A Statistics Canada report released last October found that the value of online orders placed by Canadians reached $18.9 billion in 2012 — a 24 per cent increase from 2010. Among online shoppers, 42 per cent purchased clothing, jewelry or accessories. U.S.-based Forrester Research expects online retail sales in Canada to reach $34 billion in 2018 — representing 10 per cent of all total retail transactions in the country.
The 24-hour access to goods may offer convenience and promise of potential savings, but can prove problematic for consumers who have difficulties curbing the volume and frequency of their spending.
"Compulsive shoppers often feel that they are saving a lot of money buying into these deals ... but that's actually more of an illusion," said Sunghwan Yi, associate professor in the department of marketing and consumer studies at the University of Guelph. "These online or email-based promotions tend to really overwhelm them.
"People can promise themselves not to go to shopping malls. But even if you don't go ... you're receiving these emails constantly or you're encountering these promotions online — on Facebook, for example. This can be really, really difficult for people to curb their temptation to buy."
Jeff Schwartz, executive director of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services of Canada, said online purchases also offer the ability for one-click shopping where purchasing information can be stored on a secure site.
"Literally, all you have to do is find the item, one click and you've purchased it," he said. "In addition to that, they're also suggesting items other people have bought because you've bought this particular item. They're trying to expand your shopping cart as well. It's pushing people potentially to spend more than they otherwise would have which really throws the budget into a tailspin pretty quickly."
Penny Lawson, clinical manager of outpatient services and behavioural addictions with Bellwood Health Services in Toronto, said the facility has treated individuals with shopping addiction, and noted that there are "some pretty clear signs" that purchasing habits have become compulsive. Among them: spending money due to "uncomfortable emotional states" and wanting to change how they feel.
"Another one is feeling guilty and ashamed afterwards, buying things you don't need and a real biggie is lying to others about the money you spend," Lawson said. Compulsive shoppers may also place an "intense and excessive focus on money" and may be juggling accounts to accommodate their spending, she added.
Luisa Cameli, director of the Emotional Health CBT Clinic in Montreal — which is affiliated with the McGill University Health Centre — said individuals may also feel a loss of control over their spending and find difficulties maintaining their goal of reducing or stopping their shopping habits.
Both Cameli and Lawson noted that compulsive shoppers may purchase items that they store in their homes with the tags still on them that may never even be worn or used.
For those worried about the compulsive shopping habits of loved ones, Lawson said it can be as simple as expressing concerns about their spending and encouragement to seek help.
"One of the other things that families can do that is really helpful is if they budget together. In other words, talk together about how money is going to be spent in the household. Keep a log of expenses and receipts." Compulsive shoppers who need help can also seek financial counselling.
While Lawson encouraged family members to shop together, she said it's also important to take part in other forms of activities.
Cameli said the onus falls on compulsive shoppers to see that there is a problem and want to work on it.
"If they don't, then it's extremely difficult to change."
She sees the first step as identifying situations which carry risks — be it shopping online, in stores or for sales — and determining which thoughts may be triggers, such as a desire to reward themselves after working hard or spoiling themselves in the short term and saving later.
Cameli said compulsive shoppers can gradually ease their way into better habits with concrete strategies. That could involve confiding in a loved one who can accompany them while shopping, or talking on the phone if they're unable to be there in person. She also recommends limiting the amount of time for shopping excursions.
"Going with cash is probably a good strategy, deciding how much it is that you want to spend — like if you need a specific item — and then going with that amount of cash and no credit card," said Cameli.
Schwartz suggests individuals unsubscribe from emailed daily newsletters and deal promotions. There are also software options available that limit the amount of time users can spend on any one given site, he noted.
Schwartz also recommends following a 30-minute rule when it comes to online shopping, allowing time to reflect on a potential purchase before checkout.
"If you kind of break that mindset (and ask): 'Is this something that I really need?' It may cause you to change your mind when you come back after that 30 minutes."
Follow @lauren_larose on Twitter.Suggest a correction