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Oliva De Leon-Gan, 28, of Toronto searches for a bargain at Canadian Thrift Stores on Queen West. She says the process is like treasuring hunting since 'you never know what you'll find.' (Sarah Dea for The Globe and Mail/Sarah Dea for The Globe and Mail)
Oliva De Leon-Gan, 28, of Toronto searches for a bargain at Canadian Thrift Stores on Queen West. She says the process is like treasuring hunting since 'you never know what you'll find.' (Sarah Dea for The Globe and Mail/Sarah Dea for The Globe and Mail)

Savvy shoppers are titillated by the price tag, study finds Add to ...

The end of the recession be damned. Some people, such as Oliva De Leon-Gan, still love a good bargain.

The 28-year-old Toronto resident, who writes about shopping discounts on her blog TheCheapGirl.com, says she gets "exceptionally giddy" when she stumbles upon a reduced-price blazer at a thrift store or a well-priced handbag.

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"Whenever I find a good deal, it's sort of like an adrenaline rush," she says. "For me, it's one of the highest forms of pleasure. … I don't want to say [it's like]sex, but close to it."

At its most extreme, the thrill of seeking a good bargain drives people to line up for hours outside shopping malls on Boxing Day or crush each other in stampedes as they race to get products for the lowest price.

Now, new research backs up what Ms. De Leon has known all along - shopping can really turn you on.

A study by Britain's Institute of Promotional Marketing and the University of Westminster shows that people can get as excited spotting a bargain as they do looking at pornography.

Using eye-tracking equipment to measure pupil dilation and eye movement, researchers recorded the emotional responses of 50 participants to several different consumer items whose packaging featured a promotion. Among those items was a jar of Marmite sandwich spread that offered a free set of popular children's audiobook downloads, and a package of Kingsmill brand bread that offered a free, movie-themed toast rack related to a new film featuring British animated characters Wallace and Gromit.

Researchers recorded participants' responses on a scale of zero to 10, with 10 as an extreme level of response typically associated with trauma, says Colin Harper, the institute's head of insight.

Previous unrelated studies used the same iMotions eye-tracking technology and rating scale to determine emotional responses to erotic images, which resulted in scores between five and seven. In this study, participants' responses to the marketing promotions scored as high as 5.8.

"It doesn't mean to say that you have an orgasm when you look at [a promotion] but what it does mean is that you've got that degree of interest which is very similar," Mr. Harper says.

The findings, which have yet to be published in an academic journal, suggest that the buzz we get prowling for deals appeals to us on a much deeper level than researchers had expected, Mr. Harper says. Further study may also shed light on why we sometimes feel more excited about the process of shopping for an item than we do about the item itself.

Mr. Harper says some theorize that excitement may be rooted in our primal instincts to hunt for survival.

"Nowadays, the only place you can find something which is equivalent to going out and knocking over a dinosaur is in the supermarket," Mr. Harper says. "It gets you on a more visceral level than we had probably anticipated. … You can't imagine that just a free audiobook is that exciting, can you?"

Another possible explanation is that people naturally respond to changes and are constantly comparing what they see to an established reference point, says psychology professor Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University.

"So if you have established this thing should cost $100 and you get it for $30, that's just like making $70," he says.

Depending on how you actually spend your money, however, your initial happiness over a purchase can be short-lived, Dr. Gilovich says.

In a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Dr. Gilovich and co-author Travis Carter found people often have second thoughts after purchases of material items, such as flat-screen televisions or new cars. In comparison, they're happier in the long term with "experiential purchases," like a massage or vacation, even if the actual experience is less than ideal at the time.

In a series of experiments, the researchers asked participants to recall and rate how they felt about material or experiential purchases of similar monetary value, and how they felt about alternative material goods and experiences they didn't possess.

Dr. Gilovich says the "hedonic treadmill" - the idea that people eventually get used to what they already have - may explain why people tend to feel less satisfied about their material purchases over time.

"You buy a new car, it feels great for a little while, and then you adapt to it. That doesn't do it, you have to buy more stuff," he says.

The same doesn't appear to hold true for experiential purchases, however.

"Even though the experience is consumed and in a material sense is no longer there, it does live on in the stories that you tell and so on," Dr. Gilovich says, noting you can keep share your stories about your trip to Antarctica or your climb up Mount Everest. But "you can't keep telling the story about the new car you bought, so there's greater social value attached to our experiences."

For Ms. De Leon-Gan, however, shopping, in itself, is an experience in which she revels. Since her finances are finite, she takes unlimited pleasure in hunting for sales and sharing her research with others on her blog.

"In a way it's kind of a release," she says. "When you physically go out there to shop, you're kind of limited with money … but when you're finding deals online for other people, you could do that forever."

Regardless of whatever primal instincts may be at play, it simply feels good to be able to exercise one's financial shrewdness through bargain-hunting, she says.

"You take pride in taking something that's a limited amount and stretching it further," she says. "It's savvy management."

Follow on Twitter: @wencyleung

 

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