Online Shopping Addiction And The Pandemic: Here's How 2 Women Quit

From outsmarting the algorithm to calculating the true cost of clothes, a lifestyle influencer and teenager reveal what made them rethink their digital shopping habits.

“Around the time banana bread started getting really popular, I began pressing the purchase button a lot, buying things I wouldn’t normally even think about,” said Emily Wang, a Los Angeles lifestyle content creator in the influencer space.

“I was using retail therapy to feel better since I can’t get my hair or lashes done right now,” the 27-year-old said. Wang, who was quarantined with her fiancé and two dogs, began buying a ton of workout apparel, often having “five tabs open from five different brands.”

Shopping sprees, she said, came in waves.

“I’m not seeing people right now, so the excitement of having something new gave me gratification,” Wang said. But that only lasted for a while.

“I started thinking, ‘Maybe I didn’t really need that,’” she said. “I’ve been doing a lot more returning.”

Emily Wang in workout gear from a recent online shopping spree.
Emily Wang in workout gear from a recent online shopping spree.

When we buy a new bag or ballet flat, we’re often curating more than a look. We’re reaching toward a persona we associate with particular items or a style in general. Roland Barthes, one of the first academics to write about fashion, discusses this phenomenon as a fetish, or representation of desire, in his 1967 book, “The Language of Fashion.” Today, when we shop online for the perfect outfit ― in quarantine no less — we’re tapping into a greater feeling of connection, an imagined future.

Pria Alpern, a clinical psychologist in New York, told HuffPost that online shopping can “gratify a need for control and mastery during a time when many of us are feeling stuck, helpless and uncertain about the future.”

“Finding an exciting bargain activates the brain’s reward and pleasure center, eliciting a sense of satisfaction that at least temporarily mitigates the uncomfortable emotions that many people are dealing with right now,” Alpern said.

Many online retailers are banking on the fact that consumers are craving the boost of self-esteem that can accompany a new pair of shoes, especially if they’re billed as part of a flash sale or limited drop.

E-commerce sites like Zaful and Shein infiltrate social media feeds, where, according to a report published by management consulting firm McKinsey and Company, strategies include “amplifying digital platforms, shifting from brand building to customer activation, specifically targeting basket building and repurchase triggers.” Although it’s too early to calculate the pandemic’s toll on the $600 billion fashion industry, the report predicted that 75% of apparel companies in North America will find themselves in debt. To mitigate some of the damage, expect an uptick in e-commerce marketing, as fast fashion tries to recoup its losses.

Mere exposure can be very powerful, according to fashion psychologist Jayme Albin. When we see a fashion ad on social media, “over time it seeps into our brains,” he told HuffPost.

“Especially with COVID, we’re home and the majority of our time is spent on the internet or with our devices,” he said. “Two years ago, we might not have bought from a brand we never heard of, where we couldn’t touch or try on. Now, this has become the new normal.”

As pervasive as these new shopping habits may be, so is conscious consumption — which may help those whose pandemic shopping has spiraled out of control.

“[I depersonalized] the algorithm so I no longer saw ads suggesting fast fashion. By consistently selecting the 'not interested' button, I’ve been able to reduce these ads.”

- Delyth Phillips

Instagram, Snapchat and other social media are so consumerism-centered,” Delyth Phillips, a 16-year-old from New York, told HuffPost.

These apps were “constantly popping up ads based on things I’ve shown interest in,” she said. Rather than driving her to impulse buy, these ads ended up “evoking a sense of shame” for buying fast fashion in the past.

“I decided to peek behind the curtains of these brands and investigate their ethics, look at the impact on workers across the supply chain, on wildlife and deforestation,” she said. “The further I delved into these companies’ statements, the more I found euphemisms and double-speak.”

Delyth Phillips wears a dress she made herself.
Delyth Phillips wears a dress she made herself.

Wanting to distance herself from an online shopping habit with a host of social, environmental and ethical concerns, Phillips created a digital detox specifically designed to curb bargain buying.

“I started by deleting all shopping apps like Urban Outfitters, Forever21, Dote and Sephora,” she said. She then set out to “depersonalize the algorithm so I no longer saw ads suggesting fast fashion.”

“By consistently selecting the ‘not interested’ button, I’ve been able to reduce these ads,” she explained. “Finally, I unsubscribed from all mailing lists that recommended fast fashion to me, unfollowed models and brands. Within a week, I started seeing results.”

Phillips now calculates an item’s cost based on price, wearability and the “future memories I will have tied to these garments.” She has become dedicated to “slow consumption,” and is keen to use her “voice to inform others of what is happening behind the clothes they wear.”

People are socially distanced, but not in a vacuum — our style purchases still say something about who we are.

“Influencers are used to creating polls about whether or not to buy something,” Wang said, adding that this trend is becoming popular with her friends who aren’t influencers. “Now, I’m trying to find a balance, making sure that a purchase won’t just make me happy, but that the brand also aligns with my values.”

Whether woke consumerism is a fad or tipping point remains to be seen. As people face quarantine fatigue and myriad uncertainties, they’re also seizing the chance to reflect on what their shopping habits say about who they are and aspire to be.