BUSINESS

Cyber Monday Caution: Confessions Of An Online Shopaholic And Why You May Be At Risk

11/30/2015 08:28 EST | Updated 11/30/2016 05:12 EST
Michelle Summerfield pulls a plaid designer dress from her bedroom closet in Halton Hills, Ont. She bought it online from Saks Fifth Avenue last year but has never worn it. The $600 price tag is still attached.

"Not a good thing," she confesses about her neglected purchase. "I need to either sell it or wear it."

The dress was part of a 2014 cyber shopping binge where Summerfield blew $19,000 on clothes.

And then there's the ten collectible dolls now stored in the basement. Summerfield also bought them online, spending about $3,000 in total.

She unboxes for CBC News one of the most regal dolls, Savannah, who sports an elaborate white lace ball gown. Summerfield also unveils the bill: $269.99 US.

When asked why she bought the dolls, Summerfield pauses and then laughs at the absurdity of it all.

"You know what, I can't give you a rational answer," she admits. "It was something for me to collect and something for me to do, an expensive thing for me to do."

Summerfield fell prey to the alluring world of online shopping where it's so easy to click one's paycheque away without a second thought. Combine that with endless online marketing like promotional emails and pop-up ads, and some shoppers just can't resist the temptation.

"You become desensitized," says Summerfield. "It's just like, 'click, done,' [and] okay, I just bought $400 worth of clothes."

Now, at age 39, she's back living with her parents while she tries to pay off her whopping $27,000 shopping debt.

Could you be at risk?

Debt expert Jeffrey Schwartz warns many of us could end up overspending as the online shopping trend continues to grow. "It's a big problem because, really, online shopping is all about convenience," says the executive director of Consolidated Credit Counseling Services.

Schwartz explains that cyber shoppers are just that much more removed from the reality of parting with their money. "We're not walking down the aisles with a shopping cart anymore and physically taking cash out of our wallet."

And the holiday season could make matters worse. According to a newly released Environics Research survey commissioned by TD Bank, almost three quarters of Canadians polled said they do at least some of their Christmas season shopping online.

The firm surveyed 6,149 adults between January 20 and February 8th.

The survey found that 37 per cent of those who do most of their holiday buying online say they spend more than they would in an actual store.

"You have access to multiple retailers, you can really look around for a lot of different things and, as a result, not track as quickly in terms of where your [money] can go," says TD's vice-president of credit cards, Frank Psoras.

Cyber money pit

Summerfield knows how quickly the cash can disappear. She describes an unintentional shopping spree while surfing the designer clothing site, Net-A-Porter. All she initially wanted was a pair of high heels for about $300.

But then she saw the shoes advertised with a great looking outfit on the site. So she ended up buying the accompanying jeans and sweater as well, dropping more than $1000.

"You see all the outfits all planned out for you, and it makes it dangerous," she says.

Also dangerous, says Summerfield, are the wish lists that online retailers encourage you to create without thinking you will ever buy the items — until you do.

"It gets really tempting," she admits. [Retailers] send you an email reminding you, 'Hey you've got these beautiful things in your wish list. Are you sure you don't want to buy it?'"

But Summerfield, who works as an account manager, eventually learned how to resist temptation. Nearing age 40, divorced, bunking with her parents and deep in debt, she finally decided to stop the online shopping madness.

"There were certain aspects of my life where I was unhappy. That's the primary problem," she said. "I [was] trying to fulfil it through stuff which is absolutely the wrong thing to be doing."

The recovering shopaholic has now adopted a minimalist lifestyle where she spends little, a commitment she plans to keep even through the holiday season.

But Summerfield admits she sometimes still gets the cyber shopping itch.

Fortunately, she has tools to help her fight the urge. During the difficult early days, she downloaded an app called StayFocusd, which blocked her from accessing specified sites.

She also got rid of shopping apps on her phone and unsubscribed to online retailers that once bombarded her with promotional emails.

These days, when Summerfield gets the online shopping bug, she turns to a more fruitful activity. "I read books, lots of books, and I exercise," she says.

Instead of collecting dolls or buying entire designer outfits, her new goal is to pay off her debt and move out of her parents' home. She says the only major online deal she'll do now is sell on eBay some of her most senseless purchases.

"Stuff is no longer the way to go," says Summerfield. "You don't find happiness in stuff. You just find lots of debt in stuff."

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