Can Bargain Hunting Be Addictive?
Bargain hunting as a form of shopping addiction.
Posted November 11, 2015
“Bargain hunting may save money, but for some people, looking for the next ‘great deal’ becomes an addiction. The call of the clearance rack wins out over practical matters – like whether you need or want what you found, or even have a place to put it” — Tesh Media, "Are You Addicted To Bargain Hunting?"
A few months ago, I did some background research for a newspaper interview on the psychology of bargain hunting (only for the journalist then to interview somebody else about it). Instead of wasting all the material collected, I decided to use it for this article. Most of the material in this article borders on "pop psychology" but I found it interesting nonetheless. For instance, in a recent article on the BBC News website, the (anonymous) author provided some basic rules on how to be a more savvy shopper and bargain hunter (which I am quoting verbatim):
- Try to avoid stores that are too busy with loud music. This can confuse and distract you from judging what is a genuine offer.
- Ask the sales rep to repeat the sales details in a clear and slow manner and if possible ask him/her to write them down.
- Before you make a decision take a break, count from one to ten and think again about the benefits and perils of the offer.
- Can you shop alone? Peer pressure has been proven to be a key indicator for individuals buying products that they do not need.
- Never shop when you are feeling emotionally upset. Purchasing to overcome any mood or behavioural troubles is not beneficial in the long term.
- Go shopping after a meal or when in a good and clear mood. There is evidence that shopping when you feel peckish can make you spend more than intended.
As soon as we enter any shop (online or offline) we are being bombarded with psychological tactics in an attempt to get us to buy more products (such as selling products that have a price ending in 99p). The BBC article interviewed consumer psychologist Dr. Dimitri Tsivrikos who said:
"These prices are obviously used to convince you that you are spending less than you actually are. A price reduction makes it even more tempting. The bargain price is appealing to you because it challenges the status quo. The retailer appears not to be in complete control of the final price of the product, and this makes you feel that you are now in control. And because of that you feel you can negotiate the final price that you have to pay – whether that is the sale price or even a buy one get one free deal…Brain studies have shown that when we are excited by a bargain, this interferes with your ability to clearly judge whether it is actually a good offer or not.”
When I started researching online, I came across a number of articles claiming that for a small minority, bargain hunting was addictive (as the opening quote demonstrates). In another article on the Tech Media website, reference was made to April Lane Benson’s edited book I Shop, Therefore I Am. According to that article (which merges bargain hunting addiction with shopping addiction more generally):
“[Benson] says that when it comes to bargain-hunting addictions, what people buy isn’t as important as how big the price reduction is. In fact, the bigger the price cut, the more tempting a purchase is. After all, if something’s 80% off the original price – you’re saving 80 percent! What you may not consider is that by not buying, you’ll save 100%. Bargain addicts also make illogical purchases, like grabbing up sale-price auto parts for cars they don’t own, or bargain kid’s clothes for children they don’t have…So, why is a bargain-hunting addiction so common? Tim Kasser, a professor of psychology at Knox College in Illinois, says it’s a way for people to ease insecurities, and feel more competent and in control. In fact, shopping addicts often don’t realize they have a problem, even when the bags and bills start stacking up. It usually takes a big event to bring it to their attention, like divorce, a new baby, unemployment, or retirement. Or they simply max out their credit cards, and have no more spending power.”
In the same article published on the Tech Media website, it claimed the five signs of being ‘addicted’ to bargain hunter were:
- You hit sales and clearance racks when you feel angry or blue. Or you feel guilty after shopping and hide your purchases.
- You spend more money than you can afford.
- You see sales as opportunities you can’t pass up.
- Another clue you’re a bargain addict: You spend so much time tracking down deals that it intrudes on your time with family and friends.
- You often forget what you bought, and find things in your closets you’ve never used
Obviously some of these ‘warning signs’ tap into what I believe are the core components of addiction (such as the fourth bullet point that taps into ‘conflict’), however, most of the criteria have nothing to do with ‘addiction’ whatsoever. Using bargain-hunting as a way of making oneself feel better mirrors what is found in other addictions, but characteristics such as not being able to pass up a bargain, and forgetting what has been bought are not core signs of addiction but are idiosyncratic consequences that specifically relate to bargain hunting. Another article also noted:
“According to new survey findings from Consumer Reports, 23% of women say they sometimes buy things they don’t need just because they’re on sale. For most of us, getting a discount is enough of a reward: 80% say they would hunt for a bargain even if money weren’t an issue for them. In general, the survey found bargain shopping has increased significantly, from 76% in 2011 to 83% today. That shift may be due in part to the growing use of smartphone coupons, which has increased from 11% in 2011 to 24% today. Human psychology may help explain the irresistible allure of a discount. Research suggests that people tend to enjoy bargains, regardless of whether any financial gain is involved. You might even be able to blame your bargain hunting on Mom and Dad, because some experts say genetic differences make certain people predisposed to finding pleasure in raiding the sale rack”.
This paragraph provided a hyperlink to some genuine academic research carried out by Dr. Peter Darke and his colleagues (published in a 2006 issue of the Journal of Applied Social Psychology). They carried out a couple of experiments examining both the financial and non-financial motivations underlying bargain hunting. They reported that:
“Subjects read scenarios that described the purchase of a television set. Scenarios differed in terms of whether a bargain was received, whether there was personal financial gain, and whether the sale was acquired through skill or luck. The results suggest that subjects generally enjoyed bargains regardless of any financial gain, thereby implying that nonfinancial motives might also be involved. Surprisingly, bargains acquired skillfully were not enjoyed more than lucky bargains. Thus, achievement motives could not explain why subjects enjoyed bargains when there was no associated financial gain. Instead, it seemed that acquiring a bargain was primarily considered a matter of luck.”
I was also interested in the claims that bargain hunting might be underpinned by genetic influences. These claims were made by Mark Ellwood in his 2013 book Bargain Fever: How to Shop in a Discounted World. Ellwood summarized his book in an article for Time magazine and wrote:
“As it turns out, a passion for finding bargains is genetically preprogrammed in all humans, although it’s activated much more in some than others. Spotting special offers triggers a release of dopamine, the feel-good neurotransmitter that I like to think of as ‘buyagra’. Dopamine is such a powerful chemical that our brains have developed a built-in system to clean it up as quickly as possible. One in four Caucasians has an otherwise harmless flaw in what’s known as the COMT gene. While the rest of us can flush our brains free of dopamine with the efficiency of a Dyson, those with an iffy COMT gene can brandish only a hand broom. It takes more time and effort to flush their brains clean of buyagra – and so they are physiologically more prone to splurge, especially on bargains.”
Ellwood claimed that as soon as “bargain addicts sees one ‘Sale’ sign – cue a jolt of dopamine – they’re hooked”. More specifically, he goes on to argue that:
“Of course, a propensity for bargain hunting isn’t purely genetic…Many hardcore coupon cutters I’ve interviewed cite hardscrabble childhoods or food-bank visits as the foundation of their frugality. Certainly, in the past decade, deal hunting has gone from a sign of indigence to one of intelligence; thanks to the roiling economy and an uncertain future, more people have migrated to the markdown section than ever before…Internet-equipped smartphones turned price comparison into a one-step process in your palm — the practice known as showrooming that’s so detested by retailers. But in our search for bargains, we would do well to ask ourselves whether we are really trying to economize or whether we’re being driven by an even stronger impulse: the chemical drive to get a good price.”
Given that I believe shopping can be an addiction in a minority of individuals, it doesn’t take too much of a leap to suggest bargain hunting could be an addiction (or even a sub-type of shopping addiction). However, as far as I am aware, there has never been any empirical research examining ‘bargain hunting addiction’ more specifically. Based on the few online articles that I read, it certainly appears that we are living in a time and an age where such research would be worth carrying out.
References and further reading
BBC News (2015). The psychology of shopping for bargains. Located at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/consumer/23818336
Benson, A.L. (2000). I Shop Therefore I Am: Compulsive Buying and the Search for Self. Jason Aronson Inc. Publishers.
Consumer Reports (2014). America's bargain-hunting habits. What shoppers will and won't do to save a buck. April 30. Located at: http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/news/2014/04/america-s-bargain-hunti…
Darke, P. R., & Freedman, J. L. (1995). Nonfinancial Motives and Bargain Hunting1. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 25(18), 1597-1610.
Davenport, K., Houston, J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Excessive eating and compulsive buying behaviours in women: An empirical pilot study examining reward sensitivity, anxiety, impulsivity, self-esteem and social desirability. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 10, 474-489.
Ellwood, M. (2013). The genetics of bargain hunting. Time, October 21. Located at: http://ideas.time.com/2013/10/21/the-genetics-of-bargain-hunting/
Ellwood, M. (2013). Bargain fever: How to shop in a discounted world. London: Portfolio.
Lebowitz, S. (2014). Extreme bargain hunters: How far would you go for a deal. LearnVest, May 2. Located at: http://www.learnvest.com/2014/05/extreme-bargain-hunters-how-far-would-…
Maraz, A., Eisinger, A., Hende, Urbán, R., Paksi, B., Kun, B., Kökönyei, G., Griffiths, M.D. & Demetrovics, Z. (2015). Measuring compulsive buying behaviour: Psychometric validity of three different scales and prevalence in the general population and in shopping centres. Psychiatry Research, 225, 326–334.
Tesh Media Group (2015). Are you addicted to bargain hunting? Located at: http://www.tesh.com/story/money-and-finance-category/are-you-addicted-t…
Williams, A. (2013). Bargain fever: The new secrets of shopping in a discounted world. The Week, November 5. Located at: http://theweek.com/articles/457383/bargain-fever-new-secrets-shopping-d…