International pop star Rihanna was once quoted in an interview, “Making music is like shopping for me. Every song is like a new pair of shoes.” The pop star was on point— the recent launch of her line of cosmetics (culled from her last name) was a hit among beauty gurus and makeup lovers worldwide. Women snapped up bottles of foundation, highlighter and lip gloss from Rihanna’s line almost immediately.
And as the shopping season moves into full-swing with the holidays, the thrill of buying that much-coveted item or snagging a product on sale will be heightened.
“Shopping gives us a rush. There’s a positive emotion, the feeling of pleasure after buying an item, especially if it is something you’ve been wanting to have for a long time,” says psychiatrist Dr. Maria Bernadette Arcena.
Arcena says the thrill of shopping—even the occasional impulse buy—is perfectly fine and normal. However, when that positive emotion turns into an urge that you find irresistible and hard to suppress, it may be a sign of a more serious problem.
Impulsive vs Compulsive buying
Experts define impulsive buying as something unplanned and spur-of-the-moment, and usually triggered by an object of interest. Emotions play a role in the decision to buy the item. Arcena says the occasional impulse buy is relatively harmless. Of course, when done excessively can lead to financial trouble.
Compulsive buying, on the other hand, is triggered by the irresistible and uncontrollable urge to shop.
“The feeling of pleasure, the elation is in the act of buying and not necessarily with the item itself. When the purchase has been made, usually, the individual ends up feeling distressed or guilty,” she says.
According to a 2006 study from Stanford University in the American Journal of Psychiatry, about six percent of women and five percent of men are compulsive buyers.
The consequences of compulsive buying can be devastating to the individual and even their loved ones. A person pre-occupied with this kind of behavior will spend less and less time with family or friends. This behavior can also lead to serious financial problems such as bankruptcy, defaulted loans, a ruined credit history, theft or embezzlement of money, causing a devastating impact to one’s relationship with family or friends.
While compulsive buying is not a mental disorder by itself, this type of behavior could be a symptom of a much deeper psychiatric disorder such as substance abuse, bipolar disorder, or depression.
This becomes even more relevant now that a Philippine Mental Health bill is being discussed at length and is awaiting passage into law.
Signs of compulsive
An individual suffering from this kind of behavior usually becomes anxious while shopping. Dr. Arcena attributes this to the individual’s knowledge that he or she is already spending more than what he or she can afford.
“A compulsive shopper also tends to seek reassurance or flaunt their capacity to buy,” Arcena explains.
During the point of sale, an individual may also appear restless. There is a high tendency to use more than one credit card, to accommodate their purchase. People with this kind of behavior also spend an unusual amount of time in a single store. Other signs include shopping when a person is angry or lonely, hoarding or buying enormous amounts of products and hiding these purchases from friends or family.
Paradoxically, compulsive buying can be harmful to retailers because a core symptom of compulsive buying is an intense feeling of buyer’s remorse.
Buyer’s remorse creates high incidence of product return and negative views about the retailer and can even lead to feelings of victimization attributed to the retailer.
In the United States, product returns have had adverse effects on businesses. Researchers have estimated that manufacturers and retailers spend more than US$100 billion (or more than P5 trillion) each year on return-related logistics, an average loss in revenues of nearly 4 percent per year.
Healthy retail, happy customers
“As a retailer, returns and complaints are not good for business. What we strive for is a healthy retail experience where we can cultivate relationships with our customers,” shares entrepreneur Yuval Mann.
Mann believes retailers have the responsibility to ensure their sales personnel are educated on how to approach customers when buying products. “Sales personnel can create a happy and healthy experience, especially for first-time buyers, by trying to turn them into repeat buyers and not go for the one-time big-time sale,” he adds.
Some key signs of compulsive buying that retailers should look out for include first-time customers making excessive purchases that seem to be for personal consumption. The average first-time customer will tend to buy a few products to try. Whereas an individual with this kind of behavior will buy products well more than what an average person will buy in terms of quantity and variety.
Mann believes the best trait a retailer can have is compassion and sincerity when dealing with their customers. This, he says, is the surest way to have happy and satisfied customers.
When dealing with customers with this kind of behavior, Mann does not recommend being confrontational, nor outright discouraging them to buy. Rather sales personnel can modify their approach by taking time to know the customer, encourage them to try and buy the products they are most interested in and then encourage them to come back and visit again. This way, the chances of a customer having buyer’s remorse, returns, or complaints is minimized.
Arcena, for her part, says families and friends also play a crucial role in helping individuals with compulsive buying behavior. “Encourage the person to adopt a new activity or hobby. Have someone accompany that person when shopping. If possible, purchase using cash instead of credit or debit cards.”
It is also best to advise the individual to seek help by talking to an expert to have a better understanding of what he or she is going through. Arcena says, people who are experiencing these symptoms need not feel alone, because treatment is available.