fb-pixel

Reviews to consider. Coupons to find. For many online shoppers, FOBO is real

Like many others, Heather Mitus faces anxiety when shopping online because of the vast array of choices — “fear of better options,” the experts call it.
Like many others, Heather Mitus faces anxiety when shopping online because of the vast array of choices — “fear of better options,” the experts call it.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Sometimes, late at night after her husband has fallen asleep, Heather Mitus looks up from her laptop and realizes she’s fallen down the rabbit hole again.

Clicking doggedly in the dark, she toggles between multiple tabs as she surveys the vast landscape of online retail.

Right now, the 34-year-old has a daunting shopping agenda, and time is short. Presents for the holidays, furnishings for her home renovation, and a slew of new baby products — times two — as she prepares for the arrival of her twins.

But knowing she needs things and actually buying them is another story.

For Mitus and many like her, every online purchase leads into a bewildering warren: There are reviews to consider. Coupon codes to hunt down. Is the product soft enough? Safe enough? Will it last? What if there’s something better out there somewhere?

Advertisement



“I’d say there’s an 85 percent chance I’m going to hate whatever I pick,” said Mitus, who lives in Middleton. “I’ve been looking at toaster ovens for at least three days.”

And on Amazon, she has about 5,000 to choose from.

Online shopping was supposed to make things easy. And for some people it’s exactly that: point, click and move on with your life. But as the Internet teems with more and more stuff — one recent report found that global manufacturing output has risen 75 percent since 2007 — it has spurred an e-commerce arms race, with even mega-retailers Target and Walmart scrambling to compete with Amazon’s depth of offerings.

All that choice can be overwhelming. For shoppers like Mitus, every venture carries the risk of paralysis, a concept that has been dubbed FOBO — or the fear of better options.

Heather Mitus, pregnant with twins, is not only shopping for them: She’s involved in a home renovation and is doing her holiday shopping online. She often returns things because she rethinks her purchases.
Heather Mitus, pregnant with twins, is not only shopping for them: She’s involved in a home renovation and is doing her holiday shopping online. She often returns things because she rethinks her purchases.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

FOBO is cousin to FOMO, or fear of missing out, and both phrases were coined by the venture capitalist Patrick McGinnis, who first identified them as a student at Harvard Business School back in 2004.

While FOMO had its moment early in the decade, FOBO has been on the rise as of late. In a recent interview, McGinnis recalled that he and his classmates “lived in a world of maybes and were paralyzed at the prospect of actually committing to something, out of fear that we might be choosing something that wasn’t the absolutely perfect option.”

Advertisement



That’s a high standard, especially around the holidays, when FOBO often kicks into high gear. Sarah Winawer-Wetzel, 36, is suffering from an acute case. She keeps a running list of gifts that she plans to buy for friends and family throughout the year, but can’t seem to make much progress.

“There are so many compounding factors when you’re trying to be a good gift-giver, both for the person you’re shopping for and being good to your budget and your priorities,” she said.

Every choice brings more questions. Can she buy her gift from a black-owned business? Does the item have free shipping? She uses three browser plug-ins to help her find coupon codes for the lowest prices. She spends hours looking through hundreds of digital photos before uploading them to photo printing sites, searching for just the right one.

“Decision fatigue is a real thing. It makes what is a fun and thoughtful experience often feel very overwhelming,” she said. She and others are quick to note that the perils of choice are a product of privilege, a problem many people would be happy to have.

“It’s an embarrassment of riches, we’re so lucky to be able to buy gifts,” she said. “But it can feel like work.”

Advertisement



Psychologists who study decision-making call the stress that arises from having too many options “choice overload.” Thomas Saltsman, a graduate student at the University of Buffalo, believes that younger generations that have grown up with the Web may feel this paralysis more acutely, particularly since people usually feel more confident with their decisions as they age.

Saltsman said his research was inspired by his own difficulty with decisions.

“Basically every place I turned I felt like there were more options than I could conceivably consider,” he acknowledged. “I’d be really paralyzed by the decision and unhappy with what I got.”

In a recent paper published in the journal Biological Psychology, Saltsman and his university colleague Mark Seery, an associate professor of psychology, studied people’s stress responses as they examined online dating profiles. As people were faced with making decisions, many reported negative physical and emotional outcomes. When they felt less capable about making a decision, their heart beat faster, and their arteries constricted. The more frustration they felt during the process, the more regret they had with their final decision, which makes the struggle worse next time around.

It’s a vicious cycle.

“People often desire more choices, and they think they can make a better decision,” Saltsman said. “But people can feel overwhelmed with an unlimited amount of time and resources.”

.   .   .

Here, dear reader, I should own up to something in the interest of full disclosure: I suffer from FOBO and cannot make a single purchase online without spending hours weighing every possible option. This isn’t just a story, it’s a cry for help.

Advertisement



It turns out, I’m not alone. In my search for sources, the question prompted a series of bewildered responses from Globe colleagues. One copped to such sartorial uncertainty that he spent a year picking out items on a men’s clothing site, only to realize, after he finally made a purchase, that he bought everything he had placed in his cart, thousands of dollars worth of items.

Another friend confessed to researching bed frames, for a mattress he doesn’t own, at 3 a.m.

A close friend said FOBO symptoms described her husband, David Kantrowitz, to a tee.

“I always have to look at absolutely everything,” Kantrowitz, 35, admitted just seconds after picking up the line. “It’s not a price thing — sometimes a toaster can be just as difficult as something much more expensive. I spend hours researching measuring spoons.”

To prove his point, he pulled up his recent purchase history on Amazon. It had taken him two hours to decide on the right wood hangers, he recalled. Kitchen cabinet pulls took several more.

“USB flash drives, that was very difficult,” he recalled grimly. “If you lose all of your data that’s really bad. It’s not a lot of money but a disproportionate amount of research.”

Several FOBO sufferers also said that online shopping’s impact on the environment — streets clogged with delivery vans, carbon emissions, and questionable working conditions — adds to their stress.

“The fact is that these things are made in the cheapest places with the lowest labor standards and lowest environmental standards and are shipped at multiple stages and that none of those costs are reflected in the price” is a problem that many shoppers have managed to largely disassociate themselves from, says Beth DeSombre, a professor of environmental studies at Wellesley College and the author of “Why Good People Do Bad Environmental Things.”

Advertisement



But that’s starting to change.

DeSombre said she’s guilty of FOBO herself. In a recent fit of indecision, she ordered five pairs of running mittens online and ended up keeping them all. That kind of thing doesn’t happen when she shops in a physical store, and it’s inspired her to shop locally.

Winawer-Wetzel agreed. In an age of exhaustive consumer reviews, gut instinct still has its place.

“Sometimes it’s easier going into a store and saying well I don’t know 200 people’s opinions,” she said. “But it looks like it’s good, and it’s in my hand.”


Janelle Nanos can be reached at janelle.nanos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @janellenanos.