Consumed by consumption: a phenomenological exploration of the compulsive clothing buying experience

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Lorraine M. Martínez-Novoa (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Nancy Hodges

Abstract: “At some point we have to face the certain reality: despite all the good the world seems to offer, true happiness can only be found in one thing: shopping” (Ally McBeal, 1997 as cited in Wagner, 2007). In today’s society, shopping is positioned as a major source of happiness and a signal of status and success. Messages in popular media not only condone the excessive acquisition of materials possessions but promotes it. Indeed, there is a great deal of pressure to think that “we are what we have.” Most individuals have appropriate defense mechanisms to resist this pressure, however, there are others that do not. Life experiences and personal characteristics, when combined with sociocultural factors, can lead these individuals to the excessive consumption of products in the hopes of achieving a desired sense of self, avoiding negative feelings or emotions, or compensating for perceived internal deficiencies. Indeed, buying behavior becomes a response to the desire to exert control over one’s life. Paradoxically, these individuals develop and maintain such behavior to the extent that it ends up controlling them (Cardella, 2010; Eccles, 2002). These consumers, known in the literature as compulsive buyers, are the focus of this dissertation. Compulsive buying behavior (CBB) is conceptualized as a compulsive behavior in which the individual uses shopping as a compensation mechanism due to feelings of emptiness or as an escape from unpleasant situations or negative feelings (Neuner, Raab, & Reisch, 2005; O’Guinn & Faber, 1989). Research suggest that these consumers tend to prefer appearance-related products when engaging in the behavior. However, little is known about the reasons why compulsive buyers prefer such items. To this end, the purpose of this dissertation was to develop an in-depth understanding of the compulsive buying experience. Further, this study addresses gaps within the consumer research literature specifically regarding the preference among compulsive buyers for appearance-related products (ARPs) by examining the experiences of as well as the overall shopping and buying process among six women who are compulsive clothing buyers. Three objectives were developed to address the purpose of this dissertation: (1) to examine the behaviors that comprise compulsive buying, (2) to investigate the role of appearance-related products relative to these behaviors, and (3) to explore the meanings compulsive clothing buyers assign to appearance-related items. A phenomenological approach to inquiry was used to accomplish the objectives and overall purpose of this dissertation. A combination of in-depth interviews and personal journals formed the basis of the data collection. Six women between the ages of 32 and 55 years old comprised the sample. Three levels of interpretation were developed based on the data collected. Personal Narratives constituted the first level of interpretation. Among the areas covered in each narrative are: participants’ personal background and family situation, early experiences with shopping and buying, moment of realization, motivations and triggers to engage in the behavior, product preference, thoughts about shopping and buying, and the importance of shopping and buying in her life. A thematic interpretation grounded on commonalities and differences across participants’ experiences formed the second level of interpretation. Four conceptual areas – The Person, The Process, The Product, and The Path to Recovery – frame the themes that surfaced to link each participant’s experiences with those of the group. In the first conceptual area, The Person, participants’ lived experiences with CCB are examined and their understandings of the behavior, triggers and motivations to engage, moments of realization and major struggles are identified. In the second conceptual area, The Process, the process of shopping and buying compulsively for appearance-related items as explained by the participants is explored. The third conceptual area, The Product, presents a deeper examination of participants’ preference for appearance-related products. In the fourth and last conceptual area, The Path to Recovery, consequences of CCB as experienced by participants and their paths to recovery are explored. The third level of interpretation, Theoretical Considerations, was then developed to theorize about the role of appearance-related products on compulsive buying and how these items impact participants’ sense of self. Findings indicate that compulsive buyers prefer ARPs over other consumer goods due to their physical attributes, the way these items make them feel, and the fact that these products allow individuals to fix/alter who they are, communicate who they are, fill a gap in their lives and/or take control over an aspect of their lives. Findings support previous research suggesting that CBB is a result of the interplay between psychological and sociocultural factors (e.g., DeSarbo & Edwards, 1996; Mueller, Mitchell, Marino, et al., 2010, O’Guinn & Faber, 1989), but offers situational factors as significant triggers of the behavior. Specifically, findings point to two triggers that have received little to no attention in the consumer behavior literature: fashion blogs and retail promotions. Findings also point to tensions participants experience at different stages of the shopping and buying process, whether before, during or after. These tensions would benefit from further exploration, especially through the Dialogical Self Theory. The ability to fantasize was also found to play a significant role on participants’ CCB. Finally, results suggest that associations between the terms “shopping” and “therapy” must be limited, as these associations impede the recognition of the behavior as a disorder and therefore deny the seriousness of CBB.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2016
Apparel, Compulsive Clothing Buying, Consumer behavior, Consumption, Phenomenology, Shopping
Compulsive shopping
Women's clothing $x Psychological aspects
Clothing trade $x Psychological aspects
Fashion $x Psychological aspects

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