Is Online Buying out of Control? Electronic Commerce and Consumer Self-Regulation

Article excerpt

Impulsive (Rook & Fisher, 1995), compulsive (Faber & O'Guinn, 1992), and addictive (Krych, 1989) buying are forms of unregulated consumer behavior that have attracted attention in real-world shopping environments. Individually, unregulated buying can result in consumer bankruptcies and major life crises. Cumulatively, it may inflate consumer prices (Faber & O'Guinn, 1989) and incur the social costs of ruined lives and broken homes. Now that retailing is migrating to the Internet, has unregulated buying followed?

Previously, LaRose (2001) showed that popular e-commerce sites included features that could stimulate unregulated buying. Surveys indicated that online shoppers were more impulsive than others (Donthu & Garcia, 1999) and that impulsive buyers accounted for between one fourth (Angus Reid Group, 2000) and four fifths (@adtech, 1999) of e-commerce consumers. There was anecdotal evidence of addiction in reports of "eBay addicts" (Hedegaard, 1999; Myer, 1999; Morrison, 1999), a case study of a compulsive online shopper (Greenfield, 1999), and in "shopaholic" postings to the alt.fashion discussion group. With over half of all Internet users shopping online (Pew Research, 2001), unregulated online buying looms as a consumer issue and a media effects issue.

College students are a population of interest in that they are the first "Internet generation" of shoppers--the 18-24 year olds so prized by marketers. College-aged consumers spend 12% of their total income online, and those purchases are concentrated in categories (clothes, music, and books) frequently associated with compulsive buying (Pastore, 2000). Students are at particular risk to acquire excessive shopping habits due to their propensity for "addictive" online habits (Morahan-Martin & Schumacher, 2000) and unregulated offline buying (Roberts, 1998) as well as their new-found access to consumer credit cards (Hayhoe, Leach, Turner, Bruin, & Lawrence, 2000). Developmental studies of compulsive buying (e.g., Valence, D'Astous, & Fortier, 1988) suggest that these habits are formed in late adolescence. Depression afflicts college students more frequently than other populations (Rich & Scovel, 1987), and we will see below that depression plays an important role in the initiation and progress of excessive buying behavior.

In search of a fresh theoretical perspective, the present study interprets research on impulsive, compulsive, and addictive online buying within a theory of human behavior well known to media effects researchers: Albert Bandura's (1986) social cognitive theory.

A Social Cognitive Perspective of Unregulated Buying

Media were previously assigned a minor role in unregulated consumer behavior: stimulating buying impulses with advertising (Faber, 1992). With the mediation of the entire retail transaction via electronic commerce, a more comprehensive framework is called for.

LaRose (2001) synthesized impulsive, compulsive, and addictive buying within the framework of social cognitive theory (Bandura, 1986), arguing that they formed a continuum of behavior representing varying degrees of deficient self-regulation. Most consumers have an impulse buying tendency, which is "to buy spontaneously, unreflectively, immediately, and kinetically" (Rook & Fisher, 1995). For some, the desire for specific products shifts to a general desire for compulsive buying, defined as a "chronic, repetitive purchasing that becomes a primary response to negative events or feelings [that] ... becomes very difficult to stop and ultimately results in harmful consequences" (O'Guinn & Faber, 1989, p. 155). As abuse turns to dependency, compulsive buying becomes a behavioral addiction (Marlatt, Baer, Donovan, & Kivlahan, 1988; Marks, 1990).

While the origins of unregulated buying are unknown (Black, 1996), classical learning theory is commonly invoked to explain its progression (e. …