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 that hot to be honest, but it was better than nothing,” she says. At least it was an excuse to persuade people. In the summer of 2021, she decided to get rid of it – she thought there would still be a market for it, as Covid-19 was still with us, as was the Boston cold.
It turns out no one wanted it. She’s been trying to sell and even give away the device for almost a year, and she’s had absolutely no bites. In the Buy Nothing group she’s in, everyone just needs to pick it up. “No one is even interested,” said Crilly, an archivist for the city of Boston. “People don’t even like the post.”
Crilly is hardly alone. Many people sit around their homes and apartments, weighing their pandemic purchases — sometimes the house or apartment itself — and wondering, “Huh, what was I thinking?” Think of it as a Covid-specific taste of buyer’s remorse.
In need, many consumers tend to throw money at their problems. Especially during the early days of the pandemic, there was all this pressure to improve 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 thinking about who they are and who they would like to be,” said Ross Steinman, a psychology professor at Widener University who focuses on consumer behavior. “And as people, especially Americans, consumerism is an important aspect of who we are.”
Some buyers begin to look back on their purchases and wish they hadn’t. Take a look 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 platoon bike” have gradually increased over the past year.
Crilly says she doesn’t exactly regret the patio heater. But it now stands in her basement, where it will remain for the foreseeable future. “I don’t want to go back to that period either,” she says.
Almost everyone has a story about a questionable pandemic purchase. Some are trivial, such as a board game that is now unused, or a pair of roller skates. Others are ambitious, such as a treadmill or bread machine. Others carry more weight.
Doreen falls into the latter camp – she and her husband have a new dog. (Doreen is a pseudonym. Vox granted her anonymity to speak candidly about her situation, because people can get pretty excited about dogs.)
Doreen and her husband, both retired, bought a puppy in the spring of 2021. They would have preferred a rescue dog, as they had with their previous pets, but there weren’t many available. Now, over a year later, the dog has foiled their retirement plans. They have lost their spontaneity and the ability to move quickly. Doreen’s husband worries “the dog will be lonely” if they leave him alone for more than a few hours. It doesn’t do well in the car, meaning all plans for a cross-country road trip are out. The dog is cute, but he’s bigger than they thought he would be. “I look at this dog and think 15 years of my life, what will I be like when this dog finally kicks the bucket?” she says.
She would never give up on the dog – 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 get a little annoyed by it and wonder if they made the right choice given how much time, energy and money the dog needs in their lives at this point. “Dogs are always toddlers.”
When we think about buying regrets, “we look back at our past consumer behavior and consumer decisions, and ultimately we think there would have been a better outcome if we had made a different choice,” Steinman says. For Doreen, the outcome would have been very different from what she looks down on for years to come.
Indeed, many people who have made significant pandemic purchases are experiencing real regret. There’s been a litany of stories of people wishing they’d thought twice before buying a new home, with multiple polls showing that more than two-thirds of new homebuyers regretted it. The same goes for stories of 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, explains Aparna Labroo, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. They thought that remote work would go on forever or that social outings would be permanently depressed. People moved to the suburbs because they thought they would never want to commute back to the city again. They were given pets without thinking ahead about what that would mean once travel was resumed. “Some purchases would have been appropriate at the time they were made,” Labroe says, “not so much if conditions changed again.”
Not everyone’s purchase was as drastic as Doreen’s, or ultimately as petty 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 bikes, or as he calls them, “modern hipster bikes” in 2020. They were bored at home, saw some guys on YouTube talking about it and kept noticing the bikes around. “Maybe a bicycle is the answer to our happiness,” he thought. Moreover, he had known a man from Holland who cycled a lot, and maybe he would be the type to cycle to cafes and bookstores, just to develop a whole new facet of his personality.
So the couple spent hundreds of dollars on the bikes, plus helmets, plus locks. Avery, a former high school teacher who had just graduated from college, paid to have a tow bar installed on the back of his car so they could lug the bikes around town. After a few rides, they realized LA isn’t the best for cycling, with the traffic and the hills and the heat. He has used the tow bar exactly once.
He took a few Instagram photos out of the bike, but otherwise it’s just sitting in the garage. “I hate looking at it because it reminds us that we probably wasted a lot of money,” he says. He’s considered selling it second hand, but he just can’t bear the loss. ‘Should I sell it for a third of the price and take the L? Part of me is like, “We’ll use it eventually,” but I know we won’t.
I’ve talked to many people about pandemic purchases that they now regret. Most people approach these missteps with a sense of humor and take it off as some sort of whoops.
“I hate my air fryer,” one woman told me. She had heard it would be useful for ‘everything’, but other than frozen chips, she doesn’t see the point. “When I heat up a pizza slice, the air blows it upside down. It’s loud, hard to clean, it’s a giant spherical device that takes up half my countertop and it scares my dog,” she wrote in an email. “The day I realized my toaster oven has a convection setting was the day I realized I’d been.”
Alex Tolford, who works in human resources for a Florida hospital, says he “definitely went a little crazy and needed stuff for activities” during the pandemic, and it turned out most of it wasn’t helpful to him. Amid his pandemic purchases — many of which he was able to get rid of — were a Peloton bike, a PlayStation 5, and an iPad. Only the iPad remains in his possession. A few of his friends were able to buy boats, and while he may have envied them then, not so much now. They “were on their boat two to three times a week, and now it’s been once a month since they’ve been back in the office.”
Other than the missing money, there is nothing special 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 you do it in moderation, of course.” It can help people feel more in control and distract them from their fears, among other benefits. Of course, impulse buying and compulsive buying are more problematic, because the emotional release people get can be unhealthy.
Also, the boost consumers get from buying doesn’t last forever, and eventually the shine of what’s new will wear off as well. People “may regret these ‘pacifier’ purchases later on,” Labroe says.
A look at Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace would indicate that many people are not that impressed with their Pelotons. I recently came across an ad for one for sale in Brooklyn that was a year old and was advertised by the seller as “lightly used, that’s why I’m selling”. Peloton’s becoming less trendy was one of the company’s problems, but even for people who love their bikes and use them often (I’m one of them), there’s a limit to how many Pelotons you’ll buy, and that’s one.
Still, it’s worth asking why we’re like that, why we see buying as a way of feeling something. Shopping can trigger the 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 emotional by nature.
In addition to shopping, we so often try to solve problems with our wallets – something that is becoming increasingly difficult with rising costs of almost all types of goods and services. On a personal level, this could mean buying something crazy that we’ll use a few times. On a broader level, it can translate into trying to vote with our dollars by choosing one modestly better company over another. Or we buy as an act of patriotism. During the early days of the pandemic, as at so many other times in American history, consumers were told that it was, in fact, their patriotic duty to try to buy their way to a better economy. (Ironically, the best thing consumers can probably do for the economy right now is slow down their purchases to curb inflation.)
Two and a half years later, we certainly didn’t buy ourselves out of the pandemic, but some of us did buy a little joy.
Avery got an espresso machine, which he says “lifted my coffee obsession to the next level”. He has learned a lot about coffee, which he is very proud of. Still, his general mood on the bikes is just, ugh. “We were in the middle of this pandemic and were looking for something to fill the gap,” he says. “The bike was a purchase that we were a little crazy about.”