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Why do shopping podcasts sound so good now?

By now, it’s become abundantly clear that one way people have weathered the pandemic is through retail therapy — whether that meant hoarding toilet paper to assuage fears of scarcity or doubling down on their tracksuits to agree to a new work-from-home, do-anything-from-home lifestyle. The supply chain has responded by sputtering and groaning under the weight of countless orders for desks, sofas and kitchenware. Skincare routines have become more elaborate, houseplants have spread and Peloton bikes have rolled into bedrooms and home gyms all over the world. In short, shopping has helped many of us deal with uncertainty, boredom and, in many cases, anxiety.

And so there’s a huge crop of podcasts around shopping and product recommendations, all of which started during or just before the pandemic, including Lemonada Media’s Add to Cart, hosted by Kulap Vilaysack and SuChin Pak, Gee Thanks, Just Bought It!, hosted by Caroline Moss, Oh, I Like That, hosted by Rachel Wilkerson Miller and Sally Tamarkin, POOG, hosted by Kate Berlant and Jacqueline Novak, and Forever35, hosted by Kate Spencer and Doree Shafrir. While every podcast is a little different — some are more focused on actual products to buy than others — the common thread is that shopping is a very personal, layered act that goes way beyond the checkout.

We all shop for emotional reasons from time to time, if not most of the time. Maybe you buy shoes to stave off an empty feeling or to spice up another evening at home. Or you grab another throw pillow to distract yourself from dissatisfaction in your relationship. Regardless of the reason, the result is often a quick hit of feel-good dopamine neurotransmitters that help manage the pleasure and reward centers of the brain, says Adam Borland, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic. “While shopping, the brain reacts to finding that bright and shiny new item (whether we ‘need’ it or just ‘want it’) and will come back repeatedly to experience that same rush or high,” he says, adding later. “Finding an item on sale can generate a sense of excitement and instant gratification, helping the individual rationalize the purchase.”

And with online shopping comes the added thrill of anticipation — awaiting the arrival of a package that, in turn, releases dopamine into the brain, Borland says. In fact, science has sought to quantify how shopping can change how we feel. According to a 2014 study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, people who shopped immediately reported positive feelings, and the experience of doing so also helped ward off feelings of sadness. It seems that making a purchase gives us the feeling of being in control of our lives – that we are in the driver’s seat. The same study also found that 79 percent of people who could buy something felt some sense of power. Sure, just looking for things can be fun, but the research shows that those who actually bought things rated themselves nearly three times less sad afterward compared to the browsers.

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While every podcast is a little different…the common thread is that shopping is a very personal, layered act that goes way beyond the checkout.

This is exactly where listening to podcasts about shopping comes in, because while they are very much about what you would want to buy, why we often buy is just as (if not more interesting). Though sometimes written off or belittled as the domain of the feminine and frivolous, shopping can also be very meaningful. Kate Spencer, co-host of the podcast Forever35, who along with co-host Doree Shafrir helped launch Gee Thanks on Black Friday 2019, agrees. “Shopping — and talking about shopping — can be an expression of our desires and our beliefs, especially when you start thinking about who makes a product and what the ethos behind that brand is,” she says.

Even before she started hosting the podcast Gee Thanks, Caroline Moss had built a reputation as a very discerning shopper. Those who enjoyed her delicious #WireCaro content on Twitter were early listeners of Gee Thanks, which offers Wirecutter-level analysis of products you might want to try — and potentially change your life — but with a lot more humor, attitude. and a side of armchair psychoanalysis. But the lockdowns gave it all new relevance and meaning. “For a while, shopping was one of the few things we could do,” Moss notes, “and you can learn a lot about yourself and about other people through what comforts them.” Unsurprisingly, a very active Facebook group of savvy shoppers has grown out of the Gee Thanks podcast. (A recent thread involved dozens of listeners—aka “Geezers”—trying to help a desperate bride-to-be search for a specific wedding dress that had been accidentally sold to someone else.)

About Add to Cart – “a show about what we buy and what we buy in” is a popular catchphrase – Pak and Vilaysack bring an intimate, comedic, rat-a-tat rhythm to their recommendations, which range from a cheap but lifelike – changing toothbrush that can give you what Vilaysack calls “glass teeth” among the very best socks for sleeping (a Pak must-have). But in a sense, the items “are really just a conversation starter — a way to give importance to what seems unimportant if you don’t dig deeper,” Vilaysack says. Each episode also includes a “Remove from Cart” segment, where the hosts or guests can talk about something (whether it’s an item or even just a concept) that isn’t worth the investment or feels reprehensible, financially or otherwise. Two recent ‘removals’: using paper towels instead of cute cloth napkins and abortion restrictions.

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While a knee-jerk view of shopping may be superficial, “what people buy—for better or for worse—is an expression of our needs and our values,” says Oh, I Like That’s Miller. “Sometimes the needs are quite literal, and sometimes the needs are deeper and more about who we want to be.”

There’s also a much-needed water cooler in discussions of shopping that so many people crave, Pak says, especially at a time when in-person events and office conversations were limited. “Shopping is very social,” says Pak. “That circuit isn’t complete until I tell someone.”

Not that shopping podcasts are just for materialists or those who can rattle their credit card numbers out of their heads. In fact, Miller feels that her podcast is a place that doesn’t force consumption, but sometimes questions it. “I feel a moral obligation to be conscientious in not forcing stuff buying as a solution to any problem. Sometimes that’s the solution – if your problem is, for example, you don’t have a trash can – but I’m wary of forcing too many things on people, because people are becoming more and more aware of how they spend money.’

The thing is, you don’t even have to press “place order” to get a shopping shiver. According to Borland, the hunt may be more fun than the actual purchase itself. “Whether it’s searching various websites for availability, the best price, or searching the shelves in a store, the experience of simply finding the item can be a pleasurable one,” he says. Add free shipping and now we’ve got it for real.

The best shopping podcasts to listen to right now

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