A consuming addiction

January 2, 1998

People have 75 per cent more cash to spend than they did 20 years ago, turning shopping from a utilitarian into a leisure activity. But there are pitfalls such as debt and addiction to buying. Chris Johnston reports

shopping used to be nothing more than a way of obtaining food, clothing and other necessaties of life. Today, however, shopping symbolises the materialistic culture of western society and its popularity as a leisure activity reflects the rise of consumerism.

This has been made possible by the 75 per cent increase in personal disposable income in the past 20 years. The number of credit cards in use has more than quadrupled, and the amount of outstanding consumer debt has almost tripled in the same period.

Having more money has meant spending patterns have changed. While traditional models of economic behaviour assume that consumers are rational and weigh up the costs and benefits before making a purchase, anyone who has ever walked into a shop and left five minutes later with a new jacket and Pounds 80 less in their wallet knows that this theory does not always hold true.

Helga Dittmar, senior lecturer in psychology at Sussex University's school of social science, has found that consumer goods are the material symbols of who a person is and who they would like to be.

Her research on consumer behaviour identified impulsive buying as an attempt by shoppers to bolster their self-image, particularly for those who suffered from so-called compulsive buying or shopping addiction, a condition that affects 2 to 5 per cent of adults in the West.

The three-year study, part of the Economic and Social Research Council's Economic Beliefs and Behaviour programme, compared excessive buyers to a similar group of ordinary consumers. Excessive shoppers were more materialistic and believed that buying goods was a pathway to success, happiness and identity. "Excessive buying is a coping strategy to fill the gaps between how shoppers feel about themselves and the person they want to be," Dr Dittmar said.

Although there were other ways of dealing with poor self-image, such as over-exercising or alcoholism, she said that shopping had become one of the most important coping strategies. This was especially true for women, who were three times more likely to be compulsive shoppers than men, as shopping was a socially approved activity and allowed those who do not go out to work to get out of the house, Dr Dittmar said.

Her research also reveals that certain types of goods are more likely to be bought on impulse than others. Those most frequently reported - clothes, jewellery and ornaments - are closely related to self-image and appearance.

This finding is contrary to usual theories about impulse shopping, which explain it as short-term gratification winning out over longer-term concerns, such as debt.

Dr Dittmar said the idea that consumers' impulsiveness differed depending on the type of goods was also supported by the finding that shoppers were less willing to delay gratification for items often bought on impulse.

In other words, respondents were more willing to wait for "low impulse" goods, such as kitchenware, than they were for clothes or other "high impulse" items.

However, it was found that some of the 60 consumers asked to maintain a shopping diary for the study often regretted their impulsive purchases. Dr Dittmar said: "When people had explicitly bought for self-image reasons, regret was more likely to occur."

But this finding was ambiguous because shopping addicts were more motivated by self-image than ordinary shoppers and were more likely to regret their actions. "It's not quite clear which way around this relationship goes, but there is a link between being very concerned with self-image goods and regretting impulse buying."

The conclusions drawn by Dr Dittmar from her research raise questions over the methods used to help compulsive shoppers.

She said that prescribing anti-depressant drugs might solve the problem, but only as long as sufferers continued to take them. Instead, they needed therapeutic help to address the underlying causes such as poor self-image.

Although advertisers and retailers increasingly appeal to consumers' self-image, Dr Dittmar said it was very difficult to argue that these factors were responsible for compulsive shopping.

"In no sense do these people directly force anyone to buy anything. But they are very sophisticated, making advertisements and shopping environments very seductive and playing on the idea that if you buy product X you will be much more attractive."

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