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The Unsettling Psychology of an Amazon Prime Addiction

What starts as a convenience for necessities soon becomes a slippery slope of indulgences. But according to Amazon shopping addicts, the feeling they get is unbeatable

We are all in the throes of an Amazon addiction, but some of us are in deep. Some 71 percent of Americans are Amazon Prime members, and about 46 percent buy something once a week from the site. Most of us know what it’s like to go there for some batteries and come away with a miniature Foosball table arriving with free two-day delivery, along with some socks and a bottle of imported Ligurian olive oil.

And then there are those who use the site compulsively enough to readily admit to an addiction they can’t quit.

Recently, writer Nona Willis Aronowitz wrote honestly about her family’s inability to cut off the online giant in spite of the many valid complaints about its poor treatment of workers. It’s not just because her aging father depends heavily on the site for medical supplies, household goods and pharmaceuticals now that he’s suffered a stroke. Or that her sister relied on it for supplies while undergoing chemo when stepping out into a germ-riddled world was ill-advised. She too admits the reliance is tough to quit — she’s “overworked and one-click ordering spares” time.

And yet for others, there’s something else far more emotional than convenience going on: the lure of the browse, the temptation of the add-on, the satisfaction of the purchase, the excitement of the package whisked on its way, and the thrill of its arrival. We might all feel that it’s Christmas every day when an Amazon package arrives (assuming we’re the Christmas-celebrating sort), but some of us feel particularly beholden to that emotional transaction and keep going back for that surge of happy feelings.

“I definitely feel the mystique of getting the things that I need for the best prices delivered to my door — and then needing something ‘fun’ to go with it, because why the F not?” Melissa (not her real name), a 39-year-old who lives in Brooklyn, told me over chat. “I’ve also Drunk Amazon’d. But nothing insane.”

‘Living Beyond My Means’

Melissa has had a shopping problem as long as she can remember, but once she was living on her own in New York and didn’t have a car to go hit up the brick-and-mortars, she turned to Amazon and joined Prime.

“I do genuinely use it for essentials, but I still absolutely feel the temptation to find something stupid and fun,” she said. “But rarely expensive. I use my debit card, but it still adds up.”

That temptation proves irresistible once a week or every other week, when Melissa says she inevitably thinks of something she needs or thinks she needs. Most of those purchases revolve around self-improvement or self-care: moisturizer, cosmetics. But it starts with the need for something legitimate, like detergent, and then, the next thing you know, she’s down the rabbit hole of anti-aging products, face and body lotions, hair accessories. She recently decided her hair needed more volume and came away with a set of rollers and a new brush.

“I definitely feel like I’m spending more than I should on things I probably don’t need,” Melissa says. “I feel like I come up with excuses to buy things when I could just as easily do something more productive, like creative writing, working out. I used to indulge a lot more before I had to pay rent and before my credit cards had to be canceled (by me, voluntarily). But I’m still living beyond my means.”

Though she has a decent enough salary to make her rent, rent is a huge chunk of her income, and her Amazon habit means she still turns to her parents for money. Because they never come to collect, they inadvertently end up footing the bill. That leads to arguments, and she sometimes hides purchases from them.

But even still, the app is always there, tempting her with a two-day- or overnight-shipping solution to a completely invented problem — the perception that she can always use a little sprucing up. Or even just a solution to not having the physical burden of hauling heavy household goods through a large city’s transportation system.

“The relief of getting a giant box of toilet paper or paper towels, or something heavy like laundry detergent, basically dropped at my door instead of having to carry them on a bus or train is indescribable,” she says.

For shopping to be a compulsion, it needs to cause distress as well as financial and interpersonal problems. And while much research typically finds that women engage more often in this, that’s typically because women are more likely to be treated for it because they consider it a problem and seek help, whereas men tend to see more as “collecting.” More recent research has found that men and women shop compulsively near equally in spite of longstanding stereotypes that it’s women who always need one more pair of shoes. Men like a little pick-me-up from retail therapy as well, even if they buy Maseratis more than makeup.

As more and more shopping moves online, the face of shopping addiction has become far less the bored suburban housewife, and could now be anyone who can’t pry themselves away from that one-click ordering button.

‘Holy Shit. Amazon Dominates My Entire Life.’

For Shane Morris, a 32-year-old in Nashville, Amazon is an all-encompassing presence in his life that he uses to purchase everything from household goods to a 500-roll of “I Voted” stickers.

“I just bought a TV I have no use for because it was a really good deal,” Morris told me over chat. “It’s a 4K TV. The colors are deep and true. This would probably be totally amazing if I weren’t colorblind.”

What else? “I bought yoga pants to impress a girl, a TV I can’t use, tennis balls and fly traps,” he said. “I’m preparing my fly traps for the summer, which is six months away.” He buys a lot of sneakers on Amazon as a self-described “sneakerhead.” He could go to Zappos, but Amazon’s selection is better, and Zappos doesn’t have soap.

It all started when he left a corporate job in 2015, and suddenly began working from home and without the spare time to drive 40 minutes to get to a Costco on a Saturday, which he says kills half his day. He began getting everything delivered to his door, including groceries. He calls the Whole Foods acquisition a “game-changer” for him. It’s pricey food, but he lives alone and cooks for one.

“Honestly, it is worth all the time it saves,” Morris says. “I am fairly routine about everything I order, food-wise. My dog food and all her toys? Amazon. All the cleaning supplies, soaps, etc? That’s a Prime Pantry order. If I want to save money? I track prices on Camel Camel Camel.”

Though he says it’s a great impulse-control tool for him — it’s easier to review a digital cart and delete what’s not needed than to put something back from the checkout aisle at Costco — he still says he spends 95 percent of his money on Amazon, and buys plenty he doesn’t need. He runs his business on Amazon Web Services. His machine-learning company is built on Amazon Sagemaker.

“Holy shit,” he says in a moment of realization. “Amazon basically dominates my entire life. I even have the Echo, the Dot and the TV I just bought has Fire built in. I read all my books on a Kindle now.”

Luckily, he’s financially comfortable, so it’s not draining his bank account so that he can’t cover expenses. But he’s still ensnared in Amazon’s throes. “The only real negative is how lazy I am at breaking down Amazon boxes,” he says. “I have to walk them to the recycling bin in the alley behind my house, and that means being outside when it’s cold. I don’t enjoy that.”

Recently, he bought a black microwave that he definitely didn’t need. “I just didn’t like the look of a white microwave,” he says. “This was definitely $199 not well spent.”

Then there was the glove. “A cute girl said someone on her softball team got injured, and they needed someone to fill in,” he explains. “‘Shane, can you come play tomorrow? You have a glove, right?’ Me: ‘Of course I do.’ Amazon SAME-DAY DELIVERY.”

And Amazon’s powerful ability to instantly gratify has carried over into other parts of his life. “In some ways, it’s kinda like how I am with my cars,” he says. “I haven’t owned a single car for more than 18 months. Most of the time, I buy one, and in six months, I’m bored with it, and decide I want something new.”

With Amazon, though, gone are the days of hauling this stuff up to a register in public, fitting it into your car and enduring neighbors watching you lug it in for everyone to see. Other than the boxes piling up in front of your door, it’s as private as a porn habit.

“Online shopping is private, limitless and can be done at any moment of the day,” therapist Jacqueline Duke, who deals with a number of clients facing shopping addiction, tells MEL. “It is easy to become ‘lost’ online and numb while surfing through the endless subliminal and obvious marketing and advertising.”

Filling an Emotional Void

Duke says the feeling it produces is more akin to the dissociation that occurs with binge-eating, a trance-like emotional numbing sensation.

Her clients who cop to shopping addiction are mostly women — and again, women are more likely to acknowledge it’s a problem and seek help — but the experience, she says, fits with addiction patterns in general.

“As with other addictive behaviors, the common theme behind the shopping ‘symptom’ is a manifestation of avoiding negative emotions,” Duke told me via email. “And similarly to other behaviors that are qualitatively described as ‘vices,’ they are also intended to fill an emotional or spiritual void or experience of emptiness in one’s life.”

Traditionally, Duke says that shopping compulsions have historically been part of traditional gender dynamics in couples, and that for women they can mask deep feelings of anger, rage and resentment what women have used shopping to express as a way of acting out toward an emotionally unavailable husband.

“We often see compulsive shopping habits frequently with women who have discourse in their marriage—specifically those who have found themselves in more traditional gender roles (that being the primary housekeeper and caregiver rather than the financial provider) with a partner that is often physically or emotionally unavailable,” she says.

But in younger people, “The behavior can arise from feelings of injustice and inadequacy within their interpersonal dynamics.”

Melissa, for instance, tells me she shops because she feels insecure. Having never been in a serious relationship, she treats the issue as one of her own inadequacy, a problem to be solved with better products and accessories, just one click away from “fixing” herself to achieve societal expectations. She thinks body dysmorphia might be a factor, that she has the persistent sense that “there always has to be something I need to improve or fix about my appearance, whether it’s cosmetics or clothes or shoes or even a bag.”

“I honestly have no idea what I look like to other people,” she says, “but if there’s something I feel could use improvement, Amazon has a thing I can buy to fix it.”

The Unbeatable Feeling of Spending Unwisely

Morris does it because it for the financial high. “Since I grew up in a fairly poor family, it’s the freedom of knowing I never have to make hard decisions,” he says. “And anything I can see, I can buy.”

Gone is the waiting, saving up or pining for things that were once out of reach. “There’s a certain sense of power behind it, thinking in my head, he continues. “‘You know, dude, if you want this, you can have it.’”

He recently bought a NoPhone for $13. He describes it as a $13 piece of plastic that does nothing.

He’s aware, he says, that participating in the Amazon economy of consumerism is “participating in a stupid game.”

“The new 4K TV won’t make that much difference over the one I literally bought a year ago,” he says. “But everything around me is always new, and nice. My friends come over to my house and everyone always compliments me on my decor, and in my head I’m like, ‘Yeah, I got all this shit and made my house look put together.’ And Amazon allows me to do that. I can put like eight things in my cart, and boom, it’s all here.”

That feeling, he says, that freedom — it’s unbeatable.

“Sometimes I’ll forget I ordered something,” he says. “And then it shows up, and I’m instantly happy.”