Online shopping is more than a hobby for those who get a thrill out of traversing the biggest mall in the world: the internet. It’s also a sport.
How else to explain Monica Corcoran Harel’s reaction to the news that there’s a flash sale at one of her favorite online stores? “I get very, very excited and incredibly competitive,” she says, hitting refresh over and over to land the best deal. If a family member happens to enter the room while she’s hovered over her computer, “I’m like, ‘flash sale! I have a flash sale!’” In other words: do not disturb.
Corcoran Harel, 53, who lives in the Los Angeles area and runs Pretty Ripe, a lifestyle newsletter for women over 40, has been shopping online for years. She relishes the ability to visit dozens of shops at once, comparing prices before clicking “buy now,” and the promise of quick delivery, all without stepping out of her house. Online shopping is “beyond intoxicating,” she says. “I’m probably partially responsible for the downfall of brick-and-mortar stores.”
Why online shopping makes people so happy
In many ways, online shopping catapults the pleasure of in-person shopping to a different, almost overwhelming stratosphere. “It’s psychologically so powerful,” says Joshua Klapow, a psychologist and adjunct associate professor of public health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. (He’s also the new owner of three inflatable pool floats, a collapsible whisk, two jars of almond butter, and 50 pounds of bird seed, all of which he ordered online.) Compared to shopping in person, “it’s a much more gratifying experience overall, because there’s less friction, less barriers, less behavioral cost, more specificity, and more choice,” he says. Plus, “the shopping is totally tailored to us. We can shop quickly or slowly.”
Part of the reason why online shopping is so appealing is convenience. When we go shopping in-person, Klapow points out, we have to walk or drive or figure out some other way of getting there, and then we have to stride through aisle after aisle to locate what we’re looking for. Even at stores that offer contactless pay, there’s some effort required to make a transaction: swiping a credit card or Apple Pay on your phone, for example. Then, a shopper needs to travel back home. “For a lot of people, these incredibly minor inconveniences just start picking away at the overall perceived value of the purchase,” he says.
In addition to being easier, online shopping delivers the satisfaction of accuracy. If Klapow heads to a big-box store, he might not find the shirt he’s looking for in the right size or color. If he’s shopping online, he’s more likely to snag exactly what he wants with far less hassle.
Doing so is a form of immediate gratification, which we’re all wired to crave, says Joseph Kable, a cognitive neuroscience researcher at the University of Pennsylvania. “This is a tendency that’s universal among people and is shared across much of the animal world,” he says. “People and other animals tend to discount outcomes in the future, relative to outcomes that are immediate. This means we prefer to have good things as soon as possible, and to postpone bad things as far as possible in the future.”
Interestingly, online shopping is also associated with another, more delayed type of gratification: anticipation for the order’s arrival. Awaiting something exciting is “like Christmas every day,” Klapow says, likening the ability to track a package to monitoring Santa’s whereabouts on Christmas Eve. That resonates with Corcoran Harel, who works from home and enjoys looking out the window to see if a package has arrived. “I’m vigilant about getting my packages,” she says. “I’m so excited to rip it open and try something on—and the knowledge that you can return something easily just makes it better.”