Wine-and-cheese parties go hand-in-hand with art gallery openings for several reasons, including this one: When you convert the consumer experience into a social one and inject alcohol, wallets open wider. High-end retail stores long ago discovered a similar truism: If you pour the customer a glass of wine, he or she will become less inhibited and likely spend more money.
Online shopping has embraced the drink-and-spend formula and as a result, instances of SUI -- shopping under the influence -- have taken off, said April Lane Benson, author of "To Buy Or Not To Buy: Why We Overshop And How To Stop," and counselor to the shopping-addicted. "From the comfort of your own home, you can jump online and spend a small fortune on alcohol-induced purchases," she said -- many of why you neither need nor can afford. The Census Bureau reported online retail sales of $54.8 billion, an increase of 3.3 percent from the first quarter of 2012.
And it appears that at least some of it is being fueled by booze, according to a British study by the shopping-habits website Kelkoo, which found nearly half of all Brits have shopped online after drinking and most of them admit that in doing so, they spent more than they would have if sober.
With the holiday shopping season upon us, experts say that midlifers are among the shoppers who need to be most on-guard about the practice.
"Medicating by shopping" is nothing new, said Benson. And midlifers, many of whom are experiencing loss -- whether it be of children leaving the home, loss of a spouse, loss of friends -- are especially susceptible, she said.
"I think we all know people who shop when they are lonely or bored. [In my practice] I've seen ample evidence of how the loss of a mate or friends triggers compulsive shopping, and certainly older people have more experience with loss," Benson said.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, psychology professor at University of Massachusetts in Amherst and a blogger at PsychologyToday.com, said midlifers are at especially high risk because they have a tendency to mix alcohol with sleep aids, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications and other prescription drugs which intensify the impact of the booze. It's "polypharmacy" and, she said, post 50s "don't realize how intoxicated they are when they sit down in front of the computer."
"Combine that with a bombardment of targeted online ads," she said, "and it can easily become a problem of overspending and buying things you don't need."
Based on preliminary data that she's collected for a yet-unfinished study, retired people 50 to 69 are spending large amounts of time online -- "many becoming borderline addicted," she said. This includes time spent online gaming and chatting on social media networks. "But once you are online, it becomes impossible to avoid the ads... and the ads are targeted to your age," she said, "Google is pinpointing you."
With inhibitions lowered because of alcohol and medications taken, "it becomes a very short step to making a bad decision," said Whitbourne.
How do you know if you've gone off the deep end on eBay? A large credit card bill is a good indicator. Being surprised when packages appear on the doorstep is another. The good news is that many online merchants offer free shipping -- both ways.
Treatment for drinking and shopping is simple once denial is overcome, Whitbourne said: "Generally there is an underlying issue of depression or loneliness. Treat that and the symptom of overshopping online goes away." She also suggests that if people are going to drink and spend time online, they find a game to play or a social media site to follow instead of something that costs money.
But don't expect too much help from online retailers, who appear to very much be aware of the practice that people drink and shop. According to the New York Times, the busiest time of day on eBay is from 6:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. in each time zone.
Does drinking fuel that burst of sales? "Absolutely," Steve Yankovich, vice president for mobile for eBay, told the paper, adding, “...if you think about what most people do when they get home from work in the evening, it’s decompression time. The consumer’s in a good mood.”
Some retailers specifically target the inebriated crowd by using
"limited time only" specials beginning after the witching hour, reported the Times.
Those who shopped while tipsy were more generous in buying for others and more likely to regret their purchase, the Kelkoo survey found. A fifth of those questioned said they couldn't remember what they had bought when they woke up the next morning -- a fact confirmed by Benson's practical experience as a therapist. "People are surprised when a package shows up on the doorstep," she said.
If there is a silver lining here, it's that most shopping while under the influence appears to occur online -- keeping drunk drivers off the road, said Benson.
While overshopping isn't the only bad decision made when the beer goggles come on, it can be among the most expensive. Frequently, people don't even remember what they ordered.
How do you know if you have a problem?
"If you use shopping as a quick fix for the blues, or if you feel guilty or ashamed, secretive about the behavior -- or if you try to stop and are unable to, you likely have a problem," Benson said. As in the case of any form of compulsive shopping, she added, "Ask yourself whether you feel that your life could be richer if you weren't shopping so much."
What alcohol does is erase your guard, she said. You make purchases without thought about whether you need them, have room for them, or will even use them. Women tend to buy clothing, jewelry, shoes and accessories, Benson said. "If they don't feel good about their self-image, they tend to stick with accessories that they don't need to try on." Men buy collectibles -- Chinese ceramics or watches or a particular kind of pen -- because "collecting gives the activity of compulsive shopping a more highbrow refined cast to it," she added. One of her clients came to her having bought more than 22,000 CDs. His wife said it was like being married to Crazy Eddie.
As for taking compulsive shopping online and adding alcohol to the experience, Benson said, it's a recipe for disaster. As Brad Tuttle reminded us in Time magazine, nothing good happens in a bar after midnight, and that's probably true online as well.