Nothing says "Let's hit the outlet mall" like nearly being wiped out by a rocket. A study of both Americans and terrorized Israelis suggests that certain people respond to the threat of death by going shopping. Because if it's your time to go, you may as well be wearing the latest from Forever 21.
Michigan State University marketing professor Ayalla Ruvio and her colleagues performed two studies of potential shoppers. The first took place in Israel. Questionnaires were handed out at a community center in a town just one kilometer from the Gaza Strip, during six months of daily rocket attacks there in 2007. The same surveys were distributed in a second town farther from the fighting, where residents were aware of the violence but not in direct danger. The researchers got back 139 surveys from the first group and 170 from the second.
The questionnaires were meant to ferret out a few different answers about people. Did they experience post-traumatic symptoms such as nightmares or memory loss? Did they cope with negative feelings by buying things? How often did they return from a shopping trip with items they hadn't meant to purchase? Other questions assessed how materialistic the subjects were—did they place a lot of value on owning nice things?
Israelis who were experiencing daily rocket attacks, unsurprisingly, reported more post-traumatic stress. People who felt more stress admitted to more compulsive or impulsive shopping behaviors. And both these effects (feeling stress and going shopping) were stronger in more materialistic people.
For their second study, the researchers used a group of 855 American subjects, meant to be demographically representative of the U.S. population overall. Subjects filled out an online survey that measured their materialism, shopping habits, and how much they thought about their own death, as well as other factors. Once again, for people who were more materialistic, there was a relationship between fear of death and impulse buying.
The findings don't only apply to people living in the Middle East. Events that make people fear for their lives can include car accidents, assaults, and natural disasters. Yet Ruvio puts a positive spin on the ubiquity of trauma. "This presents an opportunity for both manufacturers of impulse items and the retailers that sell these products," she writes. When a severe storm or a military crisis is brewing, she suggests stores put their high-profit-margin items up front where impulse shoppers will see them.
While retailers may be able to benefit from people's crises, shoppers themselves won't. Previous research, Ruvio writes, shows that "most materialistic individuals derive little satisfaction from their consumption activities." So much for retail therapy. Image: by Ian Freimuth (via Flickr) Ayalla Ruvio, Eli Somer, & Aric Rindfleisch (2013). When bad gets worse: the amplifying effect of materialism on traumatic stress and maladaptive consumption. Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science DOI: 10.1007/s11747-013-0345-6