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Can returning items become an addiction?

Shoppers carrying bags walk up Fifth Avenueon Black Friday November 27, 2009 in New York City. Black Friday is the traditional kickoff to the holiday shopping season, with as many as 134 million people expected to shop over the next three-days according to the National Retail Federation.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Tess Vigeland: Black Friday is finally in the rear-view mirror. And while lots of shoppers will fill the malls over the next few weekends, the next big retail day is the 26th. On the upside -- all those gift cards being redeemed. But on the downside -- all those returns of things that were not on Santa's list.

The National Retail Federation says last year close to 10 percent of all holiday purchases were returned. We know reasons for returning stuff can vary. But what about the more chronic group of shoppers who just can't seem to hang on to their purchases?

Eleanor Brody: My name is Eleanor Brody and I live in Framingham, Mass. I don't shop a lot, but whenever I do I usually buy several items, several shirts, several skirts or pants. And almost always with the intention of returning some of them because I like to take them home and look myself in my home mirror, look in my closet to make sure that yes, I do have something I can wear some shirt that goes with these pants and this skirt and so forth. So I almost always return something. Of course, I would never wear anything or use any item and then return it; that's totally dishonest and just not something I would do.

My husband sees me bring things home and spread them all out and decide and look in front of the mirror and check to see what goes with what. When he goes into a store, he sees what he wants and buys it. When I buy things for him, I'll buy much more than I know we're going to keep. There have been times when I've bought things, and whoops, he likes them all. And my intention was to take some back, but if they please him, then we just go with it.

When they say at the store, 'What's the reason?' and I say, ' It just didn't work out for me.' Most women that I talked with, that's just part of their process of shopping. You buy something, you bring it home. Doesn't work, back to the store. And yes, it's time consuming, but I do it. People do online shopping, which I do occasionally, but only for things that I know I'm not going to have to return. Because returning things that you bought online is a pain. I do not abuse the system. There are people who do, and actually in that case, I don't feel sorry for the retailer but I understand why the retailer would put the kabosh on that kind of behavior.

Vigeland: Of course we all know people who seem to love to return things. Can't decide on a Christmas gift for a friend? Buy four, return three. Shopping and taking it back can be a time-consuming habit but a mostly pretty harmless one. Except when it crosses the line into a serious problem.

We asked Dr. Timothy Fong for some insight. He's an associate professor of psychiatry at UCLA and does all kinds of research on addictive behavior.

Timothy Fong: This is a brand new area of compulsive shopping that we're starting to see, and these are folks who are consumed with the process of returning items, whereas for a long time we saw a lot of compulsive shoppers consumed by the process of getting the item. We're starting to see more folks just really consumed by just returning the item.

Vigeland: We just heard from someone on the show who said that she almost always buys things with intention of returning some of them. Now is there anything wrong with that?

FONG: It depends on how you look at it. The way I think about all addictions is that they are behaviors that create harm and people continue to do it. Now if you think about this, what is the "harm" created by compulsively returning things? Well, it can be quite significant, if it's things like loss of time, loss of productivity, loss of money to the retail stores. But in the patients that I've seen, it's always been problems with significant others or spouses and arguments centered around the shopping and the returning of items. Essentially that behavior takes on a life of its own, and it dominates their thought and their time to the point where all sorts of other harmful things have happened in their functioning.

Vigeland: So do you think this can be classified as an addiction?

FONG: We don't have the research yet out there. I think it's signs of addictive disorders, but with compulsive shopping or in this case compulsive returning, you don't see anyone "overdosing" from returning items or you don't see people killing themselves or things like that.

Vigeland: I hope not.

FONG: Now. But we do see, and I've seen, is people suffering.

Vigeland: This is different, isn't it, from the folks who buy an item with the intention of using it once or twice and then returning it to the store? That's just fraud, isn't it?

FONG: That's certainly one way to look at it. I think of compulsive shopping as the overarching disorder, and within that, we have different flavors of it. One of them is returning, or returnaholics. Again, the classic compulsive shopper, it's the process of shopping that's drawing them in. And within that process of shopping is returning items. So there's some patients I have who are just consumed about getting the item. And then other patients who I had are just consumed about returning it to get "the perfect value." It's kind of like gamblers, if you think about people with gambling addictions, who keep playing for "the perfect hand" or the "jackpot." And they're just always in the hunt for something that's essentially unattainable.

Vigeland: Is it possible to say then at what point you have a problem?

FONG: That's the sort of research we're trying to do. The way I do it in the clinic is very simple: does your behavior contribute to the overall quality of your life, or does it take away from it? For instance, I have some family members and friends who are bargain hunters and they love returning items, and when they see it go on sale, they go back and they stand in line, they get their $5 or $10 worth of merchandise. And they love it.

Then there are the stories of my patients though, who are constantly returning items and neglecting their housework, neglecting their relationships with their family, neglecting their jobs, calling in sick, and being so consumed about searching for the right item or getting the right value of it, that they neglect all those other aspects of their lives. What I'm fascinated about is some of our retail policies where you can return items even though it was purchased years ago. It's fascinating to me how tolerant our retail association has been about purchasing items. And I think that also has to be looked at as well. Because I remember as a kid growing up, if you bought something, you lived by your choice and you didn't have an opportunity to return it. You had to deal with it.

Vigeland: All right. Dr. Timothy Fong is an associate professor of psychiatry at UCLA and director of their addiction medicine clinic. Thanks so much.

FONG: You're welcome.

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