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The pandemic impulse purchases we grew to hate

From Pelotons to pets, the Covid buys people wish they’d left on the shelves.

Amid Covid-19 pandemic social distancing and mask-wearing restrictions and requirements, beach-goers take a boat ride with their dogs on a sunny summer day off Santa Catalina Island, California, on August 11, 2020.
Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Emily Stewart covered business and economics for Vox and wrote the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Marta Crilly has come to despise her outdoor patio heater. She bought it in the late summer of 2020, hoping it would allow her to host some outdoor gatherings before the Boston winter really hit. “It wasn’t honestly that warm, but it was better than nothing,” she says. At least it was an excuse to get people over. In the summer of 2021, she decided to get rid of it — she figured there’d still be a market for it, since Covid-19 was still with us, as would soon be the Boston cold.

Turns out nobody wanted it. She’s been trying to sell the device and even give it away for nearly a year, and she’s had absolutely zero bites. In the Buy Nothing group she’s in, all anyone would have to do is come pick it up. “Nobody’s even interested,” says Crilly, an archivist for the city of Boston. “People don’t even like the post.”

Crilly is hardly alone. Plenty of people are sitting around their houses and apartments, weighing their pandemic purchases — sometimes the house or apartment itself — and wondering, “Huh, what was I thinking?” Consider it a Covid-specific flavor of buyer’s remorse.

When in distress, a lot of consumers are inclined to throw money at their problems. During the early days of the pandemic especially, there was all this pressure to better ourselves, or at least channel our energy somewhere, which in our society often translates to buying stuff.

“It gave people an opportunity to spend some time to reflect on who they are and who they would like to be,” says Ross Steinman, a psychology professor at Widener University who focuses on consumer behavior. “And as human beings, especially Americans, consumerism is a key aspect of who we are.”

Some buyers have started to look back on their purchases and wish they hadn’t made them. Take a peek at secondary marketplaces online and you can see a plethora of items such as Pelotons and bicycles that were hot commodities just a year or two ago. Google searches for “sell bike” and “sell Peloton bike” have gradually crept up over the past year.

Crilly says she doesn’t exactly regret the patio heater. But it now sits in her basement, where it will stay for the foreseeable future. “I also don’t want to revisit that period,” she says.

Practically everybody has a story of a questionable pandemic buy. Some are trivial, such as a board game that’s now unused, or a pair of roller skates. Others are aspirational, like a treadmill or a bread machine. Others carry more weight.

Doreen falls in the last camp — she and her husband got a new dog. (Doreen is a pseudonym. Vox granted her anonymity to speak frankly about her situation because people can get pretty wound up about dogs.)

Doreen and her husband, both retired, bought a puppy in the spring of 2021. They would have preferred to get a rescue dog, as they’d done with their previous pets, but there weren’t many available. Now, more than a year later, the dog has foiled their retirement plans. They’ve lost their spontaneity and ability to go places at the drop of a hat. Doreen’s husband worries “the dog is going to be quote-unquote lonely” if they leave it alone for more than a few hours. It doesn’t do well in the car, meaning any plans for a cross-country road trip are out. The dog is cute, but it is bigger than they thought it would be. “I’m looking at this dog and thinking 15 years of my life, what am I going to be like when this dog finally kicks the bucket?” she says.

She would never give the dog up — she doesn’t think that would be the right thing to do. “It’s not a Peloton, it has feelings, and the dog is very attached,” she says. Still, she can’t help but resent it a little and wonder whether they made the right choice, given how much time, energy, and money the dog requires at this moment in their lives. “Dogs are always toddlers.”

When we think about purchase regret, “we’re looking back at our past consumer behaviors and consumer decisions, and ultimately, we believe a better outcome would have occurred if we made a different choice,” Steinman says. For Doreen, the outcome would have been very different from what she’s currently staring down in the years to come.

Many people who made significant pandemic purchases are indeed experiencing real regret. There has been a litany of stories about people who wish they’d thought twice before buying a new home, with multiple polls showing over two-thirds of new homebuyers feeling remorseful. The same goes for stories about people returning their pandemic pets, especially amid current levels of inflation.

Some consumers may have overestimated how long the duration of their changed circumstances would last, Aparna Labroo, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, explains. They thought fully remote work would go on forever or that social outings would be permanently depressed. People moved to the suburbs thinking they would never want to commute back to the city. They got pets without thinking ahead to what that meant once travel picked back up. “Some purchases would have been apt at the time they were made,” Labroo says, “not so much when circumstances changed again.”

Not everyone’s purchase was as life-changing as Doreen’s, or as ultimately insignificant as Crilly’s. For Michael Avery in Los Angeles, his purchase was more of an ambition that didn’t quite work out.

Avery and his partner bought brand new Solé bicycles, or as he refers to them, “modern hipster bikes,” in 2020. They were bored at home, saw some guys on YouTube talking about them, and kept noticing the bikes around. “Maybe a bike will be the answer to our happiness,” he thought. Plus, he’d known a guy from the Netherlands who biked a lot, and maybe he would be the type to bike to cafes and bookstores, just develop a whole new facet of his personality.

So the pair spent hundreds of dollars on the bikes, plus helmets, plus locks. Avery, a former high school teacher who just completed a degree in higher education, paid to get a hitch installed on the back of his car so they could tote the bikes around town. After a few goes, they realized LA isn’t the most conducive for biking, what with the traffic and the hills and the heat. He used the hitch exactly one time.

He’s gotten a couple of Instagram pictures out of the bike, but otherwise, it just sits in the garage. “I hate looking at it because it’s a reminder that we probably wasted a lot of money,” he says. He’s looked into selling it used, but he just can’t stomach the loss. “Am I supposed to sell it for one-third of the price and take the L? Part of me is like, ‘We will use it eventually,’ but I know we won’t.”

I’ve talked to many people about pandemic purchases they now regret. Most people approach these missteps with a sense of humor, shrugging it off as a bit of an oops.

“I hate my air fryer,” one woman told me. She’d heard it would be useful for “everything,” but beyond frozen French fries, she doesn’t see the point. “When I reheat a pizza slice, the air blows it upside down. It’s loud, hard to clean, it’s a giant bulbous appliance that takes up half my counter and it freaks my dog out,” she wrote in an email. “The day I realized my toaster oven has a convection setting was the day I realized I’d been had.”

Alex Tolford, who works in human resources for a hospital in Florida, says he “definitely went a little stir crazy and needed stuff for activities” during the pandemic, and it turns out most of it wasn’t useful to him. Amid his pandemic buys — many of which he’s been able to get rid of — were a Peloton bike, a PlayStation 5, and an iPad. Only the iPad remains in his possession. A couple of his friends were able to buy boats, and while he might have envied them at the time, not so much now. They “were out on their boat two to three times a week, and now, it’s once a month since they’re back to the office.”

Beyond the missing cash, there’s nothing particularly bad about buying something to make yourself feel better. Research shows that buying can cheer people up. Clinical psychologist Scott Bea told the Cleveland Clinic that “there’s actually a lot of psychological and therapeutic value when you’re shopping — if done in moderation, of course.” It can help people feel more in control, and distract them from their anxieties, among other benefits. To be sure, impulse buying and compulsive buying are more problematic, as the emotional release people get can be unhealthy.

Also, the boost consumers get from buying doesn’t last forever, and eventually, the shine on whatever new thing wears off. People “can come to regret these ‘pacifier’ purchases later,” Labroo says.

A glance at Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace would indicate that many people are not so impressed with their Pelotons. I recently came across an ad for one for sale in Brooklyn that was one year old and advertised as “lightly used, hence why I’m selling” by the seller. Peloton becoming less trendy has been one of the company’s woes, but even for people who like their bikes and use them often (I am one of them), there’s a limit to how many Pelotons you’re going to buy, which is one.

Still, it’s worth interrogating why we’re like this, why we see buying as a means of feeling anything at all. Shopping can trigger a release of dopamine, a brain chemical that makes you feel good. Buying things for other people is also a mood-booster, research shows. Money is inherently emotional.

Beyond shopping, we so often find ourselves trying to solve problems with our wallets — something that’s increasingly difficult to do with rising costs of nearly every kind of good and service. On a personal level, this can mean buying something silly we’ll use a handful of times. On a broader level, it can translate to trying to vote with our dollars by choosing one modestly better corporation over another. Or we buy as an act of patriotism. During the early days of the pandemic, as in so many other moments of American history, consumers were told it was basically their patriotic duty to try to buy their way to a better economy. (Ironically, the best thing consumers could probably do now for the economy is slow their buying to curb inflation.)

Two and a half years in, we certainly didn’t buy ourselves out of the pandemic, but some of us did buy a little bit of joy.

Avery got an espresso machine, which he says “took my coffee obsession to the next level.” He learned a lot about coffee, which he feels very proud of. Still, on the bikes, his overall mood is just, ugh. “We were in the middle of this pandemic and looking for something to fill the hole,” he says. “The bike was a purchase where we were kind of insane.”

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