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Published: Sep 12, 2019 6 min read
Tired woman fell asleep while using smartphone in bed at night
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It's well after midnight, and you know you should be asleep. Instead, you're staring at your phone or tablet, buying new towels. Or groceries. Or running shoes. Or a $600 smart TV.

New research that's been covered by the BBC, The Guardian, and other UK media shows a sharp rise in online shopping purchases made after midnight. Specifically, the number of purchases made electronically by UK shoppers between midnight and 6 a.m. increased 23% from 2017 to 2018, according to data collected by credit cards affiliated with the John Lewis department store.

What are people buying so late at night? Duvet covers were among the top searches, along with random purchases ranging from headphones to airline flights.

While the research may seem limited, other retailers and anecdotal evidence indicate that after-midnight online shopping is indeed a huge trend. This is true in the UK and the U.S. alike.

We asked consumer psychologist and Money.com contributor Kit Yarrow to help explain why more people are grabbing their phones by the bedside and online shopping at midnight or later, which we all know is not the time when the best decisions are made.

The main answer, she says, is very simple. "I think the number one reason why people are buying in the wee hours is because they CAN," Yarrow said. "I think they’ve always wanted to, but it hasn’t been until recently that technology and retailer expertise has caught up to consumer desire. Yes, you could buy online a few years ago but it was more challenging than it is today. Today it’s truly seamless and you can shop and buy anywhere — even under covers, in the dark, at 2 a.m. while your husband is sleeping.:"

Remember: It took years for people to grow accustomed to making purchases online with a desktop computer or laptop. It's taken even longer for shoppers to feel comfortable buying stuff with their phones.

But smartphone shopping is certainly hitting its stride lately. U.S. shoppers made over $90 billion in retail purchases on their phones in 2018, compared to only $7.8 billion in 2012. Smartphones were used to make a record-high $2 billion on Black Friday 2018 in the U.S., compared to $1.2 billion on this epic shopping day in 2016, according to Adobe Insights.

After-midnight online shoppers aren't necessarily making impulse purchases. One study shows that roughly 60% of women (and 40% of men) are poor sleepers. Being stressed about one's busy life is a common reason why someone can't fall asleep — or can't fall back asleep after waking in the middle of the night. Believe it or not, sometimes doing some quick post-midnight shopping may actually help you get some shuteye.

Yarrow explained how with a personal anecdote, when she woke up one night at 2 a.m. and remembered she hadn't purchased something for an upcoming party. "I grabbed my phone and presto," she recalled. With the transaction completed and out of her mind, she could get back to her sleep. Yarrow surmised that this is a common example of shoppers buying things after midnight — of "people wanting to clear up their checklists so that they can sleep more soundly."

Then again, sometimes stress can nudge people into shopping for all the wrong reasons, and many after-midnight online purchases are bound to be regretted.

Yarrow has written extensively about how impulse purchases are tied to our moods, and that many people buy stuff with the (usually flawed) idea that the purchases will make us feel better. This is the "ever-popular self-soothing shopping," as she puts it, and this kind of shopping is "more likely to take place at night when people need soothing the most. This can happen when people are lonely, depressed, bored, anxious. It might replace eating a pint of ice cream or having a few belts."

Speaking of which, drunk online shopping is definitely a thing, as demonstrated by multiple studies showing a significant increase in online purchases during certain prime-time drinking hours — in particular, late on Friday nights.

Yarrow's impression is that drunk-shopping (or high-shopping) online is not very common. But she said "it’s for sure increased tremendously since we acquired the ability to shop online and especially on mobile devices."

The one obvious solution to help you avoid regretful late-night online shopping purchases is to remove the temptation as much as possible. That is, before hitting the sack, stash your phone far away from your bed, so that it's out of arms' reach if you can't fall asleep or get hit with insomnia and dawn is still hours away. After all, studies show that staring at screens is bad for sleep in general, no matter if you're scrolling through Instagram or Amazon.