October 28, 2017
I recently bought a pair of sneakers online after some browsing. I knew exactly what I was getting, having owned the same model and size before; they just weren’t available in any neighborhood stores. The sneakers arrived in a few days, and I was satisfied with them.
Then came the targeted ads.
Over the next week I was hounded by online ads for the same sneakers I’d bought, along with others I’d rejected and many more I hadn’t even seen. (Amazon also showcased items “inspired by” my browsing history.) I tried to ignore them, but after seeing so many ghosts of sneakers past and passed up, I began second-guessing my purchase.
The same phenomenon has happened to me with much bigger expenditures. For instance, after I signed the lease on a new apartment found through a real-estate site, the site continued to email me listings that matched my specifications. The remorse is twofold: I question the merits of the thing I bought and, in hypothetical “Sliding Doors” fashion, am forced to consider all the roads not taken.
Buyer’s remorse is as old as capitalism, but online buyer’s remorse is the essence of the 21st century and endlessly refreshed. As internet shopping continues to creep into our lives, most recently with the potentially unsettling arrival of Amazon Key (speaking of sliding doors), consumers may feel regret more acutely than they do with traditional retail.
Those cookie-based ads and targeted emails reminding you of other possibilities reinforce the paradox of choice, the oft-cited theory of Barry Schwartz, the psychologist, that increased options leave us more dissatisfied.
So, too, may more information about our choices, according to a 2008 study, “The Blissful Ignorance Effect: Pre‐ versus Post‐Action Effects on Outcome Expectancies Arising From Precise and Vague Information,” published in The Journal of Consumer Research. Researchers found that the less knowledge consumers had about something before a purchase, the better they expected it to be — and the more they convinced themselves that they liked it afterward.
This reduction of cognitive dissonance is easier inside and after leaving a store, which never reveals anything negative about its products and doesn’t typically burden the consumer with an onslaught of information that might impede an impulse purchase. But the sprawling internet bazaar is filled with scathing critiques, and every pertinent spec exists somewhere online for the diligent buyer to seek out. That one-star rating is hard to forget when your product is failing in the exact way the unhappy reviewer described.
The most obvious difference between brick-and-mortar and online shopping is physicality, both of the item itself and the consumer’s presence in the store. Beyond the potential pitfall of not getting exactly what you thought you were buying online, a problem that is minimized when you can assess the product in person, the lack of tactile interaction may reduce our connection to the object.
Martin Lindstrom, the author of several books on branding, has conducted studies on what makes consumers buy a product and how they feel about it after. In one, 34 percent of people who asked an employee for a product in a supermarket and were made to touch it ended up buying it; just 21 percent did if the employee merely pointed it out to them.
In a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study of 20 subjects, when the senses of smell and touch were paired with pictures of a product, the right medial orbitofrontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in the perception of pleasantness, was activated more strongly than when those senses were independently engaged. (On its own, smell was the most important sense.)
The tactile experience doesn’t end in the checkout line. After purchasing an item, the consumer typically takes it home. This act of carrying it into one’s domestic space can bolster one’s proprietary pride: You are now responsible for its existence in your world. That act, plus roaming through aisles beforehand and going from shop to shop, can also be physically and mentally tiring.
But ordering online for an anonymous deliveryman to leave the item at one’s doorstep — or, with the help of Amazon Key, just inside — is impersonal and not enervating. It’s the difference between the estrangement of ordering takeout and the intimacy of cooking for oneself. And a pavement-pounding, shop-till-you-drop marathon may recall an even more primal method for acquiring nutrients.
“You’re coming back to hunters and gatherers,” Mr. Lindstrom said of in-store purchases. “Dopamine kicks in when we’re buying stuff — there’s a reptile brain that tells us we need to gather things before winter happens. The more we have to fight for things, the less likely we are to return it after. When it’s delivered on Amazon Prime, you forget it was so hard to get this product.”
The tactility of how one finalizes the transaction itself can have an effect on remorse, too. Mr. Lindstrom found that 93 percent of consumers feel a stronger connection to cash than to credit cards and are more careful when spending with it. Likewise, for the least tactile connection he studied, Amazon’s 1-Click Ordering, 70 percent of respondents said it made them spend more money than even with a credit card.
But whereas cash-based transactions lead to more immediate remorse, 89 percent of shoppers said they feel guiltier when they receive their credit card statements after 1-Click orders than when they pay in cash. The remorse still exists with online shopping; it’s just deferred, with extra pain later.
Shopping on a website featuring attractive models or beautiful homes may engender the same sense of inadequacy that leafing through catalogs can, unlike picking them up in person, and that visual memory may linger when the object has been delivered, leading to remorse. Buying something online can also lead quickly to a social-media search after the fact for friends’ and strangers’ superior products (or “better” use of the same product).
The sneakers I bought in this troublesomely bottomless marketplace were for casual wear, but I also needed a new pair of running shoes, a purchase that I undertook with more serious online research: reading reviews from specialized publications and individual users, comparing models from different years, taking quizzes to determine what was best for my particular stride.
But even the highest-rated sneakers had their detractors, and those damning, all-caps review headlines (“SHODDILY MADE,” “THEY RUINED IT”) made me hesitate whenever I was on the verge of adding them to my virtual shopping cart.
A week after searching in vain and the ensuing deluge of targeted ads, I visited a nearby running store. I tried on a few pairs and solicited opinions from one employee, then picked the sneakers that felt best.
Within 20 minutes I was walking out with them, glad to have given my money to a local business over a soulless national chain. There is undoubtedly a better running shoe out there for me, and I could probably find it if I spent enough time scouring the internet. But je ne regrette rien.