The Risks in The Rise of Online Shopping

Photo: UnoTelly. May 4, 2014. How to Shop from U.S. Stores. [Photograph]. Retrieved from


*set the scene in a busy shopping mall*

Hey everyone, I’m Kendra Saxton and you’re listening to my episode: The Risks in the Rise of Online Shopping as part of InQuery- the podcast show run by first year York University students. I will be talking to you about online shopping addictions and how people become compulsive shoppers. I'll be diving into the many psychological reasons behind this and looking at how having such easy access to the online shopping world, because of our current technology, is making it easier to develop these issues.

So to start, I have a question for you. Have you ever thought about what online shopping does to your brain? I’m sure the idea has never crossed your mind as it might sound like a pretty dumb question. How could something that seems as harmless as online shopping affect the way you function entirely? I’ve never really been much of an online shopper myself since I think it’s more fun to be able to go out to the mall and experience shopping in the real world. I remember myself as a child being so excited to take a trip to the mall with my mom. Usually I hoped that it meant getting a new toy, but it wasn’t all about that when I think about it now. It was about the ten minute car ride there, feeling so excited that I couldn’t stop smiling even if I tried. I would turn the music up loud, even after my mom told me not to until finally she said we were there. I would always make sure to be hungry when I went too so that we could get some New York fries before we started shopping and of course, my mom couldn’t resist fries, I mean who would? Afterwards, I would make sure to step foot into every store and my eyes lit up inside each one. Trying on a new dress or a pair of shoes and putting on a pretend fashion show was the best part. When our shopping sprees would continue for hours and it became time to leave, I would be sad, but I would clutch my bags tightly, becoming more excited to wear these new clothes or play with these new toys the minute I got home. Back then and even today, shopping was never really about buying things, it was about the entire experience. I could never imagine online shopping being just as fun as that.

Even though I have never really done it myself, I always thought online shopping was simple and pretty much harmless until I saw the T.V. show Hoarding. Most of the time I’m watching the food network when I turn on the T.V. but every once in a while I start flipping between channels, since I definitely watch the food network way too much. I don’t watch Hoarding very much, but the first time I saw it, I was shocked. It was almost heartbreaking to see people with clothes and piles of junk insisting that they need it. Your first reaction may often be judgement, which is completely natural. But there are many things about people’s lives that we don’t know about.

It’s interesting though, it’s not just on T.V. I swear, every time I’m in class I see somebody on their phone or laptop doing some type of online shopping. It doesn’t have to be clothing, it could be cars, houses or even grocery shopping! Trying to pay attention in lecture is almost impossible when this is going on in front of me. Think about it, you’re looking at the person in front of you on their cell phone for hours, mindlessly scrolling through pictures of jackets and once in a while, the excitement occurs: they switch the colour from black to grey! Since when did clothing become something more than just things you put on your body?

Really, there must be something going on in your head to cause you to do this. Maybe it’s because you’re bored, maybe you’re tired of listening to other people talk… but maybe it’s because you feel something out of the ordinary, but at the same time something common. A little voice inside your head constantly telling you that you need to go online, you must look at hundreds of items and you have to buy, buy and buy more and more. Maybe that feeling is compulsive and it never goes away. I bet you’ve never imagined online shopping could be so harmful.

It may seem scary to only a small group of bored teenagers, when it should in fact be of concern for anyone who genuinely cares about the well-being of others. What kind of person would wish a mental disorder on anyone? In fact, compulsive shopping is beginning to be recognized as a disorder as studies show. The fact that shopping apps are continuing to develop because of the constant rise of the usage of information communication technologies (aka, ICTs) could mean serious issues for our society. Because they are becoming more popular and accessible, more and more people are going to use them. And because of excessive usage of these apps, something could trigger that leads to compulsive shopping and even problems such as hoarding Think about what this could do to your life. Imagine your best friend never wanting to leave their home because all they know and all they think they need is to sit in front of a screen and buy things. Online shopping doesn’t sound so great now. But why do people do it? Why do people shop online and does it differ between gender and age? Why and how does impulsivity turn into compulsivity? Why do people continue to shop excessively when they know it's doing more harm to them than good?


But first, before we get in to the heavy stuff, let’s talk about the difference between impulsive shopping and compulsive shopping. A lot of the time, people use these terms interchangeably, but they do not mean the same thing. Impulsive shopping is buying things without thinking about it because of many reasons which I will talk about later, while compulsive shopping is a psychological need to buy things. Think about it as you have an urge versus you have a powerful need. Really, impulsivity can frequently lead to compulsivity as they share common personality traits in people and they often happen in similar situations. From a study done on the psychological side of online shopping, G.F. Koob described impulsivity as quote: "having tension and arousal occur before the act of buying and experiencing pleasure and relief during the act.” End quote. On the other hand, he described compulsivity as quote: “recurring and persistent and also causes severe anxiety and stress.” End quote. So from this, we can see that although they involve similar acts of buying, they release different emotions throughout the brain during the act.


Alright, so It may sound as if I am saying everybody who online shops is addicted and can't stop, but in fact, a recent study showed that the prevalence of compulsive shopping (in the United States at least) was a small 5.8%, but this does not mean the risk of become a compulsive shopper doesn’t linger. There are many reasons- I could say “lighter reasons” for why people shop that have nothing to do with a compulsive need. For example, many consumers say they shop for convenience (Miller, 2014). It’s fair to say that sometimes you don’t want to leave your house to go shopping because today’s technology allows you to buy things on your phone or tablet quickly and easily and have the products delivered to your home. It sounds like something out of a dream. Of course this would be ideal for the lazy person or even for someone who has too much work on their hands. Consumers also say they online shop for better prices and better variety. It’s true that there are some things you can find online that you could never find in stores- I mean even Starbucks has a secret drink menu that can’t be seen in stores. The internet can be a wonderful place. Avoiding crowds at the mall seems to be another key factor. Who wants to wait 45 minutes in line to buy a pair of socks when you can just order them? Online shopping can be an amazing world that is quick and easy and allows you to do things you can’t do in stores. However, it is very easy for one simple shopping spree to get out of hand.


D.W. Rook, a psychologist suggests that impulse buying is “an interesting psychological phenomenon.” It’s not just unplanned shopping, because in a way, you know in the back of your mind that you are doing it. Shopping can be unplanned and not impulsive such as buying a new common household item, but it can also be planned and impulsive such as shopping for a gift. D.W. Rook believes quote: “Impulse buying occurs when a consumer experiences a sudden, often powerful and persistent urge to buy something immediately. The impulse to buy is complex and may stimulate emotional conflict. Also, impulse buying is prone to occur with diminished regard for its consequences” (Springer, 198). End quote. The easiest way to explain this is that impulse shoppers don't really think before they act and they almost don't care about what might happen after they purchase something.

Truly, there isn’t one definition of what impulse shopping is and why it happens, but there are many different theories. One, it may just simply be experimental or for fun. People see something that they like and think “oh maybe I should buy this now, just in case I won’t see it again.” It’s very normal to see something you like and want it immediately. I’m sure that as a child you saw candy or a toy and you brought it to your mom or dad and held it up with a frown and some puppy dog eyes saying “Please can I have it? Please?” This brings us to the construal level theory of psychological distance This is a pretty wordy phrase for something as simple as “It’s right in front of me, I should buy it.” Do you ever look at something and you can almost picture yourself using it? Maybe it’s a new car and you just imagine yourself driving it- but wait, it’s right in front of you, why don’t you just buy it now? There are certain “reference points” as Y. Trope and N. Liberman say. Sometimes the buyer may feel that they already have the item before buying it and if the purchase is not made, they feel extreme sadness afterwards (Springer, 199). So really, things that are physically closer to you make you feel more excitement right away, causing you to not care about what happens after you make the purchase. All you know is that you want that item, but why?

Throughout many years of research it has been proven that impulsivity of any kind is actually involved with the ways we are biologically made-up. Apparently our personality has one of the greatest effects on whether or not we feel the need to buy things. J.A. Gray explains that there are two major behavioural systems in our brains. First, our BAS which stands for behavioural activation system does the job of rewarding us. Second, our BIS system, which is our behavioural inhibition system, gives us punishments. Gray explains that people who have a high BAS are more prone to impulsivity (Springer, 200). They are less able to resist temptations and stimuli and find themselves learning a lot from being rewarded for their actions (from buying things) and less from punishments. Since they don’t receive punishments a lot or don’t respond to them, it becomes hard for them to quit bad habits. If you would like to read more on these two behavioural systems, go to this link Besides personality, people tend to shop online to find feelings of pleasure and happiness. However, it can also be because of bad moods and low self-esteem. People who also lack self-control, as mentioned earlier have troubles staying away from impulsive actions. When we look at negative feelings, this is when impulsivity grows into compulsivity. People change from buying on a whim to buying uncontrollably and without reasoning.


Based on the qualities of impulsive shopping, we can see that it is similar to compulsive shopping. It is almost as if compulsive shopping is the outcome of frequent impulsive shopping. Many people begin compulsive shopping a lot because of factors talked about earlier as well as negative emotions. When you look at impulse shopping, there are much more excited and happy behaviours surrounding it, meanwhile compulsive shopping has a connection with anxiety, depression and other negative feelings. S. Sohn and Y. Choi conducted a study on people who have compulsive shopping disorders and found very interesting results. They commented that quote: “compulsive shopping is dysfunctional consumption behaviour” End quote. It consists of five stages: retail buying, denial, debt-ridden, impulsive buying and compulsive buying (Sohn, 243).

The participants said they began buying things excessively because they felt lonely, depressed and found they had very low self-esteem. They said that they wanted to attempt to “compensate for their negative feelings” with shopping to boost their happiness. The second phase is denial and the participants insisted that they bought things for good prices and that they didn't overspend. They did not want to accept they were buying too much and they believed other family members would help them with money issues if that became a problem and it frequently does. Phase three is when you become debt-ridden. Finally, you run out of money and begin to ask for money to continue the process. Impulsive buying is next and the participants said they felt anxious about losing a product and would feel depressed later on if they didn’t buy it. The last stage is compulsive buying and this is when the only thing you know is online shopping and feel compelled to make purchases as part of your daily routine (Sohn, 246-249). One participant said that online shopping was quote "The only thing I could think about. If I come home without buying anything, I feel sick. The thought ‘I should have bought it’ repeats and overwhelms me” End quote(Sohn, 249). Think about your loved ones- your friends and family and even people you don’t know. Imagine their lives being ruled by the online world and finding it impossible to escape it.

Recently I decided to give out a questionnaire to give another angle on the subject. I asked five male and five female teenagers, as well as five male and five female adults about their online shopping habits. I found that every person I gave the questionnaire to said that they own a mobile device and have looked at online shopping websites at least once even if they didn't buy anything. It seemed that most people sometimes felt they needed to online shop and sometimes purchased items. It also seemed like most people shopped online because of convenience, better prices and to avoid crowds at the mall. So this is a pattern among most people. The only thing that differed based on gender were the items being purchased. Most males said they online shop for equipment/tools as well as video games and most females said they shop for clothing and makeup products. Nothing significant differed by age. Of course, by giving the questionnaire to more people would have given more data, but it's still clear that gender has some sort of an influence while age doesn’t really matter all that much. The only way to tell if age mattered was to look at how much each person spends, but that would not be an accurate representation of their job status and income.

Clearly it’s true that there are deep psychological reasons behind compulsive shopping. It is a serious issue in our society and it is quickly rising. Because of the fact we have so much access to the online shopping world through our cell phones and computers, it makes it that much easier to develop these compulsive feelings. But to future parents and future generations, there will be no way to stop yourself from entering the online world, but if you could do your brain and your entire well-being a favour: give yourself the real world experiences frequently and as soon as possible. There are some things in life that just can’t be controlled, but we can control first impressions. If we can show people what it’s like to go out and enjoy shopping rather than shutting the world out, we will become much happier and much more satisfied with the little things in life. Once again, I’m Kendra Saxton and thank you for shopping with me today.

Check out the rest of the podcasts that are part of InQuery to learn more about the development of technology in our world!

*cash register sound*



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