How a Year at Home Turned Us All Into Online Shoppers

A woman sits on her bed, holding a credit card and a phone, while looking at a computer and shopping online.
Fiordaliso / Getty Images.

Key Takeaways

  • The rates of people shopping online have skyrocketed during the pandemic, which has had mixed effects on our mental health.
  • Shopping online helped ease anxiety by providing people a safe way to get supplies and restored a sense of control through retail therapy.
  • The ease of buying things online can make it tempting to spend beyond our means.

Online shopping has become increasingly popular in recent years, but the growth it experienced in 2020 was like none other. Around 70% of Americans say they’re doing more shopping online now than they did prior to the pandemic, according to a survey released in early 2021. 

And even though the drive to vaccinate people against COVID-19 is helping the country return to normal, the acceleration of online shopping is projected to continue. E-commerce retail sales are forecast to surpass $1 trillion by 2023—up from around $800 billion in 2020, based on data from eMarketer and Citi.

Interestingly, the rise of e-retail hasn’t just impacted our bank account balances over the last year—it has also had some surprising effects on our emotional wellbeing. Here’s how online shopping has impacted our mental health—for better and for worse—during the pandemic.

Temporarily Alleviates Anxiety

Shopping became a major source of people’s anxiety during the pandemic because it simply didn't feel safe to do so. With heightened concern about running into crowds and being exposed to the coronavirus at the supermarket, nearly a quarter of people were doing their grocery shopping online by May 2020, according to research from the International Food Information Council. 

The ability to feed their families without the risks of in-person shopping came as a huge relief to many, says Leela R. Magavi, MD, psychiatrist and regional medical director at Community Psychiatry in Newport Beach, California. Plus, it made it easier to comparison shop for the lowest prices—a point of stress relief for people experiencing financial difficulties during the pandemic. 

“Online shopping helps individuals socially distance, avoid long lines, and save money simultaneously,” she says. “Avoiding crowded parking lots and long lines can decrease stress and cortisol levels.”

For Caroline Lee, an entrepreneur in Singapore, shopping online also provided some comfort amid pandemic lockdowns and lifestyle changes. “Although I do miss shop hopping and trying stuff on before committing to a purchase, shopping online gives me a sense of normalcy and helps me reassure myself that everything is okay in the world, despite all the recent chaos,” she says.

Mixed Effects on Loneliness

Social isolation has been a source of concern throughout the pandemic, with some 36% of Americans (including 61% of young adults) reporting they felt “serious loneliness” in a survey in October 2020.

In some respects, shopping online may have contributed to feelings of loneliness. We don’t have opportunities to bump into neighbors in the cereal aisle or interact with a salesperson when we’re making purchases from home.

Bruce D. Sanders, PhD

When we watch a TV home shopping host interact with members of the audience, such as by taking calls on-air, and with guests and celebrities, it loosely resembles a social gathering.

— Bruce D. Sanders, PhD

But some shopping from home—particularly in the case of TV shopping—may have actually provided a sense of socialization, says Bruce D. Sanders, PhD, consumer psychologist and author of “Retailer’s Edge: Boost Profits Using Shopper Psychology.” 

“As socially isolated people watch TV shows featuring hosts who seem like friends to them, they feel less lonely. When we watch a TV home shopping host interact with members of the audience, such as by taking calls on-air, and with guests and celebrities, it loosely resembles a social gathering,” he says, referring to research from 2011.

“Many TV home shopping customers say they respect the hosts and guests as they would respect trusted advisors in brick-and-mortar stores,” says Sanders. That could be one reason why viewership of home shopping networks QVC and HSN spiked 10% between late March and mid-May 2020.

And those perceived relationships home shoppers have developed with hosts might encourage people to continue to buy from shopping channels in the future, even when brick-and-mortar stores are considered less risky to visit. “TV shopping helped relieve the loneliness from pandemic isolation, and now shopping channels used during the pandemic might take root in long-term habits,” explains Sanders.

Retail Therapy Benefits

During the pandemic, treating yourself to a little something (also known as retail therapy) from an online store proved to be a much-needed emotional boost for many people, including Niyla Carson, a nutritionist and “borderline shopaholic.” 

“Retail therapy really helped me in coping during these challenging times. It’s therapeutic in the sense that it gives you something to look forward to, which literally means waiting for gifts that you bought for yourself,” she says.

There are a few reasons behind the surge of joy many of us feel when we indulge in retail therapy, especially at online stores. "Many individuals prefer reading online reviews and purchasing things accordingly,” says Magavi. “The ability to make choices and decisions can release dopamine and increase feelings of motivation and happiness.”

Research also shows that retail therapy can reduce residual sadness and restore a sense of control, something many people have craved during the pandemic.

Niyla Carson

Retail therapy really helped me in coping during these challenging times. It’s therapeutic in the sense that it gives you something to look forward to, which literally means waiting for gifts that you bought for yourself.

— Niyla Carson

“People of the world, especially Americans, are accustomed to being in control. It’s something we pride ourselves on as being masters and mistresses of our own destiny, and all of a sudden that was ripped from us,” says Sanders. “With the plethora of options available in online shopping, and with the ability to compare price-points and find the best deal, that offered the sense that we have control again.”

Potential Risk of Shopping Addiction

Despite the benefits of shopping online, there can be too much of a good thing. With tools like buy-now buttons, one-click ordering, and profiles that save our credit card details, it’s easier than ever to make impulse purchases and undermine our budgets. 

Generally speaking, most shoppers (both online and in-person) exercise self-control, even when enjoying some retail therapy, says Sanders. However, about 6% of the U.S. population may have compulsive buying disorder, which can have a negative effect on their wellbeing.

Leela R. Magavi, MD

Individuals with impulse control disorders who I evaluate in clinic have been spending concerning amounts of money during the pandemic.

— Leela R. Magavi, MD

“Compulsive buyers can’t bring themselves to stop making needless purchases, in some cases even if they can’t afford to feed their family. Compulsive buyers frequently don’t use the items they purchase,” explains Sanders.

If you feel like you’re spending beyond your means when shopping online, consider limiting the time you spend browsing, setting a tight budget, and making a list of things you need before completing any purchases, suggests Magavi.

Overall, online shopping has been a major convenience and a source of positive emotional benefits for many folks during the pandemic. And research shows that retail therapy can restore a sense of control and provide a boost of happiness, so consider this an excuse to treat yourself to a special delivery (within budget, of course!).

What This Means For You

Online shopping became a big part of people’s lives during the pandemic and is forecast to continue growing in the coming years. Understanding the risks and benefits of online shopping on our emotional wellbeing can help you make the most of your purchases.

Retail therapy has given people a source of joy and a restored sense of control amid the chaos of the public health crisis. However, it’s important to remember that online stores are designed to get you to make impulse purchases. If you’re spending beyond your means, you may want to take steps to avoid making impulse purchases. 

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Troise DJ. Retail’s online future grows brighter after pandemic bump. AP News.

  3. International Food Information Council. Covid-19: June 2020.

  4. Making Caring Common Project. Loneliness in America: How the pandemic has deepened an epidemic of loneliness and what we can do about it. Harvard Graduate School of Education.

  5. Lim CM, Kim Y-K. Older consumers' TV home shopping: Loneliness, parasocial interaction, and perceived convenience. Psychol Mark. 2011;28(8):763-780. doi:10.1002/mar.20411.

  6. Waters M. Only for a limited time: Home shopping TV is taking over retail. The Hustle.

  7. Rick SI, Pereira B, Burson KA. The benefits of retail therapy: Making purchase decisions reduces residual sadnessJ Consum Psychol. 2014;24(3):373-380. doi:10.1016/j.jcps.2013.12.004.

  8. Black DW. A review of compulsive buying disorderWorld Psychiatry. 2007;6(1):14-18.

By Joni Sweet
Joni Sweet is an experienced writer who specializes in health, wellness, travel, and finance.