Buying Is Only a Click (Oops!) Away

Is online shopping addictive? It can be. So are auction sites. There's even a term for it: "ebay addiction."

Spending thousands of dollars used to take some effort. You had to get dressed. Get out of the house. Make eye contact. Count change. It could take days. Weeks, even.

But getting and spending are easier online, and the membrane between impulse and purchase has grown thinner. Web sites draw surfers toward the shoals of indebtedness, offering novelty, speed, convenience, bargains, unlimited hours, coupons, new deals daily, limited sales tax and helpful suggestions from other shoppers. Simply click on Buy Now, and pay later.

As the credit card bills of history's biggest, most touted holiday E-commerce season are coming due and accruing double-digit interest, Internet surfers are shopping before breakfast, shopping alone and picking up an extra book or three -- causing some of them to wind up hiding the resulting credit card bills from their spouses. How did these people get hooked? What is so compelling about the Internet marketplace?

Although online shopping still amounts to only a tiny fraction of all retail sales -- 1 percent of consumer sales, according to Joseph Vause, vice president for electronic commerce at Visa USA -- it is expected to match the current catalogue and mail-order share of the market by 2003. And with 99 percent of Internet sales conducted with plastic, compared with 20 percent of conventional sales, the potential to run up a credit card bill is significantly higher.

The temptation to spend money online can be even harder to resist when a Web surfer taps into the excitement of an auction.

"Ebay is definitely addictive!" Jane Brasovan of The Woodlands, Tex., said via e-mail. She estimated that she had bought 1,500 to 2,000 items, most of them antiques and dolls, on the Ebay auction site.

"I am trying to stop this addictive cycle at the present time," she continued, "as I've spent far too much money and now have a houseful of 'things' that I would probably be better off without!"

In a phone interview, she added: "It's hard to stop. I've tried stopping, but I don't do too well. You get kind of carried away, bidding on something, and when somebody outbids you, you get mad because they outbid you. You go in and bid and know darned well you shouldn't. Sometimes you feel like saying, 'You're not going to get that if I can't get it.' " Ms. Brasovan said she had spent up to six or seven hours at a stretch on the Ebay site.

Allison Ector, editor and publisher of Covert Shoppers Anonymous, an online compendium of Web bargains, figures that she spends $800 a month online, far more than she used to spend when driving to stores near her home in West Chester, Pa.

"It's just clicking buttons," she said, "and it's easy to say, 'Well, I'll worry about this next month when I get the bill.' " She has found herself playing an economies-of-scale game with shipping and handling charges. "When I get to the end of that shopping cart transaction, I've often hit the Back button, gone back and purchased more things, to make it cost effective," she said.

It may be hard to find online shopaholics who have become so hooked on new-media marketing that they have resorted to pilfering from their children's college funds or have moved back to their parents'.

But there are many people, particularly at the auction sites, who find themselves powerless in the face of items for sale online.

Debbie Lunden, who collects McCoy kitchenware from the 1940's and 1950's, signs on to Ebay once a day to see what is being auctioned.

"For years I had been looking for a teapot," said Ms. Lunden, director of the McKean County Planning Commission in Pennsylvania. "I knew there had to be one." In October, she found one, and the closing bids were due at 5 A.M.

"I set the alarm and was up at 4:45 in the morning, thinking, 'That gives me 15 minutes to get connected,' " she said. She panicked when she discovered that her husband had packed away the laptop, but she got online in time to buy the teapot, plus a creamer and sugar bowl, for $97, including shipping -- "a real buy," she said. Ms. Lunden lives in Bradford, Pa., population about 9,600, where the shopping possibilities are limited.

"It was something I really had to have," she said of the teapot. "I'm not a person to get up in the middle of the night, but I had to because that's when the bidding was. I had to make a sacrifice, and it was worth it."

"I'm totally addicted to just surfing thousands of items on Ebay," Gib Bergman, a cook in Sutersville, Pa., wrote via e-mail. Bergman, a shopper who has bid on scores of items, including knives, Beanie Babies and Elvis memorabilia, at Ebay, continued: "And it is so easy to spend money that you don't have just laying around. It's worse than being an alcoholic -- an obsessive gambler is more like it."

"I'm pretty much an addict," Bergman added. His wife, Helen, used to be able to restrain him from buying, he said, but no more. "I used to go to flea markets," he said. "You'd see stuff and she'd say, 'That's too much,' but here I'm here by myself. I'll put a bid in on something and later say to her, 'Guess what I got?' It's just like a candy store -- it is very addictive." In 10 years of conventional shopping he could never have acquired the number of Elvis items he has been able to buy via Ebay, he said.

Experts on credit and commerce readily recognize the seductions of E-commerce. Kimberly S. Young, founder of the Center for Online Addiction in Bradford, Pa., said the auction sites were exciting -- shopping as entertainment.

"When you're the winner, that's reinforcing," she said. "For that moment, you're engaged, it gives you a favorable high. You're completely absorbed in this, and it's kind of an escape mechanism. You start to think, 'What else do I need?' "

Sometimes clicking fingers take over where the brain leaves off, said Wayne S. DeSarbo, a marketing professor at Pennsylvania State University. "There's so little time to think about what you're doing and rationalize it," he said. "As the result of just a few keystrokes, you're done and gone. For the compulsive shopper, this would provide a quick and easy fix from the stress and anxiety of everyday life. It's a temporary high one gets from shopping.

There's little time for rationalization."

Bill Furmanski, a spokesman for the National Foundation for Consumer Credit, said it could be easier to buy impulsively online than off. "In the mall, it's easier to recommend that you put an item down and walk away, and see if you still need it at the end of your trip, to ease the impulse purchases you make," he said. "On the Internet, it's not as easy. Maybe you should sign off first, and it will still be there when you sign back on."

Splurges online appear to differ from splurges off line. People watching the Home Shopping Network might end up with many lifetime supplies of cubic zirconia and Ginzu knives. But wired shoppers talk sheepishly of their "Amazon problems": a tendency to spend more at than they had budgeted for books, software and CD's, items that are, if you rationalize carefully, inherently useful for self-improvement.

Many aspects of the Internet encourage impulsive or compulsive buying.

"You're alone, and kind of nobody sees what you're doing," said the founder of Spenders Anonymous, a support group in Minneapolis, speaking on the condition of anonymity, "and when you're into your addiction, you want it that way." For shy people, an Internet auction provides welcome anonymity.

"For a lot of people that are shy -- not the competitive people who go to auction houses and compete with real people -- it's a much safer domain," said Dr. Young, who is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford. "It's anonymous, it's private, and there is a sense of winning."

The Internet can also empower shoppers, said Austan Goolsbee, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Chicago, giving them the benefits of haggling and comparison shopping without making them take the chance of offending anyone face to face.

"You would feel kind of self-conscious asking someone at an airline to run through 100 scenarios for a flight you want to take," he said, so travelers can fiddle with schedules or destination cities more easily online. "And where you're comparison shopping, it oftentimes makes people feel a little bad for walking out of the store." But no Web site is going to call a person rude for heading elsewhere for a better bargain.

Offering power to the consumer can be the Internet's most effective way to lure buyers.

"Consumers are now in control, and it is so compelling" said Donna Hoffman, a professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University. "It's not the lack of sales tax, not the convenience, not the potential economic savings, that makes online shopping attractive. It's just the chance to be in control.

The balance of power between business and the consumer has shifted radically. If you're the business, you're no longer in 100 percent control."

Electronic shoppers want convenience, and they want it now. Where they can get it, they're willing to pay for it, plus shipping and handling.

"The modern analogy is the minibar in your hotel room," said Jerry Kaplan, a co-founder of, a discount retailer. "Would you usually pay $2 for a Diet Coke? Absolutely not. But in the minibar in the hotel room, you're more likely to go for it. Here you have people sitting at a computer all day, and a lot of sales take place. They're discretionary purchases due to convenience, where you've eliminated the cost of physically going out and shopping."

Source: NY Times

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APA Reference
Staff, H. (2008, December 27). Buying Is Only a Click (Oops!) Away, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 19 from

Last Updated: June 24, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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