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Online Browsing Is the New Impulse Buy

More and more Millennial women are spending countless hours painstakingly researching their next purchase.

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Photo: Timur Emek / Getty Images

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When Julia, 27, fell in love with a bell-sleeve blouse on the runway last fall, she knew she had to have something like it. Unwilling to wait the six months until it hit stores and unsure whether she would even be able to afford it, Julia — a fashion merchandiser and longtime fashion enthusiast — began a familiar, complex and methodical process. Her search began on Google, then ShopStyle. She trolled social media feeds, checked the sites of her favorite retailers, and browsed various blogs; she also searched eBay and Etsy in pursuit of a vintage version. At one point, she had 20 related tabs open at once in her browser. She kept a list of potential purchases in an email draft to herself, which she added to during lulls at work or while watching TV at night. A month and a half after she first glimpsed the blouse on the runway, she finally pulled the trigger on an inexpensive version from a brand based overseas. She had spent around 15 hours researching this particular purchase.

For casual and avid shoppers alike, this is probably a familiar story. According to an extensive study conducted by Google, 54% of people used the internet to compare choices before making a clothing or footwear purchase. While the majority of shoppers began researching products shortly before purchasing, a growing number — of millennials, especially — began the process days, weeks and even months before purchasing. (Interestingly, those with a high income were considerably more likely to spend longer periods of time researching before making a purchase.)

This behavior is well-documented in the travel, tech and appliance industries where it has had a significant impact. 54% of people used the internet to compare choices before making a clothing or footwear purchase.The ability to immediately compare airfare among competitors, for instance, has helped drive ticket prices down 50% in the past 30 years. It's also offered an opportunity for cut-rate airlines like JetBlue and SouthWest to grab market share. In fashion, the effect has been slower-to-build but just as clear: Today, consumers are less brand loyal, more sales and price driven, and are shopping more than ever.

"People see shopping as a hobby now," said Melissa Davis, executive vice president and general manager of ShopStyle. The popular tool, which allows users to quickly search and compare styles, prices and sizes, was founded in 2006 by Andy Moss. Moss, a serial entrepreneur, got the idea after observing the way his wife shopped online, opening dozens of tabs and bookmarking items she liked. "He thought: there has got to be a better way of doing this," explained Davis. "At the time, there were shopping comparison search engines for things like digital cameras, but nothing that was fashion oriented."

Today, ShopStyle has 1300 retailers and attracts 18 million unique visitors per month. According to Davis, the site influences $1 billion in sales growth globally. For shoppers like Christina, 35, it's become an invaluable tool to search for fashion purchases she wants. "I look on at least five to six sites before making a purchase," said Christina, 35. "Probably more. I want to make sure I'm finding the best possible thing, and there are just so many choices out there."

"If I get too deep into online browsing it actually gives me anxiety because I want too many things," said Catherine, 28. "If that happens I'll just close all my windows without adding anything to a wish list or actually purchasing anything."These research and browsing habits are indicative of a larger shift in fashion. "It's taken the role of authority from the department store and put it in the hands of the consumer," says consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow. "The store or the manufacturer used to dictate to us what we could buy when and at what price. You could only choose from what was immediately available in store at the time you walked in." Today, shoppers have the entire world to choose from. And it's freaking a lot of them out.

"Choice generates anxiety, so we have a lot of shoppers that are really anxious," Yarrow says. The fear of potential regret (or FOMO) and the stress of a greater number of mental calculations has helped to create a constant feeling of low-level anxiety among shoppers, who can never be sure if they're getting the best item for their money.

Explained Christina: "I'll find something I like and think to myself, ‘This is cool, but maybe there's a better one? Today, shoppers have the entire world to choose from. And it's freaking a lot of them out.Maybe it's on sale somewhere else?' and then I go down the rabbit hole, overwhelmed by all the options. I'd say it takes me a couple days or a week to actually pull the trigger. It's such a time suck."

When we're faced with an abundance of choice, we tend to feel less satisfied with our decisions; we're also more likely to buy things based on emotional variabilities rather than practical needs. It's no wonder many of us have constructed elaborate processes and methodologies to help assure ourselves we're making the "right" choice.

Before you embark on a guilt-ridden spiral about your browsing habits, however, consider this: According to Yarrow, browsing online can also serve a valuable psychological purpose, particularly at work (seriously).

"For creative people in particular, this scrolling and shopping and looking around online is a way to keep their conscious mind busy while they're problem solving," said Yarrow. "It isn't really related to buying something right there in the moment. It might ultimately lead to buying but the real purpose is the need for distraction while problem solving or creating."

"I go on throughout the work day," said Ana, 28. "It's entertainment for me." While Ana's behavior often leads to purchasing, it's only after she's weighed a variety of factors. "Style is most important but price and quality also play a factor," she said. Often she's shopping for a specific event and will make the purchase at crunch time, when she'll be sure the item will ship on time. It's the opposite of an impulse purchase — it's about carefully considering countless options to find the best possible product at the best possible price point.

it's about carefully considering countless options to find the best possible product at the best possible price point.

Shopping as entertainment is nothing new: Yarrow says it stretches all the way back to cave people days, when a trip to the market served a very fundamental social and educational purpose, where individuals could meet and learn about their environment. Today, browsing online might also serve as a way to connect with others and the world around us, particularly as face-to-face socializing diminishes.

If shopping becomes a way to unwind and connect instead of, you know, buy things, brands have a problem. "One of the biggest shifts we've seen, obviously, is a shift to mobile," said Davis. "What we've seen is that on mobile, people favorite products, and spend hours on there, but they don't necessarily buy. That's one of the tension points."

It's why retailers like Etsy, ShopStyle, and The Real Real are embracing the shopping-as-hobby mentality, making the experience addictive and social to help lubricate the decision-making process — and, they hope, lead to an actual purchase. "Something as simple as shipping can deter purchase," said Davis. "Consumers will abandon if they have to pay even $5 for shipping."

Taking a page from Facebook and Instagram, more retailers are starting to experiment with algorithms that predict what you might like, and then display those results first. "Personalization is becoming really important," said Davis. "Consumers are already used to platforms adapting to their behavior and we take that into account when developing our experience, so it is more tailored to the individual." Yarrow agrees that the industry is moving towards a more personalized shopping experience, with the help of algorithms. "Whether or not we want it, it's going to happen: Information about our personality and our interests will start impacting search results," she said. She added that today, the algorithms are less than perfect, citing as an example her own practice of buying items for her mother and sister on her computer, which could skew results. "But, it'll get better and better," she said. "What's going to become available with big data and our computing capabilities is just mind-blowing." The idea in all of this is to cut down on research time — and though it may be appreciated by many shoppers, it sort of misses the point for fashion enthusiasts.

"I actually like researching stuff," said Julia. "That's part of the fun."