Why Do Shopping Podcasts Sound So Good Right Now?

By now, it’s become abundantly clear that one way people have endured the pandemic has been through retail therapy—whether that meant hoarding toilet paper to soothe fears of scarcity or doubling down on sweatsuits to acquiesce to a new work-from-home, do-every-damn-thing-from-home lifestyle. The supply chain has responded by sputtering and groaning under the weight of countless orders placed for desks, sofas, and kitchenware. Skincare routines have become more elaborate, houseplants have proliferated, and Peloton bikes have rolled into bedrooms and home gyms around the world. In short, shopping has helped many of us cope with uncertainty, boredom, and, in many cases, fear.

And so has a bumper crop of podcasts centered around shopping and product recommendations, all of which started during or just before the pandemic, including Lemonada Media’s Add to Cart, hosted by Kulap Vilaysack and SuChin Pak, Gee Thanks, Just Bought It!, hosted by Caroline Moss, Oh, I Like That, hosted by Rachel Wilkerson Miller and Sally Tamarkin, POOG, hosted by Kate Berlant and Jacqueline Novak, and Forever35, hosted by Kate Spencer and Doree Shafrir. While each podcast is a bit different—some focus more on actual products to purchase than others—the common thread is that shopping is a deeply personal, layered act which has meaning well beyond the cash register.

We all shop for emotional reasons from time to time—if not most of the time. Perhaps you’re buying shoes to stave off feelings of emptiness or to make another evening at home a tad more exciting. Or you pick up yet another throw pillow to distract yourself from dissatisfaction in your relationship. Regardless of the reason, the result is often a quick hit of feel-good dopamine—neurotransmitters that help manage the brain’s pleasure and reward centers, says Adam Borland, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist with the Cleveland Clinic. “With shopping, the brain responds to finding that bright and shiny new item (whether we ‘need’ it or just ‘want’ it) and will repeatedly come back searching to experience that same rush or high,” he says, later adding, “Finding an item on sale may elicit a feeling of excitement and instant gratification, and help the individual rationalize making the purchase.”

And with online shopping comes the added thrill of anticipation—awaiting the arrival of a package which, in turn, releases dopamine into the brain, says Borland. In fact, science has sought to quantify how shopping can change how we feel. Per a 2014 study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, people who shopped reported positive feelings immediately following, and the experience of doing so also helped ward off feelings of sadness. It seems that making a purchase gives us a feeling of being in control of our lives—that we’re in the driver’s seat. That same study also found that 79 percent of people who were able to buy something felt some sense of power. Sure, just looking for stuff can be fun, but the research shows that those who actually bought things rated themselves nearly three times less sad afterward compared to the browsers.

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While each podcast is a bit different…the common thread is that shopping is a deeply personal, layered act which has meaning well beyond the cash register.

This is precisely where listening to podcasts about shopping comes in, because while they are very much about what you might want to buy, the why we buy is often just as (if not more) interesting. While sometimes written off or disparaged as the domain of the feminine and frivolous, shopping can also be very meaningful. Kate Spencer, co-host of the podcast Forever35, who along with co-host Doree Shafrir helped launch Gee Thanks on Black Friday in 2019, agrees. “Shopping—and talking about shopping—can be an expression of our desires and our beliefs, particularly when you start to consider who is making a product and what is the ethos behind that brand,” she says.

Even before she started hosting the Gee Thanks podcast, Caroline Moss had gained a reputation as being a very discerning shopper. Those who relished her delightful #WireCaro content on Twitter were early listeners of Gee Thanks, which offers Wirecutter-level analyses of products you might want to try—and that will possibly change your life—but with a lot more humor, attitude, and a side of armchair psychoanalysis. But the lockdowns brought new relevancy and meaning to it all. “For a while, shopping was one of the only things we could do,” notes Moss, “and you can learn a lot about both yourself and other people through what brings them comfort.” It’s not surprising that a very active Facebook group of savvy shoppers has grown out of the Gee Thanks podcast. (A recent thread involved dozens of listeners—aka “Geezers”—trying to help a desperate bride-to-be hunt down a specific wedding gown that had been mistakenly sold to someone else.)

Over on Add to Cart—“a show about what we buy and what we buy into” is one popular taglinePak and Vilaysack bring an intimate, comedic, rat-a-tat rhythm to their recommendations, which range from an inexpensive but life-changing toothbrush that can give you what Vilaysack calls “glass teeth” to the very best socks for sleeping (a Pak must-have). In a way, however, the items “are really just conversation starters—a way to give importance to what may seem unimportant if you don’t dig any deeper,” says Vilaysack. Each episode also includes a “Remove from Cart” segment, where the hosts or guests can talk about something (be it an item or even just a concept) that isn’t worth the investment or feels objectionable, financially or otherwise. Two recent “removes”: using paper towels in favor of cute cloth napkins and abortion restrictions.

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While a knee-jerk opinion of shopping may be that it’s shallow, “what people buy is—for better or for worse—an expression of our needs and our values,” says Oh, I Like That’s Miller. “Sometimes the needs are quite literal, and sometimes the needs are deeper and more about who we want to be.”

There’s also a much-needed water cooler aspect to discussions around shopping that so many people have been craving, says Pak, especially during a time when in-person events and in-office conversations have been limited. “Shopping is really social,” says Pak. “That circuitry isn’t complete until I’ve told someone about it.”

Not that shopping podcasts are only for the materialistic or those who can rattle off their credit card numbers by heart. In fact, Miller feels like her podcast is a place that doesn’t compel consumption, but sometimes questions it. “I feel a moral obligation to be conscientious of not pushing buying stuff as a solution to every problem. Sometimes that’s the solution—if, for example, your problem is that you don’t have a trash can—but I’m wary of pushing too much stuff on people as folks become increasingly conscientious of how they are spending money.”

The thing is, you don’t even need to press “place order” to get a frisson of delight from shopping. According to Borland, the hunt may be more pleasurable than the actual purchase itself. “Whether searching different websites for availability, the best price, or sifting through racks at a store, the experience of simply finding the item can cement a pleasurable experience,” he says. Throw in free shipping and now we’re really talking.

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