Many people will have hit the shops or gone online to bag a bargain in the January sales and may have felt the pinch until their next payday. It is an annual tradition for some. For others, though, shopping is not something that can be easily controlled — and is used as a coping mechanism for anxiety and low self-esteem.
These compulsive shoppers are unable to resist strong inner urges to make repeated purchases and to spend excessively — even when they can't afford to do so, or have no use for the product they buy.
Recent research indicates that compulsive buying behaviour affects almost 5 per cent of the adult population in developed countries — particularly young women in low-income groups. And the condition is on the rise, with latest estimates indicating that about 14 per cent of people have a mild form of the condition.
While we're all familiar with impulse buying — from picking up a chocolate bar at the checkout to having a blowout on pay day — compulsive buying behaviour is very different.
When most people buy things they're generally motivated by value and usefulness. Whereas compulsive buyers do so to ease stress, gain social approval, and boost self image.
This type of shopping is a behavioural addiction characterised by a reduced capacity for self control and a lower resistance to external triggers. It causes serious psychological, social and financial consequences for sufferers and their families.
My research with Agata Maccarrone-Eaglen at Salford Business School used samples from the UK, Spain, China and the Czech Republic to develop a new screening tool to diagnose this disorder. The tool uses seven behavioural statements. If a respondent strongly agrees with these, it could be an indication of compulsive buying behaviour.
Results indicate it screens more effectively for compulsive buying behaviour than existing diagnostic tools, and also distinguishes between mild and severe forms. Our aim is that people with compulsive buying disorder who use the tool can get diagnosed sooner, so they can access help.
Our research found the condition was more prevalent in the UK than in other countries we looked at, and more so among young adults — particularly women. This may be because at this age, excessive behaviour is often socially acceptable so the condition may go unrecognised.
And access to more credit facilities today is likely to aggravate the situation. Indeed, a recent study found that at least 70 per cent of the UK's working population were "chronically broke".
The consequences of compulsive buying can be just as severe as alcoholism and problem gambling — with people falling into serious debt and relationships crumbling. But unlike these addictions, there is no national charity dedicated to compulsive buying.
This is why it's important that GPs and other health professionals recognise the addiction and offer support such as cognitive behavioural therapy. Because only through diagnosis and treatment can the growing numbers afflicted with it hope to restore balance to their lives.
• Peter Schofield is senior academic, service sector management department, Sheffield Hallam UniversityCompulsive shoppers can't resist the urge to spend.