The Pleasure and Pain of Shopping

Jude Koh is the Regional Associate Strategy Manager for CARAT APAC.

Southeast Asia, in particular, is a hotbed for e-commerce. By focusing on creating pleasurable and painless moments throughout the consumer journey using media, we create more value for businesses

7 – 10 minute read

Online shopping: Intimacy replaced by expedience

Over the past two decades, we’ve witnessed an incredibly rapid evolution of commerce. In the short span of human history, we’ve gone from bartering with animal skins and spices, to exchanging coins for goods in a marketplace, to now, where we can buy almost anything online and have it delivered without ever leaving our house, even poop. Technology, in particular the increasing ubiquity of the Internet, has drastically lowered the previous barriers separating consumers from goods and services; we are no longer confined by a store’s hours or a product’s physical availability. Southeast Asia, in particular, is a hotbed for e-commerce (as evidenced here, here, and here).

Purely for the sake of research, I decided to join the online shopping scene to understand this shift in spending behavior. After a few rounds of senseless buying sprees, I’m satisfied with my haul of new clothes, but completely bored by the entire tap-tap-checkout-wait process. As this New York Times op-ed contributor put it, online shopping is “intimacy replaced by expedience.”


Acquire with pleasure, pay in pain

Shopping triggers a series of processes in our brain. Purchasing is less about the rational analysis of quality and price and more about the battle between pleasure and pain. In simplistic terms, buying is largely motivated by how our brain processes this: we acquire with pleasure, but pay in pain. On a larger scale, this neurobehavior guides our global economy, and on a smaller scale, explains why shopping is such a pleasurable activity.

When you’re out shopping
giphy (1).gif
When you get the bill

The difference in individual perception of pleasure and pain results in two groups of shoppers: tightwads and spendthrifts. Tightwads experience agonising pain at the thought of parting with their money; while spendthrifts gets intense pleasure at the thought of gaining new goods.

This duel between pleasure and pain in our brain’s limbic system ensures our survival. The limbic system rewards us with pleasure when we do something beneficial to our survival, encouraging us to seek resources, While on the other hand, it punishes us with pain when we engage in non-beneficial behaviors, reminding us to protect our resources. We buy that new jacket because our brain tells us it is beneficial to our survival and we receive pleasure from that purchase, but when we realise that we have been overcharged, the pain we feel is a reminder to be more careful in the future.

Culture defines our pleasure and pain

So if our shopping sprees are controlled by this balance of pleasure and pain, why do our spending habits vary so much among individuals and cultures? Comedian Russell Peters may provide us with an insight into Chinese and Indian consumers:


Despite its overly-stereotypical depictions, it highlights how culture plays a part in what should be a purely transactional act. Research has confirmed this with evidence that differences in culture lead to differences in how we bargain and negotiate. In our previous post, we know that culture conditions our mind and affects our inert behaviours. Similarly, culture influences how we feel pleasure and pain. The pleasure of gaining wealth, status, or well-being varies among cultures and sub-cultures and our brain seeks rewards based on how we value these pleasures. This explains why some might be willing to spend a month’s paycheck on a pair of Louboutins while others think paying a premium for a pair of red-soled heels is ridiculous.

The pleasure of gaining wealth, status, or well-being varies among cultures and sub-cultures.

A good shopping experience is all about pleasure

As marketers, how can we apply this knowledge? By creating an enjoyable shopping experience. We need to create gratifying moments that excite shoppers and enhance the pleasure of acquisition and overpower the pain felt in paying.

In-store shopping experiences are full of pleasurable moments such as the social aspects of window-shopping with your friends, the trust created when feeling the quality of the product, the risk reduction resulting from being able to it on, and the instant gratification of having it in hand immediately after payment. By immersing ourselves in these moments, our brains project a happy image which we relish in. The pleasure created drives us to make a purchase.

shopping fur coat thrift shop fur coat

How can we recreate these feelings of pleasure in online shopping, an experience that is largely limited by a screen? The answer lies in the touchpoints throughout the consumer’s online shopping journey.


How we can make online shopping more pleasurable

But more often than not, online shopping takes the form of searching, followed by endless scrolling or next page clicks through an overwhelming mountain of similar items. After your cart is sufficiently filled to reach whatever shipping cost threshold you had in mind, you checkout, pay, and wait for your order to arrive. Undoubtedly this is a convenient and systematic way to shop; however, it often feels more like procurement than an enjoyable experience.  Online shopping has the pain of paying without the pleasure in the process.

Online shopping has the pain of paying without the pleasure in the process.

There is hope. Online shopping can be experiential and intimate when they focus on delivering an experience at the different touchpoints. E-commerce has the advantage of being able to seamlessly extend the experience with media. Globally, consumers are making media an integral part of their online shopping experience. They window shop by browsing on their mobile devices. They get #ootd inspiration from regularly scanning Pinterest or Instagram. They generate their shopping list through reviews and unboxing videos of shopping hauls.


Enhance the online shopping experience with media

Address pain points: Media and communications have the ability to enhance the online shopping experience by reducing the pain of paying, and therefore, make online shopping more pleasurable. To do this, we need to find out what the shopper’s pain points are throughout the consumer journey and either mitigate them or turn them into pleasurable moments. For example, we can eliminate the pain of turning off portrait orientation lock and having to rotate the phone to view horizontal videos by considering how consumers actually use their phone and creating previously unpopular, vertical video content instead. Similarly, shoppable video formats reduces the friction of having to search for products featured in videos by bringing users straight to product.

Harness programmatic’s potential: Consider how programmatic could play a role in the consumer journey. Instead of incessantly retargeting people with ads of a purchase they just made, encourage them to write a review, share their purchase on social media, or suggest accompanying items. Programmatic has the potential to act more like a personal shopper than a shopkeeper at a bazaar.

Gif courtesy of Kik.

Get social with your media: Much of the pleasure of shopping in-store comes from the social interactions with accompanying friends, like-minded fellow shoppers, and gregarious store assistants. Media can further contribute to the thrill of online shopping by encouraging and facilitating social interaction and approval during the online shopping process, either through social media or AI messaging assistants.

Test content messages: With regards to content, test and run various messages that appeal to either the spendthrifts or the tightwads. Compare the effectiveness of messages that amplify the pleasure of acquisition or reduce the pain of payment amongst different audiences, keeping in mind the cultural context.


Online shopping: Intimacy and expedience

The intrinsic system of pleasure and pain determines how we shop. Our culture influences how we perceive this pleasure or pain. Commerce has existed almost as long as humanity itself and as we progress with e-commerce, we need to ensure it does not sacrifice intimacy for the sake of expedience.

Commerce has existed almost as long as humanity itself and as we progress with e-commerce, we need to ensure it does not sacrifice intimacy for the sake of expedience.

By focusing on creating pleasurable and painless moments throughout the consumer journey, we create more value for businesses. Use media to your advantage to deliver a fully connected and seamless experience.  As e-commerce continues to grow in APAC, the brands that have value and are able to use media to its full potential will be the ones getting APAC shoppers happily tap away.

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