People who feel like they’ve lost control of their environment buy more cleaning products, stationery, painkillers and skim milk than others at the grocery store, according to a study. Shoppers likely believe these products’ problem-solving qualities ― or in the case of skim milk, healthiness and functionality ― will help them feel more control over their own lives.
Recently published research in the Journal of Consumer Research details a series of experiments that analyzed how a perceived loss of control changes the way we shop. In one experiment, researchers invited people entering a U.S. grocery store to either recall a time they felt like they’d lost control over their surroundings (by getting stuck in traffic, stranded at the airport or laid off, for example) or a time when they felt high control (like when breezing through an exam). Customers were randomly assigned one topic or the other, asked to write a short essay detailing the experience, then went shopping as usual and turned in their receipts on the way out.
Perceptions of control can manifest in your cart, the researchers found: Shoppers who first recalled feeling a loss of control purchased more than double the number of “utilitarian” products, like tools and cleaning supplies, as the other shoppers. “Low control” shoppers spent an average $5.91 on these kinds of items, while their “high control” comrades spent just $3 on similar products.
“Consumers who experience a loss of control are more likely to buy products that are more functional in nature, such as screwdrivers and dish detergent, because these are typically associated with problem solving, which may enhance people’s sense of control,” wrote the study’s authors, who are professors at various business schools in Singapore.
Being “low control” isn’t a feeling or character trait, but rather the way you perceive the world around you, researchers Andy Yap and Charlene Chen wrote in an article for INSEAD business school.
A “loss of control doesn’t mean being out of control or lacking self-discipline. It refers to the everyday, fundamental experience of being unable to produce a desired outcome in a given environment,” they wrote. “Such situations could include traffic jams or long queues at the till, especially in overcrowded stores. It also describes what a parent typically feels when dealing with a child who throws a tantrum in a supermarket.”
Buying useful items can help shoppers cope with these experiences, they said.
Previous research has shown that materialistic people tend to go shopping when stressed, and lonely people turn to retail when anxious. The grocery store study and its follow-ups, however, are reportedly among the first to link a perceived lack of control with the problem-solving nature of useful products.
Shopping for cleaning supplies as “a means to cope with psychological threat” could be rough on your wallet, the researchers say. But if you’re thrifty, it could also serve as an effective, low-cost way to feel better when times are tough.
At the very least, you’ll never run out of dish soap.