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The unproductivity of retail therapy


There is a sight ubiquitous to Minnesota. A sight that rises on the horizon of Burnsville, Edina, Bloomington, and many other towns: the American shopping mall, haven and heaven of consumerism. These behemoths are home to one of the country’s most popular pastimes: retail therapy.


“Retail therapy” is the practice of purchasing large quantities of items — often clothing or food — as a way to improve one’s mood and assert control over an unfulfilling life. It has many surface benefits that normal therapy does not: no insurance companies are involved, the results are immediate, and you don’t have to emotionally expose yourself.


Retail therapy permeates our media. With its promises of instant joy beamed into our faces every time one opens their social app of choice, it’s not a surprise that people consider retail therapy an important outlet for stress. Never mind that these promises come from advertisers scraping every source of data to compile your buying preferences, and from “influencers” excising the unmarketable from their lives in order to layer product after product onto their ever-thicker mask of happiness. In truth, retail therapy is an opiate, and like any opiate, its primary purpose is to briefly alleviate the symptoms of something too painful to bear — with great potential for addiction.


Who is it that truly gains from retail therapy? Not the buyer — food will be eaten, fast-fashion garments will soon disintegrate into microplastics or go out of style, and money spent on these products won’t return to one’s bank account. Not the underemployed and underpaid employees working the stores, nor the online-retail warehouse laborers being chewed up and spat out at a 150 percent turnover rate. Certainly not the exploited overseas workers stitching up one’s latest mass-produced pre-ripped jeans. The planet, too, only loses in this consumerist system, as immense skeleton-crew container ships churn across the oceans with the processed product or its landfill-destined waste.


Ultimately, the only entities that can truly benefit from retail therapy are the retailers themselves — the name-brand executives cutting wages, slashing product quality, raising prices, and using the resulting profit to lobby for ever-increasing privatization and deregulation. These same practices are what drive the need for retail therapy in the first place; upon entering a world filled with uncontrolled rent, private medical bills, social atomization, and student debt, products become the only comfort left to us.


What then can one do to recreate and surpass the emotional fulfillment of retail therapy? Hobbies, for one, are incredibly satisfying to create something for oneself, but the pressures of college life and work can make finding time for this difficult. Spending time with friends “unproductively” has the same joy, but the same pitfalls. In the end, the only permanent solution for the forces driving us to the stores will be to dismantle them. In the short term, however, as we approach the shopping spree season of Black Friday and Christmas, I implore all of you reading this to recall that your time and money will be far better spent with the people you care about. 

Elias Hanson is from Chaska, Minn. His major is environmental studies.

Elias Hanson
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