I’ve never been a mall rat, even when I was a teenager. In fact, I used to have pretty severe physical reactions whenever I spent more than an hour in a clothing store. It all started when I was about five and my mother, whose patience for bargain hunting equals that of a Labrador retriever waiting for food scraps to fall from the dinner table, began dragging me around with her on her marathon shopping excursions. As she rifled gleefully through rack after rack of dresses and coats, I’d become woozy and sweaty, my legs would drag, and I’d beg her to take me home. Despite the severity of my malaise, my mom never complied with my requests—the woman was like a heat-seeking missile in her quest to find the perfect outfit at the perfect price.
Even now, decades later, my shopping “allergy” pops up here and there, especially in crowded megastores, but I’ve learned to fight it when I need to power through my holiday gift buying or get a week’s worth of groceries on a Saturday. I’ve also realized that there’s a full spectrum of shopping personalities out there, from rabid consumers for whom retail therapy is a full-time pursuit to undercover buyers who become best friends with their UPS driver because they make all their purchases online. Most people fall somewhere in the middle of this range—we make lists and mostly stick to them, we save for big purchases, and we know when to rein ourselves in—but a number of other shopping personalities exist as well.
As of 2006, according to the American Journal of Psychiatry, approximately 6 percent of the U.S. population falls under this psychologically troubled category. By far the most destructive form of shopping, compulsive-buying disorder can be as addictive as alcohol or drugs, says Dr. James Mitchell, chairman of the department of neuroscience at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences. If you’re skeptical, consider the 2006 case of Betty Jean Barachie, a Pennsylvania woman who was sentenced to twenty-seven months in prison as a result of her out-of-control spending habits. As a credit union employee, Barachie earned an annual salary of $40,000—which wasn’t nearly enough to cover the cost of all the purchases she couldn’t resist making. So she embezzled $1.5 million from her employer over an eight-year period and then used the money to buy a staggering array of items, including hundreds of pairs of shoes, fifty-eight coats, and sixteen chain saws.
For Barachie and shoppers like her, binge buying is usually an antidote to psychological stress. Kent State University behavioral economist Paul Albanese explains, “What the person is buying is not important; it’s the act of buying and the relationship with the salesperson that’s giving them relief from the severe anxiety they’re experiencing.” In addition, compulsive shoppers who are on the verge of making a purchase experience a “surge in brain chemicals,” according to April Lane Benson, author of I Shop, Therefore I Am. “It’s the anticipation of pleasure that starts the brain rolling. You can see physical symptoms. People might sweat or their heart races.” Despite their initial excitement, compulsive shoppers often feel ashamed of their purchases later and even hide them, Albanese adds.
Compulsive-buying disorder is a severe condition that can be financially and emotionally devastating for the people who suffer from it, as well as for their loved ones. However, cognitive behavioral therapy and groups like Debtors Anonymous can help curb a shopping addiction, so if you know someone who needs help in this regard, reach out.
While compulsive shoppers are driven by psychological obsession, impulse buyers act on fleeting whims that usually don’t correspond with their retail needs. According to a 2000 survey by the Yankee Group, a couple of primary factors influence people’s decisions to make spontaneous purchases: 75 percent of the respondents cited specials and sale prices as incentives, and 49 percent were motivated by free shipping.
Despite the U.S. recession, a November 2009 ShopSmart magazine poll of adult women revealed that 60 percent of the respondents had bought something on impulse within the past year, and that 15 percent did so habitually. Supporting the Yankee Group’s findings, 42 percent of those women also said that they had made their purchase “because it was a great price or it was on sale.” Ironically, though, the average price of these items was a whopping $108. Maybe that explains why 35 percent of the respondents claimed to regret a spontaneous purchase they’d made in the past twelve months.
Many stores target impulse buyers by positioning small, fun items right by their checkout counters. The urge to throw one of these products into an already full shopping cart can be overpowering, but keep in mind that a few extra bucks can become hundreds in no time.
Thanks to the explosion of the Internet, virtually everything is available for purchase online, and shopping this way is becoming an increasingly popular alternative to in-store commerce. Need a new car? A purebred puppy? A time share? If you have Internet access and a credit card, the world is literally at your fingertips. And some people take this opportunity so seriously that they almost never set foot in a real-life store again.
Bernadette Tracy, an Internet research expert for Media Life magazine, states that 97 percent of online shoppers are motivated largely by the prospect of saving time. In 2007, Nielsen Online concurred that “online shopping’s primary appeal is the convenience it offers,” based on a survey of roughly one thousand consumers. Of those respondents, 81 percent noted that the ability to shop anytime was their impetus for buying online, and 61 percent credited the possibility of comparison shopping.
Online shopping can be tricky—for clothing buyers who can’t try on their purchases beforehand, jewelry collectors who think they’re getting a diamond on eBay and end up with a CZ, and travelers who buy nonrefundable airfare and then have to cancel their trip, for example. But for people who are claustrophobic, chronically busy, or just generally turned off by shopping malls, e-commerce has proven to be a life-changing advancement.
In February 2008, the Boston Globe published an exposé of serial returners, people who try to “beat the system” by engaging regularly in a growing trend known as wardrobing. In the article, self-proclaimed “smart shopper” Jimmy Deignan patted himself on the back for buying—or, as he called it, “renting”—electronic goods, then returning them for a full refund when he no longer needed them. Similarly, many fashion-obsessed women purchase designer clothing specifically for special events and leave the tags on so that they can get their money back when the party’s over.
When the National Retail Federation began monitoring this practice in 2006, 56 percent of merchants were wardrobing victims; only one year later, that figure had increased to 67 percent. As this phenomenon gains ground among greedy shoppers who live beyond their means, some retailers are cracking down by establishing stricter return policies and relying on databases of customers’ returns to identify wardrobers before they can do too much damage. We all fall prey to materialism now and then, but that doesn’t give someone the right to “borrow” a $5,000 gown for her kid’s kindergarten graduation.
Don’t Shop Till You Drop
As with all things, moderation is key when it comes to shopping. Don’t buy what you can’t afford, don’t get up at 4 a.m. every single weekend to be the first in line for blockbuster sales, and don’t spend every free moment browsing the virtual aisles of Amazon.com. Do reward yourself for your accomplishments, but before you pick up an overpriced pair of shoes or a second plasma TV, take a step back and remember that a beautiful hike or a dinner at home with your closest friends may leave you with far happier memories.