A recent study done by a market research firm Rakuten Intelligence found that since the pandemic started there has been a sudden rise in online shopping. Ecommerce spending in the U.S. is up more than 30 percent since the beginning of March. Ecommerce is booming, and Silicon Valley’s’ richest such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are getting even richer while the pandemic gets worse. Compulsive buying among consumers has become a very real phenomenon in the United States since coronavirus came to town. It splits fairly equally along gender lines: 6% of women and 5% of men. The overall trend reveals that under life in quarantine people who are fortunate to have jobs are spending more than before. There has been a slight change in focus as people are more motivated on buying entertainment products and books as most people are homebound now. The initial phase of buying in bulk and stockpiling in groceries and other items has lessened a bit. The supply chain has been rocked by the pandemic, the crisis seems to be over, and it remains operational in full force.

Let us not be fooled that we are only buying essentials. The quintessential proverb that women and shopping go hand in hand might sound like a cliché. Is this statement a myth, or does it connote an actual reality in today’s global, urban culture? With the evolution of digital commerce, compulsive buying especially now has increased at an alarming rate. It has gotten easier and faster now to find things that one is looking for. Shopping nowadays has become as easy as baking an apple pie. While the literature on global trends in obsessive shopping is still growing, there is increasing evidence that overconsumption affects a significant number of shoppers, particularly women, across the world – in America, Europe, Asia and Africa.

The leading consumer data analytics firm Amperity tracks consumer spending. It recorded, “huge plunges in spending in the first full week of April on ‘home, jewelry, and leisure’ and ‘fashion and apparel’.” The numbers are not same as it used to be but it is still huge. During the pandemic women including myself are buying things nonstop. We are at times making hasty decisions in buying things that we do not actually need right now. My recent acquisition of a Prada purse during the pandemic might seem bizarre to some people. The superfluous spending on a luxury item can fall under impulsive buying. I, of course, will not agree with this as I have convinced myself that as long as it (such purchases) doesn’t become a pattern, I am not a compulsive buyer. My rationale is: I always wanted a black Prada and I bought it with the hope that there will be a better and normal future. So why not get ready for it in anticipation? Does this make me a “romantic shopper” like the Chinese consumers?  Perhaps. “How else does one explain the shopping craze witnessed in China on the first day of reopening a single Hermès store clocked in $2.7 million in sales?” Qubit reported, “A 2% rise in luxury spending in late March even as fast-fashion sales plunged 40%. The theory of buying less but better is what causing this increase in sales of luxury items.”

Though women have a tendency to spend more on shopping than men – some men can be worse than women. For example, British rock star Sir Elton John has recently admitted that in less than two years, he had spent almost 40M lbs. on shopping. Though, there are major differences in how men and women shop. In 2013, a survey was conducted in Britain of 2000 people, assessing whether men and women shop with the same things in mind. The survey found that women look for a great bargain; they take a long time in choosing a color, checking out the label, the fiber contents and going in the dressing room to try out the outfit. After spending about two hours – more often than not they decide to forgo the search, and start it all over again. Men, on the other hand become bored after twenty-six minutes, on average, into their shopping.

The numbers of compulsive shoppers are ubiquitously on the rise as this fever has become a global phenomenon. In countries with rapidly growing economies, like China, adult women are famously becoming hooked on shopping and acquiring the latest designer goods. In South Asia, this movement is also catching on. In Bangladesh and India, women are reportedly working hard to keep up in their search for the latest saris, lehengas, stylish salwar suits, and pieces of jewellery in trendy boutiques and stores. Many women are enticed by the newly arrived online boutiques and cannot resist the unique shopping experience. High-end women’s designer fashions and the ambience in a new store or an array of online display ads attract many urban women to make frequent purchases.

Compulsive shoppers or the shopaholics’ motto is: whatever it is, we want it. They want the latest trendy clothes, designer accessories, or the latest must-have fad – no matter where in the world it comes from, or whatever the cost might be. To the shopaholic, shopping is not a frivolous, fun activity. They become obsessed with buying things. Their spending sprees, which can get out of hand, create serious financial and emotional distress, for the entire family. It has the potential to create a lethal whirlwind in a household — like a ship getting caught in a sudden storm. As a result, often the entire family suffers for one member’s hidden addiction.

Women have a tendency to spend more on shopping than men. However, there are major differences in how men and women shop. A survey was conducted in Britain of 2000 people, assessing whether men and women shop with the same things in mind. The findings were that women look for a great bargain; they take a long time in choosing a color, checking out the label, the fiber contents and going in the dressing room to try out the outfit. After spending about two hours — more often than not they decide to forgo the search, and start it all over again. Men, on the other hand become bored after twenty-six minutes, on average, into their shopping. When ordering online they spend way less time than women. Most men do not like shopping with their partners, and many avoid doing so at any cost. Women take a lot of time in selecting an item, whereas a man selects an item within the first few minutes.

Is obsessive shopping a hobby taken too far, or an addiction? Whether it is a woman’s own money, family inheritance share, or the money comes from the spousal joint account – a lot of women love to spend money in buying things that they do not actually need or really want. There are constant TV commercials, and endless shopping deals that are being offered to the consumers. The online shopping is available 24/7, and most women today have access to a PC or an iPad. Some even enjoy shopping using their iPhone.

Experts on shopaholics’ behavior believe that there are many underlying problems that trigger shopping addiction. We need to dig a little deeper here, and try to peel away the layers to see what else we can uncover behind shopaholics’ unusual spending. Psychologists call this addiction “Compulsive Buying Disorder.” The medical term used to describe shopaholics is called “Omnimonia.” This disorder can fall under irrational behavior, and possesses the same characteristics of that of a gambler, drug addict or a binge eater – people who are unable to control a sudden impulse.

Throughout the year, my mailbox is jammed with glossy flyers from many department stores promoting upcoming sales. My inbox is filled with announcements of upcoming super sales and new promotions. Now the stores have gone one step further since many are not going to the enclosed shopping malls now. I have heard from a friend how one particular store calls her at home lately to update her on the sales so that she can get the best pick. This kind of marketing strategy is a form of aggression, which more and more stores will adapt in no time. The personal phone call is a somewhat a new trend to deceive a buyer into thinking that she is a very valued customer. Such manipulation on the part of the seller makes a good and trusting consumer duped into charging away.

When an impulsive purchase becomes an obsession – it is the very first sign that one might be grappling with a very serious condition. Shopaholics are not occasional impulsive buyers. When they are in a department store, or searching on the internet, they can immediately spot the latest fashion – a watch, purse, and jewelry gleaming in display cases. While checking it out — they are also on the lookout for a pair of perfect black suede shoes that will go with a newly purchased outfit, for Sunday dinner at a friend’s house. All the while, they might be cheerfully thinking about how their designer ensemble will add a dash to their sophistication, and how they will be the envy of that group. It is this ‘high’ or the thrill of having material stuff that makes life exciting. Perhaps a shopaholic lives to feel that experience.

Continuous purchasing of new items gives people an “adrenaline rush.” According to experts quoted in the Huffington Post, “dopamine, a brain chemical associated with pleasure, is often released in waves as shoppers see a desirable item & consider buying it.” Such burst of sudden excitement can become very addictive for many. The compulsion becomes so intense that they max out their credit cards and get new ones with high interest rates. They often are unable to pay the monthly minimum payments and go into huge debt. I once read an article where a woman took out a second mortgage on her home in order to support her shopping addiction. She did this without consulting her spouse since the house was in her name — a gift from her own parents.

Most women who indulge in abnormal shopping sprees try to rationalise their spending beyond their means as normal behavior. Working women might justify their spending habits as well-deserved special treatment; if no one else is pampering them – that is the least they can do for themselves to boost their ego. Or, they might simply say: I earned it, and I have the right to spend it. Single women are another case: they might reason that they need to look sharp, smart and available, and to keep up with ever-changing fashion trends means constant shopping. Otherwise, potential life partners might not pay attention to them. They convince themselves that keeping up with appearances will be a big pay off when they can hook the most eligible bachelors in town. With that possibility on the horizon, they shop to look their best.

Each woman’s reasons for spending are quite different from another. There are no set causes; often each story is sadder than the one before. Compulsive shopping is usually associated with other issues, such as depression, mood disorders, eating disorders, substance abuse problems, loneliness, social isolation (a huge factor during the coronavirus pandemic), low self-esteem, job pressure, divorce and hordes of relationship issues. They may look for validation from a spouse, boyfriend, friends, or even from co-workers. Wearing a particular designer number makes them feel good, temporarily. A shopaholic has a thousand different ways to justify her/his indulgence and why they continuously buy things.

Initially, shopaholics cover their tracks very well. It might start as buying one pair of designer jeans, the latest purse made by Gucci or Louis Vuitton, or a $575.00 pair of Jimmy Choo shoes. Most shopaholic women are particularly vulnerable to shoes and designer handbags. Triggered by the desire to fill some kind of void, traumatic event or just to feel good, the shopaholics immerse themselves in material things. They show zero regard for their finances. Sometimes having a simple argument, originating from the pressures of daily life, can trigger that impulse to go on the Internet to surf their favorite online sites.

More often than not, shopaholics are under huge psychological pressure to avoid getting caught. Even if they try very hard, they cannot curb their spending. Sometimes they bring new items into the house when no one is around, and hide things in their attics or deep in their daughters’ closets so that no one can make the discovery. The compulsive shoppers are often on edge if they cannot swipe their credit cards on a daily basis. If they are unable to shop during the day, at night when everyone is asleep, they go online and order things. They may spend countless hours on eBay, betting for a $600 dollar, Italian leather summer sandal that they may not even wear.

Shopaholics become very good at rationalizing their behavior and just about any purchase if they are cornered or challenged. Sooner or later such habits catch up with them though. The unsuspecting spouses go through severe shock when they find out. Sometimes families have to declare bankruptcy because they cannot pay the bills that their wives/husbands had hiked up without their knowledge. Marriages fall apart, divorce becomes a real possibility – couples lose their family homes to the banks. Debt collectors keep on calling them from morning until late at night. Children suffer because of a rude awakening that the family they knew as theirs is no longer there because of a shopaholic parent.

Zeenat Khan is a freelance writer and columnist. She writes on current social problems, concerns, and issues requiring public debate in bringing social change. She lives is Maryland, USA


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