Online Shopping Addiction

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Online Shopping Addiction 

Whether online or in-person, shopping addiction is a behavioural addiction similar to gambling or alcohol addiction. Although people engage in shopping and enjoy it without succumbing to addiction, some develop shopping addiction. 

Other names for shopping addiction include oniomania, shopaholism, impulsive buying, or compulsive buying disorder (CBD). A person with this addiction is referred to as a shopaholic or a compulsive shopper.[1 

Compulsive shoppers exhibit an obsession for shopping. Such a person is preoccupied with buying unneeded items and may have difficulty resisting the urge to purchase such things even though it will result in negative consequences. 

Like most addictions, compulsive shoppers are likely to be in denial. They may try to hide their struggle and make excuses for their behaviour. Yet, left unchecked, shopping addictions can lead to detrimental consequences. 

Understanding shopping addiction 

Shopping addiction is diagnosed as a compulsive buying disorder. Although there is no formal diagnosis of the addiction prescribed by the American psychiatric association or the DSM-V manual, this addiction is recognized as a worldwide problem that affects both genders. 

Like other behavioural addictions, shopping addiction is associated with an imbalance in the brain's reward system.

A person experiences a compulsive desire to buy things constantly, regardless of whether or not they need those items.

The shopping addiction may co-occur with other mental illnesses such as anxiety or depression. Some people engage in compulsive buying to boost their self-esteem. 

Satisfying the desire to shop boosts serotonin and dopamine levels leads to a feel-good experience. 

Online shopping enabled a new way of fuelling addiction. There are cases of people using their breaks or free time from work to shop for unneeded items online.

This behaviour leads to negative consequences such as strained relationships, problems in marriage, debt, and the disruption of life prospects. 

The Digital Information world reports that social media and impulsive shopping have spiked online sales.

The report also shows that 88% of customers who made online shopping were out of funds because of the number of times they shopped unnecessarily [2]. 

Prevalence of compulsive spending 

There is a lack of extensive research on compulsive buying addiction. Also, there are no studies on the prevalence of addiction in developing countries. 

A survey from UK Finder showed that 78.2% of Brits succumbed to impulse buying, with each person spending on average £32.69 per session [2].  

That sums up to about £1.06 billion spent. The study showed that most people make spontaneous purchases a month.

71% of people admitted to impulsive shopping every day, and more than 22.9% divulged that they engage in impulsive shopping sprees every week [2]. That's more than 1 in 5 people. 

The Finder survey proved that men also succumb more shopping sprees than women. More than 66.4% of men admitted impulsive online shopping than women [2].

What's more, men are more likely to exhibit problem shopping (9.4%) compared to women 94.8%0 [2]. 

Compulsive shopping is an addiction that affects young adults. Research shows that young people are more likely to develop a shopping problem [3]. 

One study cites the average age of a shopping addict as 30 [3]. 

Compulsive versus impulsive shopping 

There is a difference between impulsive and compulsive shopping. The former refers to an overwhelming urge to purchase something immediately. A shopper finds a product either online or at a store.

When they spot the product, they immediately become overwhelmed by a desire to buy it even though they were not searching for that product at that point. 

On the other hand, compulsive shopping is not driven by the desire to possess. Instead, the person is overwhelmed by the desire to buy.

Although some researchers categorize compulsive shopping as part of impulse control disorders, the motive leading to the addiction is different. 

Many compulsive shoppers have little interest in the product they are purchasing. Most of them get a surge of feel-good hormones once they buy the product.

When the shopper is not making the purchase, they build up psychological tension and can even develop symptoms of anxiety or depression. 

Types of compulsive buying behaviours 

People with compulsive spending addiction may focus on buying different classes of items. A person may be addicted to buying things such as technology, beauty products, clothing, cars, jewellery, etc.

Others may have a shopping addiction that entails a broad range of products or anything that's on sale. Also, some are addicted to buying clothes.  

People respond differently to addiction, and everyone has their unique journey.

The compulsive shopping phenomenon manifests differently, with some people being addicted to spending money. Some are addicted to online shopping.  

Overall, people with a shopping addiction can be placed in several categories. Although these categories are not medically approved, they help identify the shopping addiction problem. 

The types of compulsive shopping behaviours are as follows: 

  • Bargain-seekers:These people have a shopping habit of actively seeking items on sale. When they spot items for less than their perceived value, they purchase them. This behaviour makes them feel like they are winning and relieves shopping addiction. 
  • Collectors:This shopping addiction entails seeking out different versions of a particular item. The desire to collect or complete a set of similar items drives this addiction. 
  • Show-offs:The compulsive behaviour is driven by the desire to buy high-value items. In some cases, the individual's self-worth or self-esteem is attached to making such purchases. 
  • Trophy-hunters: The shopping addiction is for rare, expensive items. The individual intentionally looks for the most expensive or rarest items and gains satisfaction in buying them. 
  • Shopping bulimics:This shopping addiction is like the eating disorder known as bulimia nervosa. Individuals categorized as shopping bulimics make large, frequent purchases only to request later refunds. They do so to cushion themselves from the financial consequences of making such large purchases. 

The cycle and stages of compulsive shopping  

Compulsive spending tends to follow a cycle. People with shopping addiction experience crave for shopping trips in moments of depression, anger or sadness.

In other cases, the shopping addiction may be triggered during the holiday season. This tendency to go on a shopping spree at certain times is known as binge shopping.  

The compulsive shopping addiction may have ups and downs. It's common for those with shopping addiction to experience a sudden rush or high when they shop.

However, the positive feelings they derive from compulsive buying quickly gets replaced with feelings of regret, shame, or guilt. 

The cycle of shopping addiction entails: 

1. Anticipation: The shopper contemplates possible shopping trips or items at this stage. 

2. Preparation for shopping: The person may create a shopping list, research items, compulsively look online, or talk about the shopping. 

3. Shopping: The person engages in shopping, either online or in person. They may add the items on their online shopping cart or physically pick up the item. 

4. Spending: This is the final act as the shopper pays for the items. 

The stages of addiction entail the commonalities observed in people with compulsive shopping. A 2014 article by Sang-Hee Sohn & Yun-Jung Choi identified five possible consecutive stages of compulsive buying. 

These stages include [4]: 

Phase 1: Retail therapy or shopping therapy 

The person engages in compulsive buying to fill up the emptiness with shopping. The person has developed the habit of shopping to lift their spirits after a bad day. Some enjoy spending their hard-earned money to buy stuff.  

Phase 2: Denial  

The person ignores the overconsumption because of the positive feelings they get from the habit. 

Phase 3: Debt-ridden  

At this stage, the participants in the survey stated that they "ran out of money, while nothing left." People at this phase refuse to confront the negative consequences of their behaviour.

Some throw away the credit card bill to avoid anxiety. The shopping addict convinces themselves that everything is okay. 

Phase 4: Impulsive buying  

People at this stage admitted to "driving oneself to hasty buying. " The compulsive spending is done hastily to avoid missing out on the opportunity to purchase. 

Phase 5: Compulsive buying 

This phase is marked by the statement, "It's crazy, but I cannot stop." The shopping addict acknowledge that their actions are reckless and unreasonable.

Still, they feel that compulsive spending is the only way to cope with loneliness, stress, worry, and anxiety. 

Risk factors for compulsive buying disorder 

Those at risk of developing compulsive buying behaviour are young people. Studies show that compulsive spending behaviour usually starts in late adolescents or early adulthood. The prevalence seems to decline with age.[5] 

Some studies show that women are more like to be addicted to buying shopping disorder than men. A research paper in the World psychiatry journal showed that 80% of people struggling with compulsive shopping are women [6]. 

Another study by Cristiana Nicoli de Mattos, Hyoun S. Kim and others showed gender differences in compulsive spending [7].  

The study also showed that people with compulsive buying disorder are likely to be suffering from other forms of addiction, e.g. sex addiction. 

Another study by Dominica Díeza, Núria Aragay, Mercè Soms, GemmaPrat and others showed that women with compulsive shopping disorder had similar characteristics with those suffering from compulsive gambling [8]. 

Compulsive buyers are at risk of having other addictions such as alcohol abuse or drug addiction. They are also at risk of having mental health issues. 

Like other addictive disorders, family history can play a role in developing compulsive shopping.

People raised in households that had shopping addicts, gambling, or other forms of behavioural addictions are at risk of developing compulsive shopping disorder. 

People battling loneliness, low self-esteem or other personal emotional distress factors are at risk of excessively shopping as a means of coping and emotional fulfilment. 

A personal worldview is another risk factor. Individuals who place a high value on materialism and financial success are likely to succumb to compulsive buying disorder. 

What factors cause compulsive shopping disorder? 

Research into the causes of compulsive shopping disorder is ongoing, and there's a lack of general consensus on what exactly causes this addiction. So far, what is known is that genetic and environmental factors play a role [9]. 

The aspect of nature versus nurture in the role of the family is also well-documented as a causal factor [10]. 

Some researchers identify marketing as a factor leading to compulsive shopping addiction. People are exposed to countless advertising messages via social media, tv, and in their surroundings.

This exposure encourages materialism and creates the desire to buy things. Other researchers state that marketing has a facilitating role, and the underlying cause of the addiction is rooted in other factors such as the role of family and genetic predisposition [10]. 

Some peer-reviewed studies suggest psychological factors have a role to play in the onset of compulsive buying disorder.

The psychological conditions include: 

  • Emotional deprivation in childhood [11]. 
  • Excitement seeking [12]. 
  • Inability to control negative feelings [13]. 
  • Need to fill the inner emptiness or void [4]. 
  • Approval seeking [14]. 
  • Genuinely an impulsive or compulsive buyer [15]. 

Although there's still a need for more research into this addiction, experts believe it is more prevalent in the developed world.

One of the reasons for this is that most of the world's wealth is concentrated in developed nations. People in developed nations have a high purchasing power plus a significant opportunity to spend. 

More research is needed for understanding the causes of compulsive buying behaviour. 

Compulsive shoppers: Short-term and long-term impact 

Compulsive shopping disorder can result in adverse consequences. The short-term consequences include: 

Financial problems: Finances are the first ones to take a hit as the individual amount’s debt quickly. Most people with this addiction end up with feelings of guilt and shame after every spending spree.

What's more, the individual may end up developing deceitful behaviour to avoid conflicts in relationships or at work. 

The long-term consequences of compulsive shopping include significant debt. Compulsive spending can lead to financial ruin and destitution. The life prospects of the individual and their family members can be permanently affected. 

Compulsive spending can trigger the development of other mental health disorders. Research suggests that this addiction may be linked to mood disorders [16].  

The addiction is also closely linked to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), substance use disorder and anxiety. 


Is shopping addiction a mental illness? 

Shopping addiction is recognized as a mental health disorder. It is also closely linked to other mental health issues such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, mood and anxiety disorders [17]. 

Many shopping addicts experience negative emotions such as sadness and anxiety. The only way they can overcome these negative moods is by compulsively shopping.

Similarly, people with bipolar disorder are likely to experience binge shopping during manic states. 

Shopping addiction is not formally recognized as a mental illness. However, many addiction experts and psychiatrists recognize this mental issue that affects the brain like substance abuse and other conditions.

Indulging this addiction leads to an increase in serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain. In some instances, shopping impulse stems from emotional and neurological needs [6]. 

A research review by Donald W. Black in the world psychiatry journal identifies shopping addiction as a mental illness. However, the exact classification for this addiction disorder continues to be debated.  

Some researchers link compulsive shopping to addictive disorders, whereas others associate it with OCD.

Since people with shopping addiction ignore long-term consequences for short-term gratification, some researchers identify compulsive shopping as an impulse control problem. 

Other researchers are against categorizing CBD as a mental illness. They view this as an attempt to "medicalize a behavioural problem [6]. 

What are the signs & symptoms of shopping addiction? 

The signs and symptoms of shopping addiction include: 

Emotional symptoms 

Many people with shopping addiction go to great lengths to hide their addictive behaviour from others. They may do this out of a sense of shame, of fear.

Such individuals may also have concerns about how public knowledge about the addiction may affect their personal or professional lives. 

This secretive behaviour is a sign of shopping addiction. If others learn about the addiction, the individual may feel anxious and become agitated or aggressive.

Concerns about how they spend money, or the situation may make the addict experience distress, despair and other uncomfortable emotions. 

Left unchecked, the shopping addiction may lead to depression, anxiety, insomnia, and other emotional issues. 

Physical symptoms 

People who spend time shopping do not develop any physical symptoms. However, a lack of access to shopping or an inability to purchase can trigger personal distress.

The stress that results from the addiction can lead to symptoms such as muscle spasms, high blood pressure, and other health problems. 

Compulsive shopping is a disorder of the brain's reward system. Similar to other addictions, prolonged involvement in this habit leads the body to tolerance.

Failure to engage certain receptors in the brain by compulsive shopping leads to cravings. 

How do you know if you have a shopping addiction? One of the tools utilized is the Bergen shopping addiction scale. This scale contains criteria that's similar to other addiction assessment tools.

If someone has four out of the seven signs on the scale, they have this addiction. 

The shopaholic symptoms, according to the Bergen scale, are: 

  • Obsessing about shopping all the time 
  • Shopping to improve your mood 
  • Purchasing items to feel the same satisfaction as before. 
  • Buying so much that you're unable to meet your obligations, e.g., at school or work. 
  • You desire to cut back on the shopping but are unable to. 
  • Feeling bad because you're unable to stop. 
  • Purchasing so frequently that it affects your well-being. 

Compulsive shopping and substance addiction 

Some research suggests a possible link between compulsive shopping and substance addiction. However, this link has not yet been established.

The reason behind this link is that people with other forms of addiction are more susceptible to developing other addictions.

It is common for some people with compulsive shopping to do so under the influence of drugs or alcohol. 

How to prevent compulsive shopping? 

It is difficult to prevent compulsive shopping on your own. You can have a relative or a friend make purchases on your behalf, or you can set spending limits.

Still, it will require a lot of discipline, and motivation and commitment from you to overcome this addiction. 

Some of the actions you can take include: 

  • Unsubscribing from retailer emails. 
  • Delete digitally stored credit card numbers. 
  • Limit your access to surplus cash. 
  • Use a debit card to pay for the items you need. 
  • Avoid stores when you have nothing important to buy. 
  • Prepare a list of what you need before you enter the store. 

Treatment for compulsive buying disorder 

There are treatment options for compulsive buying disorder. You can seek treatment at a reputable addiction treatment centre.

Addiction centres utilize a range of therapies such as cognitive behaviour therapy, 12-steps programme, and dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) to treat addiction. 

Other treatment options available include self-help groups such as Shopaholics anonymous or shoppers anonymous. Supportive groups are vital for treatment as they prevent feeling helpless or isolated.

You get to engage with like-minded individuals who are focused on fighting addiction. 

You will be evaluated for psychiatric comorbidity such as mood disorders and mental health as you enter treatment. This is essential as it helps the addiction specialist craft an individualized treatment that suits your needs. 

There is no addiction medicine, and the main treatment approach for this addiction is therapy and group work. You are likely to get medications for psychiatric conditions that co-occur with the shopping addiction, e.g., depression. 

If you or your loved one have an immediate desire to shop regularly, you can gain control of your life today. You can seek treatment by contacting your GP for a proper diagnosis.

Alternatively, you can reach out to us to speak to an appropriate addiction specialist. 

Helping a compulsive shopper 

If you have a loved one who struggles with compulsive shopping, it is possible to help them. You can do this by seeking professional intervention services.

Speaking to someone who is battling with an addiction is not easy. There are cases where conversations end up in tensions and conflicts. 

You can still try to approach your loved one. Just remember to be compassionate and empathetic.

Be careful with your emotions and avoid phrases of shame such as 'you should know better' or 'you're being inconsiderate.' 

You can consult a therapist to learn how best to approach your loved one. Alternatively, you can seek professional intervention services to help you reach out to your loved ones and help them see reason. 

Contact us today to learn more about our intervention services. 

Get help today 

The best way to deal with an addiction is to seek treatment as soon as possible. There are treatment options available for shopping addiction that include a variety of therapies and support groups.

Our treatment facilities are well-prepared to help you overcome a shopping addiction and improve your well-being. 

Reach out to us today to begin your journey towards an addiction-free life. 

Abbeycare Pricing Bot

About the author

Laura Morris

Laura Morris is an experienced clinical practitioner and CQC Registered Manager with over twenty years experience, over ten of which have been as an Independent Nurse Prescriber.

She has held a number of senior leadership roles in the substance use and mental health sector in the NHS, the prison service and in leading social enterprises in the field.

Last Updated: October 31, 2023