Buying clothes online but getting it wrong triggers a complex series of emotions that closely resemble the grief cycle, new research has found.  While most unlikely to be as intense as mourning, the cycle of emotions that afflict a disappointed shopper can be mapped easily against the accepted Kübler-Ross model for the ‘five stages of grief’.  Understanding this cycle offers insights to online clothing retailers, which may be able to take action to limit ‘brand damage’, researchers suggest.

86% of shoppers surveyed described symptoms of ‘grief’ according to research conducted for virtual fitting room provider and retail psychology expert, Phillip Adcock.   By answering questions on their feelings, behaviour and actions followed the purchase of an item of clothing that doesn’t fit, consumers revealed a cycle of emotions comprising Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance – with risk of brand damage at each stage.  As with mourning, some people will travel through all five stages, while others may experience just depression and acceptance for example.

57% of people feel Anger at themselves for buying an item of clothing without trying it on , while 21% felt Anger at the retailer for not meeting their expectations.

67% of women experienced Denial, compared to just 50% of men.  Half of all women (49%) said that they would try it on more than once in an effort to make it fit, while 38% held on to the item while they were trying to lose weight. There are significant differences in the way different age groups manage grief too: 25% of 18-34 year olds would do everything possible to squeeze in to the garment, while only 9% of over 55s would do the same.

Retail psychology expert Phillip Adcock, managing director at Shopping Behaviour Xplained, describes the experience: “The first thing to note is that this study applies uniquely to clothes shopping.  Unlike buying, say, an iPod, buying clothing is intensely subjective; people tend to buy something because they love it or feel it suits them.  This is a very personal judgement, not the result of a particular technical specification.

“The study therefore applies to fit above all else.  People accept, for example, that the colour may be different from what they saw on a screen, while it’s obvious that a shopper can’t handle the fabric itself when shopping online.  But people definitely tend to blame themselves for clothes not fitting properly.  Women, in particular, are affected by fit failures – as a result, they spend longer in Denial than men.  They move on terribly slowly to Bargaining, such as seeking further opinions or trying various accessories to improve the look. Men are much more like to enter the Anger phase, expressing frustration with the retailer or the situation.”

“At each stage their feeling towards the brand is less than positive: think of phases like Denial, Bargaining and Anger and words like ‘disbelief’, ‘puzzlement’, ‘frustration’ or ‘anger’ make perfect sense.”


The research also revealed that the average British shopper has 5 items of clothing hanging in their wardrobe that don’t fit, worth an estimated average of £110.

Peter Rankin, VP Sales for, said: “Vanity sizing plays a major role in the volume of items purchased in the wrong size. While retailers may find some benefit to flattering consumers with this labelling, the result – as this research shows – is that their online shoppers do not have a good experience if they subsequently buy the wrong size, or something that simply doesn’t suit their body size or shape.  There is evidence in this study of lasting impact on brand perception, suggesting that the cost to the brand goes beyond the physical costs of dealing with returns and may endure for some time.  The moral is: help your shoppers to choose garments that fit them the way they want.”

Retail psychology expert Phillip Adcock agrees that prevention is better than cure, and adds that retailers who understand the grief process could use it to create some highly targeted communications from a retailer to the shopper.  “Obviously, no brand wants to disappoint a customer.  But if a retailer knew that a customer had been disappointed, and was most likely to be experiencing grief, think of the possibilities for following that up: the brand could almost come across as a close friend who understood what the shopper was going through, turning a negative experience into something positive after all.”


58% of all consumers experience some feelings of Denial. 25-34 year old women are most likely to try an item of clothing on several times before dismissing it, while 17% are prepared to wear the item of clothing even if they are not happy with it.


71% of shoppers feel a sense of Anger.  While two in ten expressed anger at the retailer, 57% of people felt angry at themselves for being the ‘wrong’ shape or not trying it on before purchase. 25% took action by complaining to the retailer or telling their friends to avoid the store in future.


The Bargaining stage is the phase of rationalisation, in which attempts are made to relieve the feelings of Denial or Anger that have been felt. Although it is experienced by 51% of people, it is commonly bypassed – but it is important to retailers as this is the point at which the shopper is seeking a solution to the problem.


An important phase of deep grief, typically 75% of shoppers reach this stage. Women are most vulnerable to shopper Depression (85% compared to 64% of men) which includes being upset for not being the right shape or size to fit the garment.


Acceptance is the stage where people typically take action.  They either decide to move on or to rectify the issue.  A very large majority of people (86%) eventually reach this stage.

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