The Difference Between Compulsive and Impulsive Shopping

Woman holding up dress in mirror in store

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Who doesn't love a great sale? Hitting the shops, looking for a bargain and buying things that are aesthetically pleasing may be considered a benign retail therapy by some, but for others, shopping can turn into an addiction, not unlike drug and alcohol addictions. 

Compulsive vs. Impulsive Shopping

Experts who have looked into the issue say that there is an important distinction between compulsive shopping and impulse buying and it lies with the internal motivation, or reason, for the making the purchase. While impulse buying is largely unplanned and happens at the moment in reaction to an external trigger — such as seeing the desired item in the shop — compulsive shopping is more inwardly motivated.

A compulsive shopper will plan the shopping experience as a way to avoid or relieve uncomfortable internal feelings, such as anxiety.

Compulsive shoppers are also more likely to experience negative consequences as a result of their shopping than impulse buyers, such as running into financial difficulties, having arguments with family members, and experiencing problems with work life. They are also more likely to fall into a pattern of addictive behavior, in which they shop more and more in an attempt to stave off stress and anxiety. This is how shopping addiction develops.

Types of Shopping Addicts

According to Shopaholics Anonymous, a support group to help shopping addicts recover, there are several different types of shopaholics. They include: 

  • Bargain seekers who purchase items they don’t need because they are on sale
  • Bulimic shoppers who get caught in a vicious cycle of buying and returning
  • Collectors who don’t feel complete unless they have one item in each color or every piece of a set
  • Compulsive shopaholics who shop when they are feeling emotional distress
  • Shopaholics who want the image of being a big spender and love flashy items
  • Trophy shopaholics who are always shopping for the perfect item

Signs of Addiction

Like those addicted to other substances and behaviors, shopping addicts often become addicted to the behavior because of the way they feel while shopping. For these people, the act of shopping releases endorphins and dopamine in the brain, creating pleasurable sensations that become addictive. Some experts estimate that 10 to 15 percent of the U.S. population may be predisposed to these feelings.

Because shopping is an activity that everyone must engage in, to some extent, it can be difficult to tell when shopping has crossed the line into addiction. Many people love to shop and even spend more than they should, but these traits don't make them addicts. To tell whether your shopping or someone else's shopping has spiraled out of control, pay attention to these signs: 

  • Declining financial health or high amounts of credit card debt
  • Distressed relationships due to spending or shopping too much
  • Hiding shopping or the amount spent during shopping
  • Losing control during shopping sprees
  • Shopping to avoid feeling guilty about a previous shopping spree
  • Shopping to console yourself when feeling angry or depressed
  • Spending more than you can afford

Getting Help

Treating shopping addiction often requires a multidisciplinary approach, involving professional therapy, medication when indicated, and peer support.

While there is no "cure" for shopping addiction, many shopaholics are able to regain a sense of control and improve their finances and relationships as a result. Maintaining progress is essential since shopping is part of everyday life and cannot be avoided and, thus, the temptation is always present. 

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2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Faber, Ronald. Wiley International Encyclopedia of Marketing. Impulsive and Compulsive Buying. doi:10.1002/9781444316568.wiem03007

  2. Müller A, Brand M, Claes L, et al. Buying-shopping disorder-is there enough evidence to support its inclusion in ICD-11? CNS Spectr. 2019;24(4):374-379. doi:10.1017/S1092852918001323

Additional Reading
  • DeSarbo, W. & Edwards, E. Typologies of compulsive buying behavior: A constrained clusterwise regression approach. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 5:231-262.