Living [and Shopping] Through Clouds of Emotion

Written by:



By the 1980s, marketers understood that when consumers had all the “essential stuff” they needed and that in the future, those shoppers would buy based on desire, driven by emotion. That supported Maslow’s well-known hierarchy of human needs, a psychological theory first put forth in the 1940s. When the majority of peoples’ physical needs for shelter, food, clothing and such have been met they can venture into the realm of personal relationships, social connections, status among peers, feelings of accomplishment—and ultimately, aspirational fulfillment and self-actualization.

[callout]Today’s emotionally challenged shoppers prefer an organized and accommodating in-store environment, where they know what to expect, where they can get useful information, and where their expectations are fulfilled.[/callout]

Advertising gives us a window into today’s emotionally based consumer universe. Gone are the days when comparing physical attributes or performance, touting intrinsic or investment value, and in some cases, even promoting price, were enough to appeal to customers. Today, advertisers must convince us that products and services will improve our lives, enrich our experiences, increase our popularity or prestige, and make us feel good about ourselves. Consumers are seeking products, services and experiences that:

  • Make them feel happier and more fulfilled.
  • Entertain and/or inform.
  • Enhance a desirable role among social connections.
  • Convince them they are making conscientious, responsible, and appropriate buying decisions that will positively impact others and the planet.

A Trifecta of Challenges

We know humans experience emotions ranging from happiness and joy, to rage, hostility, and fear. A civil society dictates that we control and manage our negative emotions — and when we fail to do so, school shootings, road rage incidents, and airline misconduct occurs, as well as serious criminal acts. But difficult times, such as we have recently experienced, bring emotions closer to the surface, giving them more influence over us and making them harder to manage.

Retailers can benefit if they are aware of how emotional context influences consumer views in all aspects of life—including the shopping process. Over the past year and a half, Americans have been exposed to an emotional trifecta.

  1. The Covid-19 pandemic hit hard, frightening people [in some cases, killing people] and forcing many to shelter at home in isolation for months on end. Over 18 months later, we still face threats from Covid variants.
  2. The economy tanked, causing millions to lose jobs, thousands of stores and restaurants to close, and stressing household budgets. Despite an improving economy, consumers are now faced with the highest gasoline prices in close to a decade, explosive price increases for food, housing, cars and more.
  3. Our political system has disintegrated into emotionally charged polarities of left and right, both of which seem to have dramatized their own understandings of the responsibilities of a democratic form of government.

Emotional Currents Are Gaining Headway

Crime is rising across the nation, with mass shooting incidents at an all-time high. The hope is that things are improving, but Americans are operating in a confusing cloud of emotion (similar to what is described as the “fog of war”) struggling to get a clear view of what some call “the new normal.” It is easy to see that consumers’ attitudes, views, and actions are more emotionally charged than ever, and that heightened emotional states should be factored into doing business, at least for the near term.

A Playbook for Understanding Emotions

We humans like to think of ourselves as highly intelligent, rational beings, who navigate reality primarily based on free will and self-determination. In reality, much of what humans do is largely driven by emotions, and in many instances, these emotions are influenced by chemicals produced within our own bodies. These chemicals include 50 or so hormones (produced by the endocrine glands), neurotransmitters and neuropeptides, and other attitude- and/or behavior-influencing components. These chemicals have a great impact on many activities, including sexual attraction, bonding between mothers and infants, the ability to defend ourselves when threatened, and the ability or inability to handle stress. And yes, even a positive rush from shopping.

Here are some of the key chemicals produced in the body that affect human emotion and of which businesses serving the public need to be aware in terms of marketing, communications, store design and emotional empathy with stakeholders.

  • Adrenaline—or epinephrine, the “fight-or-flight” hormone. It is produced when the part of the brain known as the amygdala senses danger. It is one of the most primitive of all the bodies’ chemicals, and it has played a key role in preservation of the human species, dating back to earliest times, as it heightens awareness and increases strength and stamina during times of crisis.
  • Cortisol—is a steroid hormone, called the “stress hormone.” It prepares you to overcome threats but can be harmful if production is increased long-term.
  • Dopamine—is known as the “feel good” neurotransmitter and is closely associated with pleasure and reward. It acts like a drug, producing pleasurable feelings when certain activities take place (or in some instances, are even anticipated), and encourages repetition of dopamine-producing behaviors. An uncontrolled thirst for dopamine “hits” can play a role in human addiction to illegal drugs, as well as to gambling, sex, eating, social media use, and more.
  • Oxytocin—increases trust, enhances social interactions, and provides the potential for familial and social bonding.
  • Serotonin—is produced by nerve cells and is a natural mood stabilizer, which can enhance mental happiness and physical health. Low levels of serotonin can lead to depression.

Stores Are Stages for Emotional Interplay

By understanding how emotion influences shoppers, retailers can set the stage for positive experiences.  For example, every time a customer has a pleasant shopping experience, a dopamine spike rewards her by making her feel good, and soon she wants to repeat that experience.  Retailers can seek to promote positive chemical responses and avoid negative ones.

Here is a checklist of simple, actionable strategies to maximize positive emotions.

  1. Do whatever it takes to ensure that the physical shopping environment is safe and does not contain stressful distractions—remember that the store starts in the parking lot and includes restrooms, lighting, cleanliness/sanitation, merchandise organization, etc. Shoppers fighting a cortisol surge to mitigate stress caused by being in your store are not likely to stay long or to buy much.
  2. Today’s emotionally challenged shoppers prefer an organized and accommodating in-store environment, where they know what to expect, can get useful information, and where their expectations are fulfilled. Many retailers can benefit from creating environments that are a respite from the outside world’s worry and stress. Store design and visual merchandising can help create the right environment, along with mood enhancers such as flowers/plants, fragrance diffusers, pleasing graphics, music, and food offerings.
  3. Many negative store experiences involve some form of personal contact that results in disagreement, insult, or outright conflict. And today’s shopper, once insulted, is not coming back and will probably go on social to share her experience. Reclaim one of the oldest retail doctrines: The customer is always right [even when she isn’t]. Store staffs must reflect happiness and helpfulness to the customer. Ensure the frontline workers avoid any form of discrimination, political views, or disrespect. Amp up training of store personnel in soft skills to help younger employees develop people skills and be comfortable in one-on-one personal interactions.
  4. There is nothing worse than a store with empty shelves as stock levels decrease. There is a huge opportunity to draw shoppers back into the store with offerings that are more unique and exciting than what is featured online. As highly successful TJX Companies, parent of TJ Maxx and Home Goods, has figured out, customers delight in a treasure hunt and in discovering the unexpected—a direct route to a dopamine high.



Scroll to Top
the Daily Report

Insights + Interviews right to your inbox.