Click, Buy, Repeat: How FOMO Fuels the E-Shopaholic Phenomenon

How FOMO Fuels the E-Shopaholic Phenomenon

Do you know what drives the e-shopaholic in you? Hint: It’s more than just sales!

A new phenomenon has emerged with access to endless virtual shopping aisles: the rise of e-shopaholics, or individuals hooked on online shopping. According to the 2020 Annual Retail Trade Survey (ARTS), e-commerce sales in the U.S. surged from US$571.2 billion in 2019 to US$815.4 billion in 2020

Beyond its convenience, online shopping offers a swift dose of instant gratification, intensifying the unconscious desire to keep shopping for that spark of joy. This spike also hints at the connection between the social isolation brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic and the pursuit of immediate happiness in material acquisitions.

Though it brings instant happiness to many, online shopping habits can also weigh heavily on people’s wallets. A study revealed that e-shopaholism has forced around 58% of compulsive shoppers into debt and about 8% of them into a legal crunch. This obsession is alarming. 

In this article, we delve into the psychological drivers and external stimuli propelling a shopaholic toward impulsive online purchases, and how FOMO, or the fear of missing out, can lead to extravagant spending.

Where does the urge to splurge stem from?

From a neurological lens, shopping is a complex process. Stanford University researchers, while studying the brains of shopaholic subjects, found that their brains’ pleasure centers lit up when their desired objects were shown for sale. Plus, the stronger the allure of the item, the more pronounced the neurological response. As a result, the quest for greater (and instant) pleasure prompts individuals to engage in unplanned and hasty buying. 

Researchers believe that people often shop excessively to camouflage their emotions, leveraging it as a coping mechanism against stress, anxiety and low self-esteem. For instance, “Trophy Shoppers” represent a segment of shoppers who obsessively purchase top-tier items to assert their social position. This compulsive behavior may originate from a deep-seated longing to discover and possess the ideal product, a craving for acknowledgment or an obsession with comparison. A trophy shopper not only craves what others have but also wants to outdo them by acquiring something better. This constant chase for a superior social image often morphs trophy shoppers into hoarders. 

Moreover, social trends play an important role in encouraging impulse purchases, with FOMO emerging as a formidable digital marketing tactic.

How e-commerce platforms exploit FOMO as a marketing tool

Though FOMO spells trouble for consumers, it is a goldmine for businesses. It masterfully orchestrates social persuasion, immediacy and scarcity. A study showed that 60% of 1.5 million e-stores on Shopify use FOMO as a technique to escalate their gains. Common FOMO strategies include:

  • Displaying the best-selling products to underscore widespread approval: Their allure often lies not just in their inherent quality but in the sheer volume of others snapping them up. 
  • Emphasizing scarcity to elevate the dread of loss: Tactics like “only two left in stock” notifications place shoppers on their toes. The anxiety of potentially missing out on soon-to-be-unavailable products exemplifies FOMO at work.
  • Use reminders or alerts: Phrases like “save now” or “sales end in four hours” raise our awareness about missed opportunities, often propelling toward rash purchases. 

FOMO: Beyond a fleeting trend

FOMO is a psychological quirk compelling an individual to act hastily, often to their detriment. In e-commerce, this sentiment often encourages an individual to engage in impulsive spending, sometimes beyond their financial capacity.

Gamified, interactive retailer features, like spin-to-win wheels or virtual scratch cards, can exacerbate FOMO making shoppers feel they might be losing potential savings. Moreover, witnessing peers flaunting their latest online shopping triumphs on social media can amplify this anxiety. After all, you want to fit in.  

Millennials often bear the brunt of this phenomenon. Research indicates that seven out of ten individuals from this demographic grapple with FOMO. The reasons are multifold: for one, millennials, being the largest adult cohort, generally have the financial means to make impulse buying purchases. Also, constantly under the social media microscope, they face the relentless urge to match up with their friends—to the extent that they are ready to incur debt to partake in a collective experience. 

The Dyson Airwrap’s surge in popularity on platforms like TikTok is a testament to millennial FOMO in action. According to a Neoreach article delving into the Dyson Airwrap social media ascent, while its innovative features and Dyson’s formidable brand legacy undeniably enhance its allure, the Airwrap’s virality is significantly driven by the trend-centric nature of social media platforms. The over 1.1 billion views on TikTok, combined with the product’s high price point (i.e. US$549 for a full package) that adds to its exclusivity, positions it as a coveted status symbol. As users continuously showcase and engage with the product, the urge to participate and own the Airwrap grows, capturing the essence of FOMO that many millennials experience in the digital age.

Three ways to tackle FOMO-induced e-shopaholism

Now that we know the relationship between e-shopaholism and the fear of missing out, let’s look at responsible practices to help make better decisions.

  1. Develop new hobbies: Impulsive shopping could sometimes result from stress or anxiety. If shopping becomes a stress buster you resort to for entertainment or an escape, then try out new hobbies that might have a similar effect. 
  2. Adhere to your shopping list: Challenge yourself to create and stick to a list while you shop. This way, shopping becomes purposeful without straining your wallet unnecessarily. 
  3. Pay in cash: Restrict yourself to a strict allowance so that you do not overspend. You are less likely to buy stuff impulsively when making physical payments instead of digital ones because you can see yourself running out of cash. This way, you can also track the money you spend. 

In the vast expanse of online retail, the allure of instant gratification coupled with clever marketing strategies has given birth to the phenomenon of e-shopaholics. As we’ve explored, psychological drivers, particularly the pervasive force of FOMO, are compelling individuals toward impulsive online purchases. However, understanding these triggers is the first step in regaining control. In our digitalized world, while escaping FOMO seems challenging, we are not entirely defenseless. By acknowledging its influence and adopting intentional shopping practices, we can strive for a healthier relationship with technology, social media, our mental health and our pockets.

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Header image courtesy of Pexels


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