012.
2. “Sources of Consumers’ Stress and Their Coping Strategies” Mita Sujan, et al. European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1999.