Science Confirms: People Making Embarrassing Purchases Add Other Items to Their Cart

You don’t need a magazine or soda, but they serve to drown out the embarrassment you feel over your intended purchase

Photo: JasonUnbound

Perhaps this scene sounds familiar: You need to buy something you’re embarrassed about—tampons, condoms, foot cream, a pregnancy test—and you don’t want that to be the only item you plop onto the checkout counter. So you buy a soda, and some chips, and maybe some pens or a magazine. You don’t need these items. But it’s worth those few extra dollars to drown out the embarrassment you feel over your intended purchase.

You’re not alone.

According to a study in the Journal of Consumer Research, this behavior is really common. Researchers asked participants to compare two scenarios—one in which they purchase something they feel embarrassed about and another in which they purchase something embarrassing along with other items. Over 80 percent of people prefer the second scenario. Almost 90 percent of them said that they thought these added items would draw attention away from their embarrassing purchase.

This isn’t surprising, really. An earlier study found that 33 percent of college students buy other items while buying condoms to try to distract from their embarrassment. Men who buy pornographic magazines tend to throw additional items like gum and candy into the cart.

But this study contributed a new detail—just adding more items to the basket doesn’t necessarily work to quell the flushed cheeks. In fact, the researchers found that the exact composition of the basket was extremely important.

The idea here is that, if you add items to your cart that don’t counteract the embarrassing item, you’re just making things worse. For instance, the researchers found that when you throw anti-odor foot powder into your cart with anti-diarrheal medicine it doesn’t really help. That might seems sort of obvious, but the researchers also found that less mortifying items can become embarrassing, depending on what they’re coupled with. Adding tissues and lotion to your cart to draw attention away from anti-odor foot powder works. But if you’re buying condoms, you need to pick a different set of items.

In the end, the researchers say that marketers might use this information to create little bundles of embarrassing and not-embarassing items to do the hard work of cart management for you. Or, although it might be less profitable for stores, perhaps people should simply be reminded that buying condoms and foot-cream isn’t something to be embarrassed about in the first place.

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