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The Shopping Addicts of Quarantine

When everything feels like it’s spiraling out of control, accumulating more stuff offers the illusion of order. But it becomes a high some people can’t stop chasing

Brian has 13 packages arriving Friday that his wife doesn’t know about, including toys for his cats, a new Wi-Fi modem and three pounds of chocolate-covered peanut butter pretzel nuggets. Pre-COVID, he’d order three packages per month, but now it’s more like three per day, including baking sheets for the kitchen, new RAM for his computer and thousands of dollars of camping gear. No one in the family even likes camping, but he’s worried they’ll soon need to live in the wild due to the pandemic. Brian calls his newfound shopaholism an “addiction,” a shift away from his reliance on nicotine and porn, both of which he cut out recently. “It’s easy to justify because of the extra money I have from not going out anymore,” he says.

Tom uses similar logic. The 45-year-old banker in New York City is spending 20 percent less overall, having not traveled since March and barely eaten out. “But that only encourages me to hit the ‘buy’ button when I see something I want,” he tells me. Tom’s pandemic over-shopping began with the essentials — face masks, hair-clipper kits, off-brand toilet paper, etc. — but swelled to include an expensive desk chair, a telescope, an inversion table, cornhole bags, two new computers, a new shower, a home gym and a leaf blower.

“It’s toys for me,” admits Alex, a 22-year-old pilot in Alberta. Namely, an $800 gun, followed by a $400 drone and a $600 graphics card. “Somehow I blew $1,800 in two months on three items I don’t need,” he adds.

As the world enters the sixth month under some form of lockdown, it’s perhaps no wonder that many are starting to express varying levels of concern about having developed a shopping addiction. It’s too soon to point to any scientific data, but CNBC reports that e-commerce spending in the U.S. rose by more than 30 percent from the beginning of March through mid-April and reached $73 billion in June, up 76 percent from last year. In May, visits to retail websites increased by 80 percent and online sales surpassed $82 billion, with Amazon reporting nearly $90 billion of quarterly earnings. These trends are mirrored globally: Online sales in the U.K. have surged by 72 percent; in Canada, by nearly 100 percent.

For Ethan, the first month of pandemic was all about his kitchen — tools and spices mostly — but then he became obsessed with finding the perfect shelving system to house the spices, which set him back more than $500 all told. A visit to his parents ended up lasting longer than expected, so he masked up and headed to Macy’s to buy a new pair of jogging shorts and a pair of jeans, awaking his inner shopping beast. Immediately afterward, he went online and bought three additional pairs of shorts, six more pairs of pants, 10 shirts, a watch, a jacket, some sunglasses and a pair of socks, for a grand total of $1,500. (He ran out of money before he could buy shoes.) “I do regret buying the asymmetrically cut Jedi-style bedouin harem cardigan,” he admits.

Ginger, a 38-year-old stay-at-home mom (of three) in Connecticut, says her first quarantine shopping spree took place in March, shortly after the New York Times dubbed a 40th birthday party in nearby Westport, a COVID-19 “superspreader event.” She reflexively logged into Etsy in search of things to protect her and her family, beginning with $1,700 worth of masks, face shields and goggles, since a neighbor warned that you could transmit the virus through your eyeballs. Next, she ordered a dozen 5-gallon jugs of water and a Survivor Filter PRO filtration system. The Prepper’s Long-Term Survival Guide felt like a no-brainer; the same for oxygen masks for the whole family, solar hand-crank radios and $500 of assorted matches and lighters in case she needed to build a fire.

The overshopping is a combination of boredom and misdirected maternal instinct. “I feel like I need this stuff, but then I find a pile of boxes at the door that I don’t remember ordering and dread opening them,” she tells me. “I’ve spent thousands and thousands of dollars on Amazon, and that’s just one merchant! I even wired $175 to a hypnotist on Reddit just because he said he needed it.”

While everything may feel new these days, there’s nothing novel about compulsive shopping. It was recognized as far back as the early 19th century, and cited as a psychiatric disorder in the early 1900s. Despite its long history, the condition is controversial, and experts, as well as the public, disagree about whether it’s a real addiction, since there isn’t really a chemical aspect to it. Many regard shopping addiction the same way they do sex addiction — i.e., society making a medical term for bad behavior and absolving anyone who indulges in it from responsibility. That said, any compulsive behavior should be considered a “legitimate” psychological condition, Australian psychological therapist and life coach Annie Gurton points out.

It’s definitely legit to Dani, a 40-year-old photographer in Alabama, who says she constantly goes on Amazon to stock up on pandemic supplies, like 30 bottles of hand sanitizer, but then spots a purse or a cute pair of shoes that she just can’t go without. Along those lines, since April, she estimates she’s spent $7,500 on “crap” she doesn’t need, including nightly Uber Eats and Grubhub deliveries, likening it all to a therapeutic drug addiction. “I do it to make myself feel better. There isn’t much to look forward to right now, except getting something fun delivered to my front door,” she explains.

Retail therapy can restore the perception of control over outcomes, says consumer psychologist Paul Marsden, “so shopping addictions developed during the pandemic could very well be helping people, as long as they keep a control on it.”

Shipra Gupta, a professor of business administration at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, has been collecting data about addictive shopping behaviors during the pandemic and says consumers are perceiving both supply-side and demand-side scarcity, which they internalize as a loss of freedom to be regained. Gupta distinguishes between “utilitarian” and “hedonic” motivations, with utilitarians tending to shop more urgently (e.g., ransacking toilet paper aisles) and hedonists more apt to hide and hoard merch in response to perceived scarcity. Dyana, for example, a 63-year-old arts executive in L.A. who admits to developing a “mild shopping problem” during the pandemic, now buys multiples of everything she wants, “in case supply and demand gets crazy.”

Retailers are intentionally creating a perception of scarcity and urging consumers to buy more, says Gupta, and brands are dumping more money into influencer marketing., for example, has increased its ad spend on Etsy by 50 percent, resulting in a double-digit sales increase compared with a year ago. Lightning deals are designed to trigger FOMO, explains Carrie Rattle, a master coach at Stopping Overshopping in Philadelphia — the same when Amazon warns you that only five Adult-Size Muscle Man Chest Plates are left. “It’s survival of the fittest,” Rattle says. “You got those pants for 20 percent off? I got 40 percent off. It’s a self-esteem boost knowing that you have a greater ability to find a deal.”

“Many who hadn’t shown any symptoms of over-shopping are now doing so,” confirms Terrence Shulman, founder and director of The Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending & Hoarding who’s recently taken on multiple new clients for shopping addiction. A variety of psychological reasons explain the overspending, he tells me, including a loss of structure, catastrophic prepping, inaccessibility to hobbies, missing family and a cynicism about race relations and wealth inequality.

“Nearly all addictions are spiking right now, including alcoholism, sex addiction, workaholism and gambling,” he says, adding that whenever we feel anxious and uncertain, we look for something to anchor us, and online shopping makes for a reliable ballast. Of course, any number of life’s complications can trigger an addiction in normal times, but Shulman likens the pandemic to a “stressor on steroids,” evoking a multifaceted combination of fear, uncertainty and a loss of control. “COVID hit quickly and dramatically, and people’s shopping addiction ramped up much faster than it would have otherwise because they’re home and can’t see friends and families. Now they’re having trouble paying bills because those packages keep arriving.”

Even in the best of times, our brains are chemically programmed to respond to sales, which trigger dopamine dumps and instant gratification. But afterwards, intense feelings of guilt often arise. Chasing the dragon, the compulsive shopper returns for another hit, feeling victorious if they get a good deal, or especially clever if they find something rare. “The amount of satisfaction I receive when I ‘find’ the right piece of clothing or shoe I’m looking for is unparalleled,” says Ramses, a 24-year-old unemployed bartender in Ontario who currently receives $2,000 a month from the Canadian government, equating to her most stable income ever. Ramses blames her new addiction on boredom, mostly, and having gone without essentials like clean underwear and a laptop for many years. And so, she says the sudden infusion of free cash from the government has clearly played a role in her overspending. “I wouldn’t be shopping — or doing much of anything, really — without that money. But I’m on Grailed, Farfetch, Walmart, Steam and Amazon purchasing things every day,” she says, buying more than $8,000 in clothing, shoes, electronics, cosmetics and furniture since March.

The recent U.S. stimulus check has had the same effect stateside. “When that $1,200 arrived, I spent the entire amount in three days,” admits Rhia, a 26-year-old exotic dancer in Maryland who has spent more than $6,000 since March. “While my job requires a certain amount of personal upkeep, I’ve never spent so much in my life. It’s absolutely out-of-control.”

The scientific term for all of this is Compulsive Buying Disorder (or CBD, though this kind of CBD is way less mellow), which Stanford psychiatry professor Lorrin Koran determined in 2006 affected six percent of Americans. (Koran refuses to offer a guess at what that number is today, though Shulman puts it at 10 percent.) People with CBD are regularly struck with an irresistible, intrusive and often senseless impulse to buy, and the consequences are typically bankruptcy, divorce, embezzlement, and in the most dire cases, suicide.

Prior to Koran’s study, researchers estimated that 90 percent of CBD sufferers were women, which seemed high to him in 2006. The following year, Usher admitted, “I was so nervous, I just had to go shopping,” emblematic of the once-gendered addiction’s evolution. If anything, nearly as many men as women experience CBD, Koran says, running counter to a long-held assumption of compulsive buying being a “woman’s disease.” Marsden says the basic psychology of retail therapy — again, a need for autonomy and an attempt to take back control from chaos — is a universal human trait. Not to mention, there are finite opportunities to demonstrate one’s autonomy under lockdown, which is affecting men and women equally. “Men shop for different stuff, but the underlying compulsion isn’t gendered at all,” Marsden tells me. “There’s been a massive increase in online spending for hobbies you can do around the house.”

To that end, Tyler, a 40-year-old entrepreneur in Massachusetts who puts his pandemic shopping at nearly $10,000, says it began with necessities like toilet paper, Gatorade and paper towel. But as the months went by, he figured it would be an ideal time to grow weed, leading to a carousel of cannabis cultivation products arriving every morning, including soil, grow lights, nutrients, timers, humidity monitors, watering cans and stainless-steel pruning scissors.

Meanwhile, Rattle says the most common shopping addiction she’s seen in men during the pandemic relates to an obsession with being a good dad — a kind of spending spree that Tyler has also participated in. To date, he’s bought punching bags and boxing gloves, so his kids could blow off steam; two giant wall maps, so they can achieve geography fluency from home; a book on Greek mythology, and another on Norse mythology; a fleet of board games; sleeping pads to camp in the backyard; and an easel for his daughter, a burgeoning painter. “This type of shopping indicates to me that dad is seeking self-esteem from others,” Rattle notes.

Tyler partially justifies his purchases by having forgone family vacation over spring break, figuring he’d just buy things to make their time at home as enjoyable as possible. Similarly, Dani, the Alabama photographer, says she wouldn’t have bought 90 percent of the things she’s ordered during the pandemic, but also would have spent nearly the equivalent on alcohol at bars. “I’ve just replaced one addiction with another, if I’m being honest.” This is “classic shopaholic self-talk,” Rattle says, which is one way to make peace with overspending.

Others do so by viewing what they buy as gifts to their future selves. “I never buy clothes, but getting a suit in the mail feels like a promise of freedom in the future,” explains Eli, a 49-year-old film director in L.A. who bought an $800 suit because it was normally $1,600. Hannah, a 30 year-old graphic designer in Europe, says she is shopping “horrifically more” during the pandemic, and like Eli, it’s all for the post-pandemic months ahead. “When I see an item that I like, I imagine situations in which I’d wear it in normal times,” she says longingly. “New things make us happy. In these troubled times, it’s nice to feel good in my own skin, and so, I ignore the consequences of impulse shopping.”

For Rhia, the exotic dancer, comfort in her own skin means “insane cosmetics hauls,” despite not needing to wear makeup for work currently. “Who am I outside of my job?” she wonders. “I’m realizing I don’t really know, and shopping is filling a void in me.” She says her “intense depression” stems from the realization that she’s behaving the way poor people often do when given large sums of money. “I’m buying things for a different version of me, when in reality, for people in service jobs, we have no idea when the return to normal will be. So I look forward to getting packages in the mail, because when that small relief is all you have, it’s nice. At the same time, it’s so empty and fleeting, and the consequences catch up to you.”

And when they do, you can’t exactly buy your way out of them.