"I spend hours on Deliveroo and Uber Eats, putting things in my basket but not buying them," Melissa* tells me, laughing intermittently as she speaks. "I might spend 10 minutes at Wahaca, hypothetically choosing a selection of tacos I’ll never eat and then move over to Whole Foods where I’ll do a food shop that I’ll never actually receive."
During the pandemic, with restaurants closed, virtual window shopping or fantasy shopping has become a favoured pastime for Melissa, who lives alone in a one-bedroom flat overlooking east London’s skyline. She has, she says, found true peace in an unexpected part of the internet: the bottomless baskets of her food delivery apps.
"It’s weirdly soothing and methodical," the 35-year-old digital executive muses. "I’m constructing imaginary meals and menus, looking at new products – it takes me away from the stress of work and coronavirus." Melissa could afford to buy the food she’s browsing – she earns around $130,000k – but that would defeat the point. This is an exercise in the imaginary which soothes her anxieties about reality.
For as long as there has been internet shopping, there has been virtual window shopping. Back in 2008, when user interfaces were still reasonably rudimentary, Amazon created windowshop.com. It was intended to allow users to browse the site’s bestselling products with previews. The New York Times raved about it. The experience was powered by a plug-in called Cooliris which The Times dubbed a "new immersive approach to Web navigation". Of course, much of this is now incorporated into the experience of browsing any site, with videos of models walking down catwalks, high-res product photos and, often, a wish list function to help you collate items you cannot afford and/or will likely never purchase.
Now, as with most things that happen on the internet, fantasy shopping – like dating – is just a digital version of something that people have always done offline. Window shopping has a surprisingly progressive history (well, as progressive as anything that speaks to the norms of consumer capitalism can ever be). In the 18th century, as Western countries industrialised and urbanised, people moved from rural communities to expanding towns and cities. Window shopping, promenading through arcades, emerged as a form of recreation or entertainment for the new middle-class bourgeoisie that was created by emerging industrial economies which, in turn, created a demand for consumer goods. For middle and upper-class women, it was one of the few activities deemed acceptable to be seen doing in public, allowing them to leave their homes.
As stupid as it sounds, it makes me feel hopeful to think that, someday soon, maybe I will have an occasion and a reason to actually check out my basket.
Over the last year, when we could not leave our homes, is it any wonder we built alternative realities by browsing shops from which we were suddenly cut off? Shopping might not seem like a key part of women's liberation but our economic power is, in fact, tied to our (relatively recent) liberty.
Like Melissa, 30-year-old Rosie, a fashion buyer from Cheshire who earns a slightly above-average salary of $51,000k, can’t stop fantasy shopping. She does it every day. "It’s usually clothes and jewellery I’ll never be able to afford," she explains. "I set the price limit to something ridiculous – in the thousands – on high-end sites just so I can imagine what life would be like if I had money."
As she 'shops' she explains that she can almost feel herself drift off. For her, this practice is a meditative daydream and it has ramped up during the pandemic.
"I start saying to myself, I could wear that when we get to go to pubs again or When I get to book a holiday... Not only am I fantasy shopping," she reflects, "I end up creating fantasy scenarios about when I'll be able to wear the clothes I can never buy."
"As stupid as it sounds," Rosie adds, sounding slightly embarrassed, "it makes me feel hopeful. It makes me think that, someday soon, maybe I will have an occasion and a reason to actually check out my basket." I suppose you might also call this 'manifesting'.
Melissa and Rosie might be slightly embarrassed about their behaviour but the truth is that they’re using online stores exactly as they’re intended. Dr Dianne Cyr is a professor at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. She has spent years conducting research concerning how companies can create online shopping experiences that result in a shopper’s trust, satisfaction and online loyalty. Online shopping, she says, is designed to play to our emotions.
"We have found that it is important for e-tailers to pay attention to creating warm and social environments that create a psychological connection with the user," she explains. "We call this 'social presence' and the online shopper will perceive the website as warm, personal, sociable. It creates a feeling of human contact." This, she says, can be achieved by features like rich text which isn’t too formal, personalised greetings, videos of actual human beings and other appealing visual elements.
Dianne notes that research she has previously worked on indicates that these 'social presence' elements of the online shopping experience are more important for women than men. Of course, she adds, it is even more important to the retailers themselves because it can "lead to enhanced trust, satisfaction, and e-loyalty – which results in greatly enhanced revenues for online retailers."
You might think that retailers would hate us for window shopping. It’s much easier to fill a basket online and abandon it than it is in a physical store. However, as online shopping has advanced, they’ve managed to turn it to their advantage. Window shopping is encouraged, says Dianne, because it fosters 'e-loyalty' and the hope is that you will return, one day, to your wish list and buy at least some of the items you fantasise over.
Research on consumer happiness suggests that anticipation of the purchase increases happiness.
Another technical term for this is 'hedonic consumption'. It refers to the multi-sensory and emotional arousal we experience while shopping. Fantasy plays a huge role in consumption; it is part of our emotional response to the products we view – we imagine them in relation to ourselves – and, says Ann Fiore, a professor specialising in hospitality at Iowa State University, companies are getting better and better at exploiting it online.
"We call this telepresence," Ann says. "It is feeling like one is in the physical store in the offline world even though you’re actually online. It is created by high quality simulated sensory information as well as the simulated ability to interact with the product by rotating images and watching videos of it." You may have noticed some stores now including high-quality photos on site of other customers or influencers wearing their clothes.
I too engage in fantasy shopping and I am always particularly drawn to these. I’ll sometimes find that I have spent hours on Matches Fashion, curating outfits for weddings I haven’t been invited to because the fictitious proposals that would bring them into being haven't actually happened yet. I come to and resolve to stop. But then I see that someone I admire has curated a wish list for the site and I’m off again. Before I know it, there’s a £4,000 Loewe coat in my basket.
This is deliberate, Ann says. The more sensory information, the better. Telepresence, she adds, persuades us by encouraging the fantasy. "Research confirms that seeing oneself using a product in positive imagery increases the likelihood of purchasing it. The idea is that customers see themselves in scenarios using the product – such as fantasising about dancing in a new dress when out with friends after a yearlong period of social lockdown."
Before the pandemic, Ann says that "about 76% of online shopping baskets were abandoned in the UK." Over the last year, she has read reports that suggest this practice has increased by around 10%. This, she concludes, should come as no surprise. While browsing shops can serve a very utilitarian function – we go to the kitchen section of John Lewis to assess the weight of a pan before buying it – it can also offer us a much-needed escape from reality.
"Research on consumer happiness suggests that anticipation of the purchase increases happiness," Ann says. "So the act of filling up a basket alone may foster anticipation and create happiness. During the Great Depression, people escaped reality through films with stars dressed in stunning wardrobes. As a consumer society, today’s option may be to escape reality by filling online baskets with our own fantasy wardrobes."
*Some names have been changed to protect identities