Compulsive Buying on the Internet: Recent Research

Are you addicted to eBay? Do you overshop at Amazon? Have you found yourself spending a lot of time on the Internet comparing prices?

Instant access, whether from home or office, has created an easy and hassle-free shopping experience, enticing unprecedented numbers into the online shopping world. Current research suggests that at least two out of every three Internet users buy online, with the figure possibly as high as nine in ten. And how many of these online buyers overshop? In a recent UCLA internet report, 20% of the respondents say they spend more online than they intended. From half the world away, in South Korea, comes a similar finding: an exploratory survey with Korean consumers identifies 17% of Internet shoppers as having compulsive buying tendencies.

Certainly, some of the seductiveness of Internet shopping lies in the actual buying transaction, which is often streamlined to only a few mouse clicks: it’s so remote from the traditional handing over of cash that it just doesn’t “feel like” spending money. But for online overshoppers—as for other overshoppers—personality issues are the primary driver. In a 2007 study, “When a Better Self is Only a Button Click Away: Associations Between Materialistic Values, Emotional and Identity-Related Buying Motives, and Compulsive Buying Tendency Online,” Dittmar, Long, and Bond show that materialistic values, coupled with the desires to become an idealized version of oneself or to enhance or regulate moods, are the dominant predictors of online compulsive buying. Both of these desires are related to an individual’s interest in self-improvement and self-repair, so the authors suggest that retail therapy “may not simply be about wanting to feel better in an affective sense, but also about wanting to feel better specifically about one’s self.” Not surprisingly, the more strongly an individual endorses materialistic values, the higher his or her reported compulsive buying tendency online.

In a second study, the same authors report that 9.5% of the 126 college students surveyed reported dysfunctional online buying tendencies, a prevalence consistent with other studies examining compulsive buying in college students and young adults. Curiously, in this study men were twice as likely as women to buy compulsively, although the small sample size makes any conclusions premature. Exactly as one might expect, greater Internet use was associated with increased online compulsive buying.

In both studies, respondents reported that it was easier to spend money they hadn’t meant to when shopping on the Internet than in conventional buying environments. Apparently the Internet is a new and riskier forum for the “retail therapy” more commonly associated with stores and shops.

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