“When you have a life-changing event like COVID, there’s fear, no control, uncertainty. All of these emotions are so extreme that you need to be able to cope somehow,” she said. “So people who sort of enjoyed shopping before as a happy thing, now it was their escape mechanism.”
For Kate*, a 30-year-old working in the fashion industry in Philadelphia, her shopping habits started in her senior year of high school with her first job. From there, they never really stopped, pandemic be damned.
“My salary has increased since [high school], but I think the total percent of my disposable income spent on clothing has remained about the same, which is dark,” she said. “I make excuses for myself now that the clothes are better produced in small batches or I’m buying on Poshmark, but the impulse is still the same.”
She purchases on average about two items a week, by her estimate, which she admits “doesn’t sound bad.” But a glance around her apartment reveals folded piles of clothes on the floor and in the closet. She jokingly calls herself a “hoarder.”
Part of the motivation for women like Kate is rooted in adrenaline— it’s the thrill of the hunt, finding something unexpected, and the thrill of possession, owning something interesting and spotted only by you. There is a creativity to it for Kate, a desire to recreate something expensive or designer with thrifted items or discount treasures from off-price retailers.
And on the days when she finds something so perfect — the right size, the right style, the right brand — it does feel meant to be. On a recent shopping trip, Kate found never-worn Cole Haan slingback kitten heels priced at $4.99.
“They were just my size, they’re within my budget — what are the odds? I can’t walk away now,” she said. “On the few occasions that I do walk away, 75% of the time it is the right decision, but there is that nagging 25% where you go back and it’ll never be there again. I just have to take this as a sign from the universe that we were destined to be together.”
Every so often, Kate challenges herself to take a week or two off from buying. Inevitably, something always comes up — a tough week, boredom, or a looming occasion.
Elle, a 23-year old who lives in Los Angeles and works in the tech industry, started to buy herself little gifts during the pandemic as a way to cheer herself up. She felt excited by the prospect of knowing a package was waiting for her or chatting with salespeople once stores opened up. Plus, buying clothes gave her a sense of identity.
“When I go shopping, it makes me feel powerful and important,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m put together and spending money on this thing that I want. It makes me feel like I’m gifting myself with something and I’ve ‘made it.’”
She’s now able to take a step back and correlate her purchases to times of anxiety and a lack of self-esteem. Now that she makes more money, she says she’s actually spending less.
But she also knows how quickly that itch can go from one purchase to a flood. At the start of the pandemic, she was buying so much that she hid packages from her roommates, not wanting them to see how much she spent each week.
It was the lack of control that left her feeling helpless. Even when she entered a store looking for something specific, she inevitably left with a few more things not on her list. Staying within a set budget was difficult.
Rattle feels we’re in a specific moment when it comes to overshopping. She calls it a “perfect storm” of three factors — big retail companies mastering psychology, like sending repeat emails the second an item gets added to an online shopping cart; social media feeds us constant ideas of who we should be and who we’re not; and a largely cashless society removes us from the money actually available in our bank accounts.
“We’re all vulnerable. You’re hungry, you’re tired, you’re dejected, you shop,” Rattle said. “Compulsivity comes when it just becomes tough so often that it becomes a behavior.”