U of R economics student finds excessive online shopping an enduring effect of COVID-19.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, public health measures helped limit the spread of the virus, reducing illness and mortality. However, enforced social distancing affected people’s emotional health and also drove people online, where they spent considerable amounts of time talking to friends, streaming television and movies – and shopping.
Findings from several American studies suggest that people in that country changed their spending habits as a result of the COVID pandemic, including doing more frequent impulse buying. University of Regina student Jacob Smith was intrigued by the idea of exploring the change in consumer behaviour in Canada, impulse buying in particular. “Impulse buying is obviously something that does not fit the idea of the rational consumer,” says Smith, who graduated this spring with an honours degree in economics. He fulfilled the final requirements for that degree with a novel study exploring the impact of the pandemic on impulsive and compulsive buying behaviour among consumers in Canada.
Impulsive and compulsive buying behaviours
Generally, impulsive buying is when someone makes a purchase on a whim, while compulsive buying refers to the compulsive need to shop to bring comfort, reduce stress, or improve self-image.
The big question Smith was trying to answer: Did impulsive and compulsive buying behaviours get worse as a result of the pandemic?
“Based on what we knew from the literature, COVID created this perfect storm for increasing these behaviours,” says Smith. “People faced long periods of isolation. For many, their mental health deteriorated, they were undergoing prolonged periods of boredom, and they were spending more time online, surfing the internet. It seemed like all of this worked to encourage impulsive and compulsive buying behaviours.”
He was also curious to see whether people who had problems controlling their shopaholic tendencies pre-pandemic dialed up their shopping further as a result of the pandemic.
Smith conducted his project under the supervision of Dr. Viktoriya Galushko, an associate professor in the University of Regina’s Department of Economics. His piece is one part of a larger body of research she’s conducting, sparked by changes she noted in her own online shopping habits during COVID and conversations with some of her friends. “I wondered, is it just me and a couple of my friends, or is it more prevalent now?” says Galushko. “COVID is over, but once I’d learned that you can get great deals online and it’s so much easier – I can shop without leaving the house, in the evening after the kids go to bed – I do find that I’m actually spending more money now. I can afford it. But a lot of other people maybe can’t.”
Abnormal consumer behaviour
Smith’s review of the literature revealed that while many researchers before him had looked at the economic impact of previous pandemics, there was a dearth of studies exploring a pandemic’s impact on abnormal consumer behaviour. He decided to help fill that gap. In January 2023, with the support of the online marketing research firm Qualtrics, Smith surveyed 519 Canadians between the ages of 18 and 88, which constituted a representative sample of adult consumers.
Many respondents reported that easy access to online shopping had increased their impulsive and compulsive buying behaviour – a finding borne out in the research literature. “Obviously, in the pandemic there’s a lot more time to scroll,” says Smith. “You’re not going out with friends. You’re probably not doing your hobbies as much. It seems that when your mental state is lower, shopping is kind of an escape from feeling down.”
“People know they overspend, that they should not be buying that much, but they’re having trouble controlling themselves.”
He found that for about a third of those consumers who were shopaholics (impulsive or compulsive buyers) before COVID, their excessive buying behaviour became even worse. In contrast, only about 10 per cent of those consumers who identified themselves as those who hardly ever made unplanned purchases prior to COVID reported excessive buying behaviour as a result of the pandemic. “The overwhelming majority of non-shopaholics seemed to have good self control and reacted to the stress well and didn’t seem to develop any buying control issues,” says Smith. “But for a much larger proportion of the consumers with prior shopping issues, excessive buying became more of a problem”
Slightly over 60 per cent of respondents said they started shopping online more as a result of the pandemic lockdowns; 37 per cent said this new buying behaviour had become a lasting habit.
Smith found the people who suffered the most were those who already had compulsive buying habits before the start of the pandemic. The psychological literature, he says, is increasingly showing this behaviour shares a lot of traits, issues, and financial stresses with addictions to gambling, sex, or being online.
“People know they overspend, that they should not be buying that much, but they’re having trouble controlling themselves.” says Galushko. In the survey, 28 per cent of respondents reported that their level of debt had climbed during the pandemic, with increased online shopping and their uncontrolled spending the biggest culprit.
While the general findings didn’t surprise Smith – they match up closely with what he found in his review of the research literature – he was shocked by the number of people who struggled. “The scale, in terms of the number of people who reported having these behaviours both prior to and post- pandemic, was a little bit scary,” says Smith.
Smith was also curious whether people’s emotional state declined as a result of the pandemic. His survey revealed that 60 per cent of respondents reported the pandemic had impacted their psychological health, and of these, a full 80 per cent said their mental health had worsened.
Why this matters
For the many retailers who quickly pivoted to online sales during the pandemic, easy access to customers helped boost their bottom line. However, Smith hopes his study findings give rise to efforts to increase public awareness about the potential impacts of online shopping for people with addictive personalities, in the same way that efforts have increased to educate people about the risks of gambling.
“I think a lot of people think ‘It’s just shopping,’ or ‘It’s retail therapy.’ We all do a bit of it from time to time,” says Smith. “But let’s not lose sight of the fact that in extreme cases, this behaviour can be quite damaging to people’s lives, their jobs, and their families. Also, there is evidence to suggest that those with pre-existing excessive shopping behaviours are more susceptible to increases in such behaviours during times of economic and emotional turmoil.”