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Can’t sleep? Your late-night online shopping habit could be to blame

Posted by
Alix Walker
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Once upon a time we went shopping on a Saturday, now we splurge online late at night. Stylist’s Alix Walker investigates our new nocturnal spending habits.

Let me tell you a story. Last night at around 9.30pm, after watching Shiv from Succession power-walk from one room to the next in a herringbone blazer, I decided that I, too, should own a trouser suit. History will tell you I’m far too slouchy/awkward to pull one off in real life, but alas, I was convinced. 

And so I did what I do most nights, and turned to my virtual quartet of favourite shops – & Other Stories, Arket, Zara and Net-a-Porter – letting my thumb dance from one to the other and filling digital baskets with grey and navy numbers.

Today, as the text update on my phone tells me my Succession-influenced suit will arrive tomorrow before midday, I question whether tiredness might have played a part in that purchasing decision. But then I’m distracted as I spot at least three women wearing hiking boots in the bus queue and put a pair on my mental shopping list, ready to browse when I get home from drinks with friends tonight.

I see my late-night online shopping habit mirrored back at me when I get into the office. Straight after lunch a line of Asos packages arrive for colleagues who pressed ‘place order’ on a pair of skyscraper heels or high-waisted trousers as the clock struck midnight (Cinderella had nothing on our panic to check out before 12am in time for next day delivery). Like them I’ve bought clothes, holidays, contact lenses, a lemon tree (!), my Christmas Ocado order and £200 worth of The White Company sheets all long after the shop doors have shut, with the glow of my iPhone illuminating me in bed. 

"Wait a minute, Mr Postman!"

Today, the Saturday afternoon shopping pilgrimage to our local high streets for lipsticks and bodycon dresses seems as quaint as a fairytale. Online shopping has changed consumer behaviour completely and it’s predicted that over 50% of all purchases will be made online by 2028. Over half of UK consumers now shop more online than they do in-store and people in the UK spend more money online each year than residents of any other country in the world.

Where once we spent hours in badly lit changing rooms with our friends next door ready to appraise our new coat, today our bedrooms are where we try on knee-high boots and send selfies to them for validation, popping to an allocated returns point on our way to work the next day if it got a thumbs down emoji. That’s a seismic shift in human behaviour in less than a decade. 

But it’s not just how we’re shopping, it’s when we’re shopping. And it’s at exactly 10.18pm that most of us press the purchase button on whatever is in our virtual basket – mainly clothes, jewellery and shoes at that time, according to a study by Barclaycard. Our nocturnal shopping is no doubt influenced by the television we’re half watching – see my trouser suit impulse buy (returned the next day because I looked like my dad). 

In fact, data from fast-fashion website I Saw It First showed purchasing peaked between 9pm and 1am throughout the latest series of Love Island. We’re also heavily swayed by the social media we consume – 20% of us book our holidays after dark, inspired by the traveller influencers we see in Sri Lanka or Santa Monica while we’re whacking up the heating. And thousands carry on browsing long after even I’ve gone to sleep. Data from John Lewis Partnership Card found one in 15 online purchases in 2018 happened between midnight and 6am, a growth of 23% on the previous year. At that time, duvet covers, mobile phones and fridge freezers – yes fridge freezers! – were the most commonly bought products. 

Just how has late-night shopping cast such a spell over us? “It starts with convenience,” says consumer psychologist Dr Catherine Jansson-Boyd, author of Consumer Psychology. “As consumers we’re very lazy; we don’t want to go anywhere any more that doesn’t offer us a unique ‘experience’. We perceive ourselves as being busier than ever, even though we’re actually not, and late at night is when we feel everything is done, we can sit down and do something for us. It’s also a time when we’re scrolling social media and might feel inspired by what we see.” 

This new way of shopping has been dubbed the ‘vampire economy’: the worldwide ping of virtual cash registers that happens at the end of a busy and stressful day, the pre-slumber pick-me-up or post-gin-and-tonic splurge on new cushions or plants. And as the nights reach peak drag (god do they feel long) and online shopping’s biggest dates loom heavily on the calendar – Black Friday and Cyber Monday are two weeks away and of course that jolly red man’s visit is just around the corner – chances are we’ll be spending more time than ever indulging in our nightly shopping habit.

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What about the weekend? Where going shopping used to be an event, it is no longer enough of an ‘experience’ to qualify for a Saturday activity, not when there’s a raw vegan brunch or immersive play or sailing down the Thames in a hot tub to Instagram. We’re the experience generation and while we still want to look good, we only want to put the effort into doing that when everything else is done. Businesses are rapidly responding to this by making their digital offering as responsive and slick as possible and offering round-the-clock online customer service. They’re also rethinking the purpose of their shops. 

“The purpose of a store has changed dramatically,” says Richard Lim, the chief executive of independent economics research consultancy Retail Economics. “Stores have increasingly moved to a model whereby they’re more like showrooms that really promote the entire brand and offer a meaningful experience that consumers can buy into.”

From overpriced jewelry to an entire outfit, we've all bought things we wouldn't have in the light of day.

Many shops such as Arket and Made.com (which has three physical stores) have on-site cafes or installations, which make the experience feel like more of an event. “The customer might then continue their journey online at night in bed because it’s simply more convenient. Successful stores need to link up the physical and the digital and merge those two experiences together.”

Of course, shopping online doesn’t always lead to a happy ending: who hasn’t bought something only to find the fabric is horrible or the wine glasses are the size of eggs cups? Technology is working quickly to rectify the compromises of online. Chatbots, for example, are predicted to become more common (a survey by Oracle found 80% of brands intend to implement them by the end of 2020) in order to replace the human touch of store assistants. And the online shopping experience will become more and more personalised with companies analysing your purchasing history to provide more curated products for you to browse.

But the biggest change our new shopping habits are demanding is in the delivery of items. According to a report by Retail Economics and law firm Womble Bond Dickinson, the top three factors that will drive online growth are cheaper and faster delivery and easier returns. We want delivery 24 hours a day and the world is Amazon-primed to deliver this: 78% of logistics companies expect to provide same-day delivery by 2023, while 40% say they can see delivery taking place within two hours by 2028.

The dark side

While the idea of a future where your new sofa is all set up in your living room by the time you get back from work is thrilling – as though a fairy has waved their magic wand – there is a dark side to our new shopping behaviour. 

It might feel convenient to shop from our beds and cosy sofas, but that also happens to be the time when we’re tired, when the day has done its worst on us. “We tend to make bad decisions when we shop late at night,” says Jansson-Boyd. “Our brains are tired, our willpower is weakened and our brain doesn’t want to think as much so we don’t consider the implications of what we’re spending, meaning we inevitably spend more money. We’re also ready for bed, so we want the transaction ‘done’, which means we’re rushing decisions and making compromises. That is when you’ll make a bad consumer decision.” 

Alix's weirdest nocturnal buy? A rocking chair shaped like a spaceship.

It’s one of the major reasons that while e-commerce is booming on the face of it, the return rate of things we buy online is astronomical. Return rates for clothes bought online, for example, are between 40 and 80%. It probably doesn’t help that a lot of night-time online purchasing happens when we’ve had a drink, too. A study by American website The Hustle found that drunk shopping is an estimated $45billion-a-year industry with respondents spending $444 (£345) per year on drunk purchases. “I have a terrible habit of online shopping after the pub,” admits Charlotte Telford, 29. “I once bought a Stetson hat while drunk because I saw it on an Australian influencer I follow!” 

A few too many glasses of wine doesn’t just lead to bad purchasing decisions, it also makes us more vulnerable to those tried-and- tested tricks used by e-commerce sites to hook us in: “Trending now”; “New in”; “Only two left”; “20 other people are looking at this holiday”– all of these hit our FOMO buttons. “Those signals and symbols are extremely triggering and cause spikes in dopamine when we think we’ve snagged something just before it’s sold out or when we think we’ve scored a bargain,” says Jansson-Boyd. “But it’s worth remembering that there is so much game playing online it’s often not true.”

Contributor Anna Fielding spent one sleepless night splurging hundreds in the Agent Provocateur sale.

Those spikes in dopamine – the happy hormone that keeps us hooked and requires bigger doses each time to keep us thrilled – play a large role in the lure of online shopping. And unsurprisingly it’s not a great hormone to have coursing around your system just before you go to bed. Our hormones are a finely tuned balancing act, meaning an increase in dopamine will inhibit the release of the sleep hormone melatonin. “Any kind of physiological sensation just before you go to bed will impact your sleep,” explains Jansson-Boyd. “Plus, countless studies have shown how exposure to the blue lights from our devices greatly impacts our slumber. We might find shopping on our screens at 10pm relaxing, but I assure you, your body doesn’t.”

Whether it has an effect on our sleep or not, the fact is that online shopping has changed our lives for the better. I rely heavily on shopping delivered to my door; I have three young children and, believe me, no one wants me to bring them to Zara. And 10pm is usually the first time my husband and I speak to each other properly all day and get the chance to actually book a holiday. Such is life. Anything that makes it easier is fine by me. 

And so, as night-time online shopping becomes the norm, how do we ensure we shop smarter? First up, shop thoughtfully. Sustainable products are a rapidly growing industry, but it’s not just about the things we buy, it’s about not buying things we don’t need or love or that don’t make us really, really happy. Taking that checklist and applying it to everything that’s in your virtual basket is a pretty good first step.

The next is going old school. “Take a notepad and write what you want on it,” says Jansson- Boyd. “Pick a day and a time when you’re not tired or stressed or short on time and write down the things you genuinely need to buy. Then set about buying only the things on your list at a time when, again, you’re not tired or stressed.”

Reality bites

Another useful tool is to have your bank balance where you can see it while you shop online. Many of us forget we’re spending real money when it’s virtual shopping baskets at play, so seeing the reality of what’s in your account may make you more mindful. 

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And, finally, abandon that virtual shopping basket for an hour before you press buy. This works for two reasons. The first being you’ll get a spike in that lovely dopamine just by adding items to your basket. When that dopamine drops (which it does quickly) you can reassess if said items really do make you happy. Secondly, if you’re logged into your account and you don’t make a purchase, some shops will email you discount codes to tempt you back.

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And on that note, now I’ve awoken from my Shiv-inspired dream, I’m off to my local Hermes point to return that herringbone trouser suit… 

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Illustration: Ruth E Palmer

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Alix Walker

Alix Walker is editor-at-large at Stylist magazine. She works across print, digital and video and could give Mary Berry a run for her money with her baking skills. 

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