You say compulsive shopping; I say retail therapy

bagsConsumers are keeping a tighter grip on their checkbooks these days, but millions of others just can’t control themselves.

Nearly 9% of adults may be compulsive buyers, according to a study conducted by University of Richmond marketing professors Nancy Ridgway and Monika Kukar-Kinney. UR professor Kent B. Monroe, also of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign contributed to the study as well.

The research team developed a new test for diagnosing the disorder that suggests many more Americans are affected than previously thought, or 6%. The study is in the December 2008 edition of the Journal of Consumer Research.

“I think that there are certainly more compulsive buyers out there that weren’t captured by the first scale because it was really dominated by financial problems,” said Ridgway.

The study defines compulsive buying as “a consumer’s tendency to be preoccupied with buying that is revealed through repetitive buying and lack of impulse control over buying.”

The new screener eliminated questions that focus on a subject’s debt because many compulsive buyers have plenty of money to support their habit.

“They aren’t financially bankrupt, but they are what I call emotionally bankrupt,” Ridgway said.

Compulsive buying, first identified more than 20 years ago, is classified as an obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorder, meaning people have it in varying degrees. The problem is obviously harmful to a person’s bank account, but it can also cause low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety (is this the same as buyer’s remorse?).

It can also lead to family strife (too many video games, another pair of Jimmy Choo shoes). You can read more about it here.

Almost all of the subjects in the UR study were female, but previous research suggests that compulsive buying affects men (sporting equipment) and women equally.

The study examined undergrads, faculty and staff and a third group of customers of a women’s online clothing store. The third group was offered a gift certificate.

The authors recommend further study to determine how Internet retailers and marketing e-mails may exacerbate the problem by creating a 24-hour mall from the comforts of home.

“In the past, marketers have gone after what’s called heavy users … those who use a product or service more than others, but it seems there may be some responsibility when it comes to compulsive buyers,” Ridgway said.

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