A Black Friday Guide for Shopaholics

By Avis Cardella 11/20/12

The holiday shopping season begins today. That's bad news for shopaholics and others consumed by consumption. Sound familiar? Here's the deal.

Avis Cardella photo via

The most insidious thing about consumption is how consuming it can be. Black Friday, the ballyhooed “most important” shopping day of the year, and the traditional kick-off day of the holiday shopping season, is a prime example.

According to statistics from the National Retail Federation, over 86 million people visited shops on Black Friday 2011. An unprecedented number camped in front of retail outlets for hours, if not all night, sometimes in freezing temperatures. Others approached the biggest shopping weekend of the year with military precision, mapping out a strategy of stores and sales days, even weeks, in advance. Still others turned to behavior that was not exactly in keeping with the official Thanksgiving mood of gratitude. In order to protect their purchases, or their place in line, they wielded pointy elbows, verbal insults, pepper spray and even handguns.

By now, we’ve all seen the media images: shoppers losing all sense of perspective and dignity in the name of snagging a bargain. How bad is it? This weekend, as competition spills over into violence, let's hope that we don't see another trampling death (as in 2008) as rushing crowds lose all sense of priorities in pursuit of wide-screen TVs. (Black Friday gets its name not from these macabre scenes but from the black ink that records the profits of retailers.)

Black Friday 2012, in addition to starting earlier than ever—some retailers will open Thursday evening—promises more of the same: rushing crowds, testy tempers, the grab and the get, gleeful smiles at a successfully completed purchase; a shopping mission accomplished, along with lots of stress and anxiety.

Of course, not all Black Friday shoppers are compulsive shop-till-you droppers, but the holiday season raises serious questions about compulsive shopping. What is it? How do you recognize when you have a shopping problem? What can you do to take control of our purchasing during the holidays?

Some people approach Black Friday with military precision, mapping out a strategy of stores and sales weeks in advance.

Having been a compulsive shopper myself (and wrote about it in the book Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict), I can attest to both its consuming and its confusing aspects. For over a decade I neither spoke of nor questioned my own buying behavior, thinking it normal to shop nearly every day and amass a closet full of unworn clothing. But this was during the “irrationally exuberant” ‘90s, when compulsive shopping was trivialized by the media and routinely referred to as “the smiled upon addiction.”

The past decade has seen the addiction treated with more gravity, and explained more thoroughly, than in the past. The Great Recession in particular has focused attention on America as the "credit-card nation," while high unemployment and empty pockets may be felt particularly acutely during the holidays.

Says Donald Black, MD, professor of psychiatry at the University of Iowa College of Medicine: “Compulsive shopping and spending are defined as inappropriate, excessive and out of control.” Although an occasional shopping spree won’t merit a shopaholic label, other actions do. Hiding purchases, lying about shopping and obsessing over buying things are all signals that you could have a problem.

Shopping beyond budget is also a sign of trouble. A recent study conducted by Oxygen Media (the network behind the reality television show, My Shopping Addiction) in collaboration with Research Now, rang alarm bells when it reported that 47% of adults spend more than they can afford during the holiday season. Another 36% say that they have gone into credit card debt in order to buy gifts.

As Donald Black points out, shopping addiction, like other addictions, has to do with impulsiveness and lack of control. Holiday shopping in particular is a minefield of invitations to act impulsively. At times the season can feel like an attack on reasonable sensibilities, with a bombardment of advertisements and “deals” luring consumers around every bend.

Shopping, after all, is an emotional activity—and who isn’t emotional at holiday time? Festive decorations, sappy songs, comforting scents—ginger bread, cinnamon and pumpkin—are all designed to evoke memories as well as manufacture desire. The desire to display a “holiday spirit” with our gift-giving prowess is another one of the season’s pressures.

Like emotional eating, emotional shopping can serve to fill a void.

According to Dr. April Benson, a New York-based psychiatrist specializing in the treatment of shopping disorders, emotional vulnerabilities are at the root of most compulsive shopping. “Said simply, compulsive buying seems to represent a search for self in people whose identity is neither firmly felt nor dependable,” she writes in her book, I Shop, Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self. Benson explains that there are varying degrees of severity of compulsive shopping disorder as well as a variety of styles ranging from binge shoppers to bulimic spenders (buying and returning) and even compulsive gift givers.

Many shopping addicts share a need for excitement, according to Benson, an observation that may shed some light on the vast appeal of Black Friday. Indeed, various reports say these very shoppers often describe the Black Friday event as arousing, surreal, and triggering a “hunter-gatherer” impulse, all of which makes the day enjoyable.

Our brains even respond to the perceived pain or pleasure of paying with cash versus credit cards.

Recently, neuroscience has also recognized that there may be more to shopping behavior than meets the eye. With the aid of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRIs), researchers have determined that purchase decisions involve complex brain activity. Certain areas of the brain light up when presented with certain products, and feel-good brain chemicals, such as dopamine and serotonin, are released based on perceived purchasing opportunities. Our brains even respond to the perceived pain or pleasure of paying with cash versus credit cards. So, yes, that elated feeling we get when making a purchase is real!

But does this mean that we’re all sitting ducks come holiday time? Hardly. However, it does make a case for being aware of our own particular vulnerabilities while shopping during the holiday season.

Ramani Durvasula, a psychologist and addiction expert featured on My Shopping Addiction, offers a few simple tips that can help you avoid overspending during the holiday season.

1. Take Time to Plan Ahead 

Feeling rushed at the end of the holiday season can make you rush overspending and making poor choices. Make a list of everyone ahead of time so you know what you are dealing with and whom you are buying for. This can keep you focused and prevent randomly grabbing things when in the store.

2. Make a Budget and Stick to It 

Bring either a prepaid debit or gift card to the store or a set amount of cash. Without the credit cards, you can't start spending blindly.

3. Shop At Times When You Do Not Feel Depleted 

If you are at your best in the morning, go then. If you feel care-worn or just worn out, you are more likely to make impulse buys and get sloppy.

4. Opt to not Go Into Stores 

If being in the store leads you to make impulse grab-and-go purchases, then stay away. Use online shopping to help manage temptations.

5. Think of New Ways of Gift Giving 

With the recent Hurricane Sandy devastation, a lot of charities are looking for donations. Instead of giving people gifts, ask them about their favorite charity and make a donation in their name. If you enjoy the process of shopping, then contact local organizations that are soliciting donations and find out what they need, set a budget and then shop for those items.

In the end, you should come away from the holiday shopping experience feeling empowered—not consumed—by your role as a consumer.

Avis Cardella is the author of Spent: Memoirs of a Shopping Addict. Visit her website at aviscardella.com

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