Shopping Addiction Is Real -- and It's Not Just Women

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Buzz Bissinger  NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 02: Buzz Bissinger attends a dinner and discussion hosted by The Norman Mailer Center at The Norman Mailer House on June 2, 2011 in New York City.  (Photo by Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for The Norman Mailer Center)
Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for The Norman Mailer Center
By Megan Willett

Shopping addiction is in the national spotlight this week after "Friday Night Lights" author Buzz Bissinger revealed in an article for GQ that he had spent $638,412 on designer clothes in three years.

Some people are skeptical about the reality of over-spending addictions, but they are very real, and can ruin a person's finances, relationships, and life.

We got in touch with Terrence Shulman, the founder and director of The Shulman Center in Detroit, which treats compulsive theft, shopping, and hoarding, to find out more about the addiction.

Here's what he had to say about "shopaholism." Answers have been edited for clarity.

BUSINESS INSIDER: Is there a certain type of person who is inclined to become a shopaholic?

TERRENCE SHULMAN: I would say we need more research on that. But it affects men and women roughly equally. It also affects young people, because they're getting access to credit cards at an earlier age. And kids want expensive gadgets: They want a new phone every year or a new video game every month. We also know it affects people who are well-to-do, are gainfully employed, and have a decent income just the same as people who are barely scraping by. So it really cuts across all categories.
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BI: How do shopaholics behave, and does the addiction affect men and women differently?

TS: There are different patterns. They may shop for themselves, or for other people to gain love or approval. Some people have to get bargains, while others need a high-end item to feel good, and still others need something that directly improves their self-image or their image in the eyes of others -- for instance, clothing. There are also people who buy and return items who we call return-aholics or bulimic shoppers.

Shopping addictions affect women a little more than men, but men are quickly catching up. Men don't tend to over-shop, but over-spend: On a car, on a vacation, on sporting events, or on a concert. They typically go for larger purchases. Women can certainly do that too, but I've found women are a little more cautious about large purchases, but tend to do more continual shopping than men.

BI: How many people suffer from shopping addictions?

TS: There was a landmark study done at Stanford in 2006 where they estimated about 6 percent of the population, and I think that's conservative. Then a few years later in 2008, the University of Virginia did a study that estimated it was closer to 9 percent. I would say about 10 percent of people have a compulsive buying or shopping problem.

BI: What causes people to over-shop?

TS: Two of the main things I see are over-indulgence and deprivation, either material or emotional. Traumatic events can also trigger the addiction since they could be going through life with feelings of pain, longing, emptiness, loss, and they find they feel better when they shop.

Then there's the group of people who were over-indulged and spoiled. They get used to having whatever they want when they want it, and they continue that pattern into adulthood.

BI: What is treatment like for shopaholics?

TS: I do a lot of therapy, sometimes via phone or Skype to make it convenient for people. And we try to get to the root of the problem. I also am a big fan of people being engaged in a support group. There's a Debtor's Anonymous group in each major city that you can find at DebtorsAnonymous.org, and even those who aren't necessarily in debt can find help there.

I also really encourage people to read books about this to educate themselves and engage their family, friends, and partners who don't understand it -- they don't get why the person can't just stop shopping, but it's easier said than done.

They also need to know what recovery looks like -- you can't expect the person to never shop again, but they need to curtail credit card usage, internet usage, get mailing lists, learn their triggers, create a budget or spending plan, and figure out what other activities they can channel that energy into. There's a lot of prompts in society to "BUY BUY BUY!" and so it's something most people will have to monitor for the rest of their lives.

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Shopping Addiction Is Real -- and It's Not Just Women

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Vans footwear calls forth images of rebellious skater youth, not to mention some musical credibility, given its frequent sponsorship of the annual Warped Tour. However, it may lose a few counterculture points given it's owned by brand giant VF Corporation (VFC), which also owns Timberland, SmartWool, 7 for All Mankind, Lee, and Wrangler, to name just a few.

In Maine circa 1970, a guy named Tom and his partner Kate dreamed up a whole slew of natural products for folks who, like them, yearned to simplify their lives. Certainly some of Tom's customers really wanted to stick it to The Man and all his chemical-laden merchandise, too. In 2006, consumer giant Colgate-Palmolive (CL) acquired Tom's of Maine. But let's face it: Tom's of Colgate-Palmolive just doesn't have the same ring.

Trader Joe's products always give a mysterious, boutique sort of feel, like some remarkable merchant named Joe has gone all over the world picking out exotic goods to stock the shelves. It's a nice thought, but in 2010 Fortune magazine revealed that some of Trader Joe's store brands are actually made by big companies like PepsiCo's (PEP) Frito-Lay. Incidentally, Trader Joe's is owned by Germany's Albrecht family, which also owns the Aldi Sud global supermarket chain. (U.S. Aldi supermarkets are owned by a different part of the same family.)

Morningstar Farms may sound like it should be just up a country road from Cascadian Farm, but the veggie-burger maker is owned by Kellogg (K). Who knows if Tony the Tiger participates in "Meatless Mondays" after a hearty breakfast of Kellogg's Frosted Flakes? Meanwhile, Kashi might make a lot of people want to don their tie-dyes and grab handfuls of granola, but it also happens to be a Kellogg subsidiary.

The fact that many brands boast counter-cultural appeal but are actually parts of huge conglomerates isn't necessarily awful. For example, Kashi says it's still run independently in La Jolla, Calif., according to its original business philosophy. In fact, it says its mission expanded in 2000 "with a little help from a friend." (Kellogg's one heck of a big friend, that's for sure.)

Likewise, Tom's of Maine still claims to be holding true to its original all-natural mission, despite Colgate-Palmolive's involvement. On the Tom's website, it claims, "Our simple, direct approach hasn't changed one bit: we listen to what our customers want (and don't want) in their products, we learn how it can be done, and we respond with effective natural (and sustainable) solutions."

Still, from the consumer viewpoint, it's always good to know a little bit more about what you're purchasing -- and putting in or on your body -- and from whom. Your dollars equal support, after all. Betty Crocker never had a choice as to which products she'd purchase (she was obviously a General Mills gal all the way!), but American shoppers do.

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