eCommerce Overdose: China's Shopping Addiction

We investigate the rise of shopping addiction in China

Have you ever wanted to buy a little shopping addiction? Neither had I, until I found it offered for sale on Chinese eCommerce website AliExpress (Alibaba’s answer to eBay). Here is an excerpt from the webpage I found while doing a Google search for Chinese shopping addiction:

“This page covers nearly all kinds of shopping addiction. If you want to find wholesale shopping addiction from shopping addiction wholesalers, this is the resource for you. These items are updated frequently to ensure you can find the latest styles and best models. Search this category for great discounts on cheap shopping therapy, cheap radio call codes, cheap rabbit poison!”

The actual products on the page were largely signs declaring one’s addiction to certain things (mostly sports, from croquet to beer pong). Obviously, the text above was filled with various placeholders where a program could insert search terms, but it is somewhat telling that the first result for discounts was “cheap shopping therapy.” I don’t know what it says about me or my search terms that the third result was rabbit poison (is that a thing?), but therapy for overusing the internet (for shopping, gaming, etc.) is an actual trend in China. With the meteoric rise of Alibaba—the Amazon, eBay, PayPal, and more of China—online consumer trends in the Asian giant have been in the news a lot lately, and justifiably so: business is good. Maybe too good.

With their consumption ability rising steadily [PDF], it is no surprise that Chinese shoppers are widely participating in the easily accessible market that online purchasing offers. Chances are you’ve heard a set of statistics that has been circulating since June about the habits of Chinese online shoppers: 25% of them shop on the toilet, 50% shop at work, 20% say that “shopping addiction [is] negatively affecting ‘family harmony.’”  The study, conducted on behalf of media investment company GroupM, produced a tongue-in-cheek informational video on the topic of online shopping habits that showed the craze for eCommerce currently sweeping China. The overall message of the video is that Chinese shoppers are going a little overboard—but possibly for some good reasons.

Whereas in America online shopping is mostly driven by cheaper prices and greater levels of convenience, online consumption in China is almost a matter of survival. If you want to shop at a brick-and-mortar location you are likely to encounter pollution, difficulty parking, long queues, bad service, and questionable quality. If you live in a lower-tier city, you’re lucky if you have a decent retail outlet near you at all.

eCommerce, though, is done from the comfort of home, offers competitive pricing, superior selection, customer reviews, easy payments, and delivery that makes Amazon Prime look like The Pony Express. Some services offer delivery in as little as three hours—even at night. And unlike a physical shopping cart, where it’s fairly easy to tell when you’ve crossed the line between “this is a good purchase” and “if I make a false move my shopping will crush me to death,” online purchases are a few clicks or taps away, and tend to come in small, unobtrusive quantities. The ease and seeming lack of consequence to purchasing online, then, seem to be likely culprits in China’s shopping addictions.

Whether or not shopping addiction can be classified as a legitimate psychological disorder, or whether it’s simply a reaction to the quick rise of China’s buying ability, Chinese consumers are certainly worried about it, especially as it relates to the broader phenomenon of internet addiction. China Youth Daily reported in a 2011 survey that a staggering 71% of poll respondents reported that they believed they had online shopping addiction. 60% of all respondents said it was understandable that someone would become addicted, 53.9% said it expressed a level of dependency, and 27% believed it was a very unhealthy mentality. Going even beyond these polls, Chinese researchers have tied internet addiction to lower IQ, higher crime rates, and a whole host of other social ills.

While the accuracy of their sampling methods may be up for debate, China takes the problem seriously enough that they have over 300 internet addiction treatment centers. Tao Ran, the head of Beijing General Military Hospital’s center, says that the number of people seeking treatment for shopping addiction has been rising steadily since 2010, and at the end of 2013 Ran estimated the number of internet addicts in China to be 24 million.

In a darker turn of events that may actually legitimize such treatment, a Chinese student killed herself in 2013 due to her shame about her online shopping, having used her tuition funds to buy products. A piece in the China Daily by Huang Yahui, a woman with a self-diagnosed shopping addiction, gives us some insight into the symptoms: she spent much less time with friends and family, was not happy unless she was shopping, and one month could hardly eat due to her online spending. She concludes by saying that: “Online shopping does help connect us to an exciting world, but it also closes the door to society.”

China is currently the only country in the world to formally recognize internet addiction—with shopping as a subset—as a disorder, but it would hardly be surprising that something as adaptable as the internet could be abuse. Compulsive online shopping, though, may be driven by a somewhat less sinister component: an economy entering a new stage.

The middle class is rising in China, and with it comes a perspective shift: things that were previously seen as luxuries are now available to more average consumers. The culture of conspicuous consumption—buying things for the social status they impart—is a relatively new (think 21st century) phenomenon in the country. Rising wages and a Chinese market that is undergoing a renaissance in terms of quality and accessibility mean that domestically-made goods are looking better than ever to Chinese consumers, making consumption for social reasons far cheaper and easier.

Previously, many of the most sought-after brands tended to be foreign, but eight out of ten of the top-selling brands on Alibaba-owned eCommerce site Tmall are domestic, and this means that consumers’ ability to participate in a buying culture that goes beyond the functional is also growing. Tony Chen, GroupM’s Chief Digital Officer in China says, “We cannot overemphasize the importance of online shopping for brands in China.”

Even if shopping addiction really is more than a sporadic issue, it is likely to moderate itself as people become accustomed to the changing economic climate. After all, China still only makes up about 8% of the world’s overall consumer market, despite housing roughly 18% of its people. Projections say that it may exceed the US as the world’s largest consumer by 2017, but given that China has almost four times as many citizens, their average consumer would still be behind their US counterpart in terms of buying.

While the United States may not be the best place to look to allay fears about shopping addiction, it is worth considering that China’s economy is changing so quickly that its consumers are often referred to as “moving targets.” Though an economic cooldown in the country may dampen growth, it is highly likely that the consumption patterns will continue to evolve, and given that shopping addiction has not been a long-term issue in other developed economies, it is safe to say that any shopping addiction that exists in China is a growing pain.


Andrew Braun has an eclectic taste in music, a crippling addiction to change, and a time-consuming learning habit. He has held jobs as a writer, a web designer, a farmhand, a handyman, and a teacher, and plans to travel the world, teach, write, and work towards a master’s degree in political science.