Commentary: Fear of missing out, loneliness may be behind record-breaking Singles' Day sales

Commentary: Fear of missing out, loneliness may be behind record-breaking Singles' Day sales

Is it time to reflect upon our extreme consumerism and think about what deeper psychological problems might undergird our purchases? The Singapore University of Social Science’s Dr Lau Kong Cheen certainly thinks so.

SINGAPORE: Singles' Day has yet again seen another record-breaking year on Monday (Nov 11) with Alibaba sales reaching US$38 billion in one day.

Brands and e-commerce platforms in Singapore definitely did not miss out on the action. Popular online marketplaces such as Lazada, Qoo10 and Shopee registered sales three to five times higher than last year.

What is it about events like Singles Day that make shopping so compelling? How has consumerism imposed such a strong hypnotic power over most of us?

READ: Commentary: Don’t get suckered by the hype of 11.11

I would argue that such major sales events may be driving consumers to make larger purchases than they would. Most of us might have been rationally attracted by the fantastic bargains but there is a psychological basis to the most extreme of our shopping habits.


The “fear of missing out” or FOMO has a strong impact on consumers in creating anxiety and feelings of inferiority.

Singles' Day is one of the largest sales event in China. It has smashed sale records of other major global one-day shopping events including Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

With top international celebrities such as Taylor Swift gracing the event and generating massive brand awareness for Alibaba and its other online shopping platform compatriots, this year’s Singles’ Day has received a lot of hype, which makes consumers want to be part of this event.

FOMO could impact the desire to purchase in two ways. First, consumers do not want to miss out on unbeatable promotional sales discounts and offers.  

U.S. singer Taylor Swift performs at a show to mark Alibaba's 11.11 Singles' Day global s
US singer Taylor Swift performs at a show to mark Alibaba's 11.11 Singles' Day global shopping festival in Shanghai, China November 10, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Stringer)

The limited time promotions also invoke a strong sense of urgency and call to action for consumers to commit to purchases, without deeper reflection on whether they really need those products.

Second, social media has become a powerful platform for consumers to rave about their purchases and share their “wins” with their friends. Such dynamics intensify peer pressure and the feeling that one should do likewise so not to stick out like an outsider.   

Any recollection of a frustration of missing out on group activities can add to these disappointments overtime.

Hence, to avoid FOMO, consumers take on deals that they may not make had they decided on them in the absence of Singles’ Day.


Second, the act of shopping can be “therapeutic”.  There have been studies that attest to this retail therapy claim.

Shopping uplifts our mood, because it tends to restore a sense of personal control over our environment and makes the consumer feel less “helpless”.

When consumers encounter a wide range of products up for purchase, they achieve a sense of autonomy when they can decide which item that is within their means they would like to buy, which invokes a positive mood. 

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Alibaba Group is seen during Alibaba Group's 11.11 Singles' Day g
The logo of Alibaba Group is seen during Alibaba Group's 11.11 Singles' Day global shopping festival at the company's headquarters in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China on Nov 10, 2019. (File photo: REUTERS/Aly Song)

With Singapore society becoming more affluent and digitally savvy, online shopping has become a very convenient and accessible avenue for people to fulfil this emotional impulse.

Nevertheless, when consumers become overly dependent or addicted to this drive to shop in order to regain a sense of power, they may inadvertently fall prey to a compulsive shopping disorder. 

READ: Commentary: Shopping addiction is a serious disorder


Third, there is this sense of self-gifting, a phenomenon where a person buys a gift for himself or herself as a form of reward, to practise self-love and self-indulge. This feel-good behaviour explains why we would at times tend to buy something expensive for ourselves or treat ourselves to a good meal.

Studies have demonstrated that self-gift giving can compensate for the feelings of loneliness one might feel and act an escape mechanism from stress.

Singles' Day seems to be a perfect event that triggers the need for self-gifting even more since the occasion reminds singles about the solitude of their status.

READ: Commentary: What’s wrong with being a single woman?

Online shopping expensive watches jewellery 1
Textbook stuff: Good service goes a long way in keeping shoppers happy – and coming back for more. (Photo: Unsplash/freestocks)

When societal stress levels have been on the rise in a country calling for better work-life balance, such self-indulgent behaviour tends to rise in tandem.

Perhaps, the rise of consumerism is a reflection of the “pressure cooker” environment that we live in and the gloomy economic outlook in the past few months.


So, can we break this vicious cycle of obsessive consumerism? Planning and prioritisation is crucial. 

I would suggest identifying the items that you need versus those you want to buy. Focus your mind on essential items whether these be health supplements, baby diapers or milk powder, for which costs savings can be significant during a sale.

Next, prepare the list of items meant for self-indulgence and budget for them. This does not give you license to buy all the items all at once in one particular sale. You can always put them on hold should you exceed your budget on Singles’ Day.

Another good practice to avoid extreme consumerism is to track your purchases, specifically those purchased online.

Online shopping Asian flush products
(Photo: Unsplash)

Most e-commerce marketplace have tools to track purchases. These can help you avoid impulsive buying.

The next time you need a retail therapy, try considering online browsing or window shopping as they have the same effect.

Just don’t hit that “buy” button.

Dr Lau Kong Cheen is a Senior Lecturer for Marketing Programme at the Singapore University of Social Sciences and he is passionate about branding and consumer behaviour.

Source: CNA/sl