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Are you a COP: Compulsive Online Purchaser?

Online shopping can quickly become an addiction - as a rising number of Indians are finding out

Veenu Sandhu 

Bagful of obsession

Shambhavi Krishnan's father has had a life-long aversion to shopping, so much so that his wife would buy all his clothes. Now, he spends hours together at stores - without stirring out of his bedroom. He orders something online every single day, whether it's needed or not. Recently, he ordered two pairs of school shoes for his grandson - the child is two and will start playschool next year.

A 26-year-old sought help from Sanjay Chugh, a Delhi-based psychiatrist, because she was shopping compulsively all the time with her two credit cards. She felt pathetic but was unable to stop herself. She had started losing friends. Her family was alarmed.

An indulgent father, Pawan Sangwan would often browse e-stores with his 14-year-old daughter. One night, he caught her "shopping" on her tablet under her bed sheet. It was past 2 am. The Class IX student had an exam the next day. Sangwan confiscated her tablet and mobile phone.

Showrooms, boutiques, retail chains and supermarkets - e-commerce has made shopping convenient. The stuff is delivered home, and can be returned if you don't like it. Cash can be paid on delivery. For some people, across age groups, it is becoming an obsession, a distraction and a cause of distress.

While "compulsive online shopping is not yet recognised as a psychiatric disorder," says Chugh, psychologists are now looking at it as a mental problem that might require recognition - even intervention.

Earlier this year, the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuroscience in Bengaluru conducted a study on online shopping addiction in 18-65 year olds. Of the 2,750 surveyed, 4.7 per cent women and 3.5 per cent men admitted to being addicted to online shopping.

Several factors have coalesced to cause the boom in online shopping: the expansion of the broadband footprint, crash in smartphone prices, and proliferation of plastic money and mobile wallets. What contributed to it was that e-commerce companies, flush with private equity money, started with massive discounts, even if it meant selling at a loss, in their attempt to build a user base, though of late the discounts have become reasonable.

At the moment, about 39 million Indians are shopping online, according to AT Kearney. Bank of America Merrill Lynch expects the number to expand to 530 million by 2025. Among them are bound to be addicts. A recent study by The Boston Consulting Group estimates that e-commerce spending would grow to $60-70 billion in the next three-four years, from $16-17 billion now. "Our spend on online retail has almost doubled over last year," says Manoj Adlakha, vice-president and general manager (consumer & merchant services) and CEO, American Express Banking Corp, India.

Retail therapy has always helped people deal with stress. E-commerce makes it convenient. It takes lonely people into a world where fun can be had without friends.

People shop at all times: first thing in the day, during the daily commute, late at night. They buy onions, brooms, shoes and motorcycles - anything that a credit card can buy. And before they realise, the convenience becomes a habit, an obsession.

It is important to recognise the symptoms, says Samir Parikh, director (mental health and behavioural science), Fortis Hospital, New Delhi. "An addict," he says, "will pick up things off e-commerce sites without needing them. These could be pens, glasses, clothes, shoes or random gadgets." Such people, he adds, are unlikely to return what they order, even if they don't need it.

In the case of Krishnan's father, for example, when his toddler grandson did not like the colour of the jacket he had bought for him online, he promptly ordered another jacket in a different colour. That he will outgrow them in barely six months does not bother the grandfather.

There is another kind of compulsive shopper: one who will order and return, then order something else and return it and so on. The ordering gives a high, but then sends the person into a guilt trip, which makes him return the item; the obsession, however, makes him order something else almost immediately. And so the cycle continues.

Answer these 10 questions honestly to find out, say psychologists:
  1. Do I have to do it or can I let go of this chance to shop?
  2. Do I visit an online store to buy a specific product but almost always end up buying multiple things, some of which I don’t even need?
  3. If someone points this habit out to me or makes a remark about it, does it make me angry?
  4. Do I try and hide this habit?
  5. Do I have to shop despite the strain on my finances/relationships/health?
  6. Do I shop because I am feeling sad/anxious/angry?
  7. Do I feel relieved or excited while shopping and guilty later?
  8. Am I constantly thinking of online sales and offers and feel terrible if I miss them?
  9. Has leisure for me become restricted to browsing or shopping on e-commerce sites?
  10. Am I spending time on online shopping sites at the cost of other work — at office or home?
Number of questions answered in “yes”:
6: SUGGESTIVE of an addiction
7: You are a POSSIBLE addict
8-10: DEFINITELY DIAGNOSTIC — you are clearly addicted to online shopping

The ecosystem eggs on these relentless shoppers.

"Price comparison websites and mobile phone applications such as MySmartPrice, PriceGenie and Makkhichoose, which help a person find the lowest online price of a product by comparing it across several online stores, only add to the excitement and anxiety of shopping for a compulsive buyer like me," says 31-year-old Gunjan Arora, a Gurgaon-based reformed addict.

"It worried me, my spending," says Arora, whose addiction lasted about two years. "It burned a hole in my pocket." Every activity became a reason to shop, even gymming. "At the gym, I would observe what other women wore. Once home, I would immediately go online and order track pants of the same style," she says.

"One day I looked into my cupboard and saw I had so many things that I did not wear." She had bought them for the thrill of buying. That was the turning point.

"I removed the price comparison app from my phone, gave away the extra stuff to my friends and cousins, and decided I would, as far as possible, shop from brick and mortar stores," she says. That was two months ago. So far she hasn't had a relapse.

For many, it has gone way beyond harmless fun. Sunita Singh got addicted to online stores about a year back. She held four credit cards, and before she could realise it, she had exhausted all her credit limits on shopping after reaching home from work at night.

The banks, which had fallen over each other to give her cards, have started to hound her. Her credit history is tarnished - her hopes of getting a car loan have receded. She hasn't told her folks about her debt. She feels miserable to have entered the online cul de sac.

"I see people getting into heavy debts. Trust between family members also suffers," Chugh says. The extent of credit card default on account of online shopping is not known, but it is an open secret that there has been an increase in bad retail debt of banks.

There are other fallouts too. "Everything gets compromised," adds Amitabh Saha, consultant psychiatrist at the Vidyasagar Institute of Mental Health, Neuro & Allied Sciences, or VIMHANS, in Delhi: "Your relationships, your family life and your work".

According to Saha, "people are compromising on their sleep to catch the late-night deals. This is having a spiralling effect on every other aspect of their life."

Thus, it is not uncommon to now see people e-shopping or being constantly preoccupied with the idea of shopping while at work. "If you can't put off shopping while you are at work, then it is a problem," says Saha.

Companies are waking up to this reality. Some of them are seeking help for their employees through organisations like Optum International that provide employee counselling. Among the programmes that Optum International offers is "De-Addiction for Online Shopping".

The 90-minute workshop, for which employees nominate themselves, helps them understand online shopping addiction and recognise its signs. It also provides help for de-addiction. At the workshop, a psychologist and a financial analyst advise the employee on how to deal with the problem and shop responsibly within the budget.

According to Amber Alam, head of business (India), Optum International, in the last one year, over 700 working professionals across 60 cities have attended the online shopping de-addiction programme.

Saha of VIMHANS says targeted marketing strategies by e-commerce companies are further creating a sense of urgency around shopping and fuelling the compulsive behaviour among the vulnerable lot. In other words, they feed on their obsession - and their anxiety for deals.

Take the example of this SMS on Diwali by an e-retailer that deals in lingerie: "Never before never after Diwali flash sale is on! Get discounts on EVERYTHING! Only for 5 hours. Shop now." Another message reads: "Last few hours to buy one get one free offer. Hurry". And another: "Shh! Secret coupon (followed by the coupon code). Valid only till midnight!" One e-retail giant sent an email that read: "Best deals of the week. 24 hours only!" Travel companies too have caught on and are sending out messages like: "Five minutes left! This is the travel deal of a lifetime. So what are you waiting for?"

During its Great Indian Festive Sale, which ended on October 17, Amazon launched the "Morning Delivery" service that enabled customers to shop as late as midnight and have the products delivered by 11 am.

"Now something like this is great if, say, you are a new mother who realises late at night that she's out of diapers. Such a service is then a life-saver," says Arora. "But what if you are a compulsive shopper? Just imagine what it can do to you when something that feeds your addiction is just a click away and promises quick gratification?"

For an obsessive shopper, the festival season, when e-retailers offer a plethora of tempting deals where discounts can range from 30 per cent to 80 per cent, can be particularly tricky. Doctors say the addiction is bound to peak during this time.

In the recent online festive-season sales, for example, most leading e-commerce companies reported three to four times the sales as compared to last year with many of them shipping orders in less than six hours.

The general assumption is that shopaholics are all women - men just settle the bill - and so they will also be more vulnerable to compulsive online shopping. "That is not the case," says Saha. "Men are equally prone to it."

Nielsen Informate Mobile Insights of May 2015 shows that men spend an average of 13 minutes more than women on smartphones every day . "While women spend more time on shopping apps than men, the trend differs when we look at usage by age," says the study. "In fact, men below 24 years are more engaged with shopping apps than women. Similarly, men in mini metros and Tier 1 cities spend significantly more time on shopping apps than women."

The addiction, in other words, is gender neutral - it afflicts men as well as women.

In fact, it is likely to impact men more simply because they shop more. Shivani Suri, director (marketing), eBay India, says that "men account for approximately 90 per cent of online purchases", according to data analysed by her company. People in the age group of 25-35 are most prolific in shopping online - both men and women.

"Repeat visitors account for 67 per cent of the total buyers during sales and offers," Suri adds. While not all of them may be compulsive shoppers, there is a good chance that some are, psychologists say.

The best safeguard against any form of addiction, online shopping included, is a good foundation - a healthy family life, good self-esteem and balanced routine, says Chugh.

"It is also advisable to stay away from plastic money. Instead use cash; that will be a deterrent to overspending," says Parikh of Fortis Hospital. "Make a budget and confide in someone you trust - a friend or a family member - to help you break the habit."

Chugh says the first step is to recognise the problem. "Draw out the pattern you follow when you are compelled to shop and work towards doing the opposite," he says. But if the problem persists, seek professional help.

Some names have been changed on request

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First Published: Sat, November 14 2015. 00:30 IST