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Shop 'Til You Drop: Retail Therapy Works

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"Retail therapy" may be more than a quaint catch phrase as new research suggests that easing sadness may be just a purchase away.

Shopping to improve one's mood, long derided as a quick temporary fix for the blues, has been the subject of a string of new reports and surveys that suggest that shopping while sad may indeed help ease this feeling and minimize the impact of a looming stressful event.

More than half of Americans say they have shopped and spent money to improve their mood, according to a survey released on Tuesday from Ebates.com. Although more women admitted to this behavior, with nearly 64 percent of women saying they've engaged in so-called retail therapy, some 40 percent of men attempted to shop their blues away.


While Ebates' site was not designed specifically for retail therapy shoppers, the phenomenon is core to the company's model as a place where consumers can locate deals and cash-back offers, said Mark Moran, Ebates' senior vice president of marketing and distribution.

"I think it'd be fascinating in a future study to look at time of day and see if retail therapy-type shopping happens most often in the afternoon or early evening, and then we might change the type of deals that we highlight on the site then," Moran added.

Among the 1,000 adults polled by TNS Global on behalf of Ebates in March, more than half said they think online shopping provides better therapy than visiting physical store locations.

(Read More: From Click to Brick: Ecommerce Redefines In-Store Retail)

"It's really convenient," Moran said, explaining why he thought shoppers felt that way. "I don't have to drive anywhere. If I have five minutes to shop, I can do it right now. I don't have to hop in a car."

Interestingly those with a household income of $75,000 or more were more likely to abstain from retail therapy than those on the opposite end of the income spectrum who make less than $30,000 and potentially have fewer bucks to spend.

Of those surveyed, nearly four out of 10 women said retail therapy improves a person's mood compared to about 21 percent of men.

(Read More: Prolonged Winter Puts Retail Sales in Deep Freeze)

One recent report from The University of Michigan seems to back this theory up. In the first study, people watched a sad video clip and then were given money to buy a snack. Those who did were less sad afterward. In the second study, participants watched a sad clip and then were either instructed to go to a shopping site where they were told they could either browse for useful items or choose things to buy. Those who were allowed to choose items to buy had lower sadness scores afterward.

When participants decided to purchase an item, their levels of residual sadness fell as the purchasers benefited from the increased feeling of control. However, choosing not to buy did not reduce sadness.

"The sadness-reducing benefits of choosing to buy cannot be explained by the distraction afforded by buying, the pleasure associated with obtaining a new good, or the possibility that people who choose to buy are fundamentally different than people who choose not to buy," the Michigan study found. "Instead, the benefits of choosing to buy were driven by increased feelings of control."

The study's authors also proposed that retail therapy has been viewed too negatively and argued that the practice may be an effective way to minimize lingering sadness.

(Read More: Did Toys 'R Us Deliver a Big Warning for Retail?)

Still, it's unclear whether potential financial impacts down the road outweigh the lift that shoppers feel at the time they make a purchase, acknowledged the Michigan report.

"Whether the increased control afforded by buying results in a loss of control later (due to increased debt and reduced savings), and thus counteracts the temporary benefits of retail therapy, remains an important open question," it concluded.

A separate report from Northwestern University's School of Management published last year looked a five separate experiments and found that the timing of a stressful event can impact whether people consume to distract themselves.

While consumers often shop to cope with stressful events, they are more selective when buying to cope for future challenges, such as buying supplies before an academic exam or preparing for a natural disaster, than past events. This proactive consumption provides people with more protection before a threat occurs, which, in turn, minimizes the threat's negative impact, the study said.

But once consumers experience the threat, they're willing to latch onto a broader range of potential purchases to distract themselves.

"It seems that consumers not only salt the sidewalk just in case there is a snowstorm but also know exactly what kind of salt to use, at least until the snowstorm hits," added the study's authors.

-By CNBC's Katie Little; Follow her @katie_little_

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com.

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