THE FACT OF THE MATTER
FOR 16 years now, Amazon has changed how virtually every one of us shops, or at least 200 million of us in some 16 countries. In 2005, the company launched Prime, the first-of-its-kind, lightning-fast subscription delivery service. Along the way Amazon assembled an army of couriers hauling your packages in the boots of their cars, and turned toilet paper into the kind of thing people have delivered to their homes by the case-load — a status symbol of sorts for burgeoning middle class Ireland — no more so than in the time of the coronavirus.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos has made enough money — a lot from yours truly — to launch himself into space. Now, the online giant’s next great innovation is to build an actual department store, in the belief that, ultimately, we all, despite the phenomenal success of home delivery, prefer to go traipsing throughout a shopping centre. A day out, as it were.
The Wall Street Journal has reported that Amazon is planning to test several locations with their brick-and-mortar concept. This might seem somewhat counterintuitive. Especially during a pandemic, when online shopping has grown explosively and millions of us have got used to ordering even those loo rolls on the internet, why would the world’s most powerful retailer opt for the bricks-and-mortar option?
Perhaps, I would contend, that the more aspects of our lives move online, the clearer it becomes that some things are just better done in person; that we are more and more addicted to going to the shopping centre. It’s the tactile experience we crave.
Have we become a veritable nation of shopping centre addicts? After all, such centres, which have sprung up everywhere, offer everything from coffee shop to multiplex cinema to top brand stores to your everyday Penney’s for socks and jocks, and those pyjamas.
My psychologist friend from Magherafelt thinks so. And I learned a new word from him, over coffee the other morning in, yes, a shopping centre.
‘Oniomania’ means pathological or compulsive buying addiction. “Shopping addiction in full flight can be devastating and its wider negative impacts can be, shall we say, shocking,” he tells me.
“People with oniomania feel completely ruled by the compulsion to ‘shop and spend’. The time – let alone the emotional stress – involved in visiting shops, juggling credit card bills, hiding purchases from family and returning goods can take over our lives,” he says.
This addiction can lead to serious debt, dysfunctional family life, even neglected or over-indulged children. And, it’s a problem that exists on a worrying scale for, statistically, about one in every seven of us, my psychologist friend says.
I’m now in Penney’s, my psychologist friend tagging along. I’m buying socks and jocks, even though I’ve more than I could need at home.
Shopping, it seems, has a tangible effect on the brain; research shows that the chemical ‘dopamine’ surges when we are anticipating a new purchase. For some people, this ‘pleasure’ rapidly declines, sometimes as soon as they’ve made that purchase, and they need to repeat the process to experience the same ‘high’ again.
This increase in dopamine conjures up powerful feelings of reward and motivation. For most with any common sense, this usually remains balanced by self-control and, eh, practical financial considerations. When the process gets out of hand, however, and we become addicted to the pleasure sensation of spending, this can turn into a full-blown addiction.
Says my friend, as we reach the cashier desk: “Any addiction is a way of coping with emotions – so shopping for some people is a way to avoid confronting negative or uncomfortable feelings such as sadness, boredom, stress and anxiety. If you’re overloaded with work, for example, you feel you deserve that treat. But, if you become reliant on that ‘hit’, it can develop whereby your response to stress is always to buy something.”
“Hmmm,” I say. “That must be awful for those people…”
The girl at the check-out puts my three five-pack of boxers and two dozen socks, adorned with Bart Simpson, into the iconic brown bag and I swipe my debit card.
It is declined. Insufficient funds. I’m embarrassed. And suddenly feel rather down. “I’ll leave them,” I mutter to no one in particular.
We exit Penney’s and I say sheepishly to my psychologist friend: “I’ll order some online when I get home.” With the rider: “We need to boost the economy in this time of coronavirus…”