The Art And Science Of Making Embarrassing Purchases More Private

These are amazing times to be a consumer who suffers from retail embarrassment. Both science and digital technology are making it easier — much easier — to buy certain products without having to show your face, or without attracting too much attention.

No, we aren’t talking about drugs or stolen goods or other illegal products or purchases that anyone with enough determination can procure online. We’re talking about more mundane items that range from certain types of personal hygiene products, over-the-counter medicine and weird things like cat brushes — even toilet paper that some people once had to horse trade asking another person to buy for them in a physical store — that they can now by online, embarrassment-free.

Profit and Embarrassment

To point out the obvious, online retail sites and even some marketplaces have made the ability to buy such products as painless as the process can possibly be. And profit-generating.

One website, in fact, offers serious tips about “How to Make Money Selling Embarrassing Products on eBay.” The list of possible money-makers in that article include: “pregnancy tests, ovulation kits, clinical strength deodorants (for extreme body odor), toenail fungus liquid, wart removal systems, hemorrhoid creams, menstruation and  menopause products, sexual wellness items, jock itch and athlete’s foot products.”

The list goes on, and you get the point.

How to sell such items on an online marketplace?

First, get into the mindset of the buyer — which means that some consumers would pay a premium to buy something online rather than show up in a physical store wearing a hat, fake nose and mustache and dark glasses to purchase it. “It is not unusual for consumers to pay three times retail for a particular product online because of the privacy factor.”

But that’s not all. Market research comes in handy when evaluating the profit potential of retail embarrassment.

Sellers, the site goes on to say, can easily source embarrassing products from grocery stores, drug stores, closeout stores like Big Lots, at auctions, estate sales, garage sales and flea markets. It seems that items too awkward for consumers to buy in-store with other people standing behind them in line, staring as they making their way down the conveyor belt, end up in those clearance sections — and offer real clues into what people might want to buy, just not in a store.

Insights into Retail Embarrassment

One study of retail embarrassment found that it can have serious consequences beyond potentially lost sales.

An article that sums up the study suggests that rather than wait in line and — at least from their perspective – in judgment of others, some consumers decide to use a five-finger discount to obtain those items.

Instead of locking up those items behind the counter and forcing consumers to ask for them, some retailers are experimenting with vending machines inside stores that stock those items. The study’s authors posit that having such products in in-store vending machines results in a sale, while at the same time reducing theft.

Earlier this year, a study in the Harvard Business Review also suggested that retailers not use pricey end cap displays to hawk items that consumers might be a little uneasy about buying. Drawing attention to items that consumers are shy about buying, science says, is just generally a bad idea.

(Did we actually need a study to conclude this?)

That’s good news for brands that can save the money, but bad news for retailers that cash in on those displays. Despite it all, certain products do exist that consumers just find too embarrassing, it seems, to buy in public — regardless of how anonymous and private retailers make it. For instance, researchers found that men often reported being embarrassed to buy toilet paper. The hypothesis about why?

“Males only use toilet paper for one thing, so they get self-conscious about buying it.”

Good news — they can always shop online.



The How We Shop Report, a PYMNTS collaboration with PayPal, aims to understand how consumers of all ages and incomes are shifting to shopping and paying online in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Our research builds on a series of studies conducted since March, surveying more than 16,000 consumers on how their shopping habits and payments preferences are changing as the crisis continues. This report focuses on our latest survey of 2,163 respondents and examines how their increased appetite for online commerce and digital touchless methods, such as QR codes, contactless cards and digital wallets, is poised to shape the post-pandemic economy.