Right now, my Amazon cart totals $250.51, which sounds bad, but all this stuff (argan-oil shampoo, a desk chair, a microwave, Skyrim for PlayStation 4, vitamins that will supposedly make my hair grow faster, and Post-its) would cost me $336.74 were it not Prime Day, the annual day-ish-long sale available to Amazon Prime customers each July 11, three years running. That’s about a 26 percent savings, which is a pretty good deal. I could have all of it at my apartment in just two days with a single click. But will I regret it? Probably. We’ve all been burned by the shame of ordinary buyer’s remorse — I have happily paid full price for many an unworn romper, for instance — but the fallout from an impulsive one-day-sale shopping spree can be especially acute.
Prime Day sales are timed in two ways: sales on different items begin (and end) at different points throughout the 30-hour event, and once you’ve put an item in your cart, you’ll be notified you have just 15 minutes to complete your purchase — or risk losing the sale price. Time-limit functions like these help foster scarcity bias, says Dr. Kenneth R. Yeager, director of the Stress, Trauma and Resilience Program at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Scarcity bias is the perception that “if I don’t get this now, I don’t know if I’ll ever get it at a better price,” he explains. This sense of urgency compounds the addictive pleasure we get from the act of putting something in our shopping carts.
“In the brain, there is this reward system — the dopamine cascade reward system — that has the same basic principles for food as it is for alcohol as it is for drugs,” says Yeager. “Now, shopping may be further down on the severity spectrum, but it’s similar to an obsession. It’s kind of like emotional eating — [online shopping] has replaced that for a lot of the patients I talk to.” When we’re stressed, or bored, says Yeager, we’re increasingly turning to our phones for instantaneous distraction. On nearly every app we open, there will be links to something we could buy, and that kind of reflexive or habitual shopping often leads to regret. The same is true of “flash” or seemingly high-pressure one-day sales we, most likely, shop from our phones. In the moment, proceeding to checkout feels great, even productive. But remorse enters the picture when we realize that we may not be able to do something else we want to because we’ve already spent that money on, say, a microwave, and a desk chair, and a video game.
A 2012 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people’s biggest regrets about material goods (like those we might buy on Prime Day) are that we bought them in the first place, whereas people’s regrets about experiential purchases (like travel, or a dinner with friends) are not spending the money. The study’s authors hypothesized that this difference is owed to the high rate of interchangeability between material goods, and the low rate of interchangeability between experiences: If you don’t buy this sweatshirt there is very likely to be another one you end up liking more, but if you don’t take this trip to Mexico, you are unlikely to be able to re-create it at a later date. Perhaps the only feeling stronger than buyer’s remorse is FOMO — and worse yet, the two can go hand in hand. Says Yeager: “Regret comes when you realize you can’t travel to see somebody or participate in a gathering or a dinner because you’ve got to pay your credit-card bill.”
With Amazon’s generally straightforward return policy (return labels are included, and most new and unopened items can be returned for a full refund within 30 days), one might argue that Prime Day is regret-proof, but there’s just one problem: People are really bad at returning even things they know they don’t want. “There’s an effect in psychology called the ‘endowment effect,’ which is that once something is yours, even for a half a second, you will more likely place a higher value on it than if your friend had the exact same thing,” says Gary Belsky, author of Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes and How to Correct Them: Lessons From the Life-Changing Science of Behavioral Economics. “The reason that’s important is that often possession itself makes people value something more, so they’re more likely to keep it once it comes.” Once something has entered our homes, it’s much easier to convince ourselves that we might need it someday, even if we’ve never needed it before, and don’t need it right now, either — and this is especially true when we think we’ve gotten a great deal. (But more on that in a second.)
In order to shop Prime Day with as little regret as possible, Belsky and Yeager suggest the following:
Ask yourself if you would have wanted this item if it weren’t on sale.
“There’s a concept in behavioral economics called ‘anchoring,’ and anchoring is the reason why retailers’ suggested prices are so powerful,” says Belsky. “The minute you tell somebody some number, one of the decision-making shortcuts we use, subconsciously, is that the first number we hear becomes reasonable.” Thus, I know my $11.15 argan-oil shampoo is a good deal because Amazon has listed its original price as $24. But if I already have, say, three shampoos in my shower right now, who’s to say this shampoo was ever worth 24 dollars to me? “The reason why sales are effective is not just because of the price you’re getting, but because of the price someone says you might have had to pay if you had wanted it,” says Belsky. “But remember, you wouldn’t have even thought you wanted it unless you were looking there because of the sale to begin with.”
Think about each item for at least three minutes before buying it.
Says Yeager, “Ask yourself, ‘Do I really need this? Do I want this? Is this worth the money I’m spending on it? Am I really going to use it?’ If you think you might need it someday, someday never really comes. If you think you might need it in the future, you probably won’t.” In other words, avoid shopping for the hypothetical future. Shop for reality.
Give yourself a fixed time frame (say, one hour) to shop the sale.
If you spend the day on Amazon, you will find something you think you need or want. In order to avoid impulse purchases, limit the time you spend browsing the site. Pay attention to your shopping, too — for example, don’t shop while you’re watching TV, says Yeager. You don’t want to be distracted by external stimuli.
Ask your partner/roommate/friend if you really need that Belgian-waffle maker.
“Bounce the ideas off another person,” says Yeager. You might be surprised how quickly you can be embarrassed out of making an unnecessary purchase. If someone who knows you and loves you tells you that you will never, ever wear that romper, for instance, maybe you should believe them, and save the money for something else.
Buy things that can positively contribute to an experience.
Ultimately, everything you can buy on Prime Day is a material good, not an experience, but some of the items available are more likely to lend themselves to the sort of memorable, unique experiential purchases that research suggests you’re less likely to regret, like gift cards to a favorite restaurant, or a beach umbrella. That said, you should be pretty sure you’re actually going to pursue that experience. “Yes, buy things that are more about experiences if you think they’re going to actually make you do it, but even so, hide them,” says Belsky (kind of jokingly, kind of not). “You’ll remember you have an umbrella if you go to the beach, but you don’t want to be reminded that you haven’t used your beach umbrella if you don’t go to the beach.”