It’s 10pm on a Friday night. I’ve had a drink and can feel the stresses of the week lifting into a light mist. It’s the point at which I’d usually tell a friend how much I love them, or have the courage to do the "Dirrty" routine from Xtina’s album Stripped. Instead, I open the eBay app on my phone, sink into the sofa and scroll.
Buying stupid stuff when you’re drunk isn’t unusual but who am I kidding? I don’t need to be drunk to order a collection of framed 1960s dog photos, or a jumper professing my love for peanut butter. I do it all the time. And, as the pandemic goes on, and on and on, it seems I'm not the only one. Anecdotal reports of shopping 'addictions' under lockdown are on the rise and e-commerce shopping is up 72%.
App shopping is my drug of choice. I bid on items when I wake up in a fit of anxiety at 4am, certain a novelty cat ornament will calm the panic pulsing through my veins. I order face masks and strange shampoos from Amazon after a Monday of feeling tired and gross. I spend evenings curating my ASOS shopping basket, or spontaneously buying a Dolly Parton brooch from an Etsy seller that’s having an Instagram sale.
Every 'confirm purchase' gives me a little dopamine hit, a rush of excitement. Then there’s the anticipation of the monotony of WFH getting interrupted by a parcel delivery. The opportunity to turn every week into Christmas through random, low-cost surprises — it becomes addictive.
I never used to think of this addiction as a serious addiction, like gambling or drugs. I’m not harming anyone or myself – most things I buy are under £5. It’s only when I moved last year that I realised things might have gotten out of hand. I filled box after box after box with bubble-wrapped bric-a-brac. I had more cat-themed objects than I did crockery. All this stuff suddenly felt like a heavy weight on me.
Financially, even though I’m making small, relatively inexpensive purchases at a time, it still adds up. That’s when the guilt hits. Maybe I could have some actual savings by now if I didn’t buy all this junk? Then there’s the embarrassment of your colleagues questioning why you get so many packages; the purchases they contain eventually retiring to a shady corner of your bedroom, like a mountain of wrappers post-Ferrero Rocher binge.
Luckily I’m not alone. Twenty-six-year-old Freya buys things from eBay at least once a week, "Specifically when I'm running out of money as I can do Paypal 'buy now pay later' and that gives me a buying hit without actually spending any money…yet". She buys mostly stationery, makeup or jewellery because it makes her feel good. "Also, I like to surprise my future self. I buy a lot of gifts from Hong Kong or China so they take a while to come and then I get an exciting package!" When I ask if she ever feels guilty about it, she says: "Not if it's under a fiver. I’d spend that much on a coffee so why not something better?"
When struggling to sleep, 30-year-old Sarah finds herself looking at bookcases and hall tables on eBay for hours. "I constantly want to make myself and my life better and more attractive to others. When I leave the house I judge myself on my hall table: 'No, that hall table does not represent me.' So I guess my newfound obsession with eBay is a search for identity. Tragic."
While some wind down with Netflix or a glass of wine, Sarah has replaced these with eBay. "I find it relaxing to trawl through pages of dining tables and mirrors and imagine them in my life. I guess it’s a shopping addiction. There’s no tangible object I can get from watching a Netflix show, but I can buy the stuff I’m looking at on eBay." She also loves that the objects she’s buying come with a story. "I recently bought a table from eBay and the man who previously owned the table sent me all this extra stuff with it for free, like a table cover and wood polish spray and a special wood polish cloth. Clearly, the table meant something to him. I imagined that man being sad sending me his table, with all its table memories, packing it in a van and maybe even regretting it."
A study by eBay UK showed a generation of renters who are "spending in the present", splashing out on decorative knick-knacks and colourful kitchenware. When owning a home is so impossible for many millennials, who can blame them for looking to small purchases for some sense of security and societal standing?
When Jess, 31, shops, it’s all about finding some comfort. "Scrolling through clothes on various apps is almost a default for me as soon as I sit down in front of the TV. I find it quite repetitive and calming — I guess like the way people do jigsaws or adult colouring books. It's a low-impact mental exercise and it stops my mind from wandering onto the scary stuff." The act of scrolling is more alluring to Jess than the actual shopping, and if she does shop, she rarely spends over a tenner. "It's just little things like earrings, or a cheap dress on sale that will no doubt look horrendous on and I'll send back. I don't know why I do it. I guess the constant adverts don't help. Or the app notifications about a new promo code or a sale that seems to be on every day. Note to self: delete clothes-shopping apps."
The main incentive for microshopping addicts seems to be having something to look forward to. In the middle of a stressful week, when the meetings and to-do lists are endless, ordering things can feel like a way to get through it all. For those of us that suffer with mental illness, it can even become a form of therapy. I find that mindlessly scrolling through listings distracts my racing thoughts and temporarily dulls any creeping sense of dread. The mainstream adoption of buy now pay later schemes only makes it easier.
Unfortunately, Wendy Gregory,a psychologist and writer, says this is not a good way of dealing with anxiety: "If you are unable to control this behaviour, then it is potentially damaging to your mental health." The instant gratification buying things brings masks the true causes of the anxiety and can actually prevent those suffering from seeking more long-term solutions or treatment.
It feels impossible to stop, though, because spending money is easier than ever thanks to targeted adverts, instant pay and the weightlessness of a virtual shopping basket. Then there are the YouTube shopping hauls, Instagram influencers and aspirational Pinterest boards, filling your head with wants. It makes me wonder if technology has made buying things more problematic. "In one sense, yes," says Wendy. "Technology enables shopping addiction in the same way that online bingo or casinos enable gambling addictions. Online sites exacerbate the problem by constantly coming up with suggestions for items you might also like. It’s all too easy to click on them."
Scrolling through some recent posts on a shopping addiction subreddit, I see how bad things can get when the ease of small app purchases is taken to the extreme. People as young as 15 have built up debts on their parents' credit cards, with one girl commenting: "I am constantly internet shopping, so much so that I'll be adding to carts in class or when I'm supposed to be studying." Others just feel hollow from it all: "Despite all my hobbies there’s nothing that consumes my interests so completely."
If you’re reading this and feeling a little hot under the collar of your recently purchased ASOS shirt, Wendy’s advice is to go cold turkey. "Delete those sites from your devices and seek other ways to control the anxiety." If this feels too extreme, simply limiting the time you spend browsing online to 30 minutes a day, or reducing it to alternate days each week, can be effective.
"If you really can’t resist, then before you hit the buy button get up and go and do something that distracts you for 10 minutes. Most cravings subside in that amount of time. Or put your item in the basket and resolve not to check out until the next day. You will probably find that you no longer want the item," says Wendy.
As with anything, moderation is key. Treating yourself to small gifts can give life a little colour when everything around you is swimming in stress. As long as you don’t rely on shopping to fix everything and keep a close eye on your finances (and storage space), it’s probably okay. Just don’t make the mistake I did of ordering fish-shaped sliders from eBay — they’re non-returnable.
If you are struggling with debt, please contact StepChange who can help you figure out the next steps.