Since the Chicago Tribune coined the phrase in a 1986 editorial, stating “We’ve become a nation measuring out our lives in shopping bags and nursing our psychic ills through retail therapy”, shopping with the primary purpose of improving the buyer’s mood or disposition has achieved a certain legitimacy – and has become a contributing factor in out-of-control credit card use leading to bankruptcy.
Shopping for mood enhancement surely contributes to compulsive shopping disorder. There is some evidence that compulsive shoppers experience the same kind of surge in brain chemicals when they anticipate buying something that an alcoholic does when he anticipates drinking.
A research team at Stanford University, conducted a study to determine whether antidepressants classified as selective serotonin uptake inhibitors could curb compulsive shopping behavior. They interviewed 2500 randomly selected adults, scoring them against a standard compulsive buying scale. They classified the 6% who fell more than 2 standard deviations from the mean as suffering from compulsive shopping disorder and noted that behavior as measured by self-evaluation improved with medication. Does this mean only 6% of the American public is addicted to unnecessary shopping as a means of personal gratification? Not necessarily – the real measure of an addiction is whether an individual can voluntarily cease or curtail the behavior or substance in the face of overwhelming evidence that it is doing more harm than good. Judging from the prevalence of out-of-control credit card debt among Americans with stable incomes, the number of addicts may be much higher.
A search under “Retail therapy” on the internet revealed a number of tempting campaigns to encourage irresponsible shopping by tying that shopping to a good cause, a tactic which lottery promoters also use to overcome consumer resistance. A fundraiser in Kansas City raised $1 million for a prominent medical charity by selling $25 cards entitling the holder to a 20% discount at participating retailers. While the actual dollar amount of purchases explicitly tied to charitable campaigns is a small proportion of consumer spending, the high profile of such schemes serves as negative reinforcement for thrift in general – something retailers no doubt count upon when they allow service organizations to peddle coupon books and cookies and trinkets in the mall.
The addict is a marketer’s dream. The addict attaches the highest priority to his “drug” of choice, assigning it a market share ahead of the necessities of daily living, ahead of his or her family, and ahead of a stable financial future. The rush a retail junkie receives from a purchase is short-lived, requiring increasingly frequent fixes. In a world of shopping channels, internet emporia, megastores and easy credit, there is not much room for savoring the contemplation of buying.
Bankruptcy can be viewed as the debtor’s equivalent of an intensive inpatient rehabilitation center for substance abuse. As with substance abuse, some people will be able to get their lives on the right track before reaching this stage. Those in the earlier stages of a financial debacle should be wary, however, of agencies which promise a ‘lite’ solution requiring neither major modification of behavior nor a good faith effort to make good debts that can realistically be paid. Such half measures may produce temporary relief, but allow the person to dig him- or herself into a much deeper hole down the road.