Shop ‘til you drop this season: How the shopping habits of Irish consumers have changed

Model Teo as Brown Thomas welcomes the highly-anticipated return of The Marvel Room, the magical Christmas gifting destination dedicated to extraordinary brands. Picture: Leon Farrell/Photocall Ireland

The shopping habit Irish shopping habits are changing, bringing value for some and penury for others, writes Rita de Brún

IRELAND was once a nation of saints and scholars. Today it’s a land of spenders and shoppers with online shopping increasing fivefold since 2007, while accounting for €5bn of our spending last year.

For most, shopping brings a pleasant, feelgood thrill, one we enjoy whenever we indulge. For others — misers aside — spending brings a compulsive buzz; one that’s hard to shake off and harder still to admit.

The psychology behind spending is complex. Research published this year by Northwestern University’s Kellogg School illustrates the impact of lighting on consumer choice.

In dim light we’re likely to choose the more self-indulgent consumer options; the ones that bring us most pleasure.

While the closets of shopping addicts are usually crammed to over-flowing, that’s precisely the place in which many guilt-ridden over-shoppers hide, rather than seeking help for their out-of-control spending. For them, their shopping habit is cloaked in secrecy.

Describing some of the more common triggers for shopping addiction, chartered counselling psychologist, Dr Colin O’Driscoll, reveals it can be linked to stress, difficult relationships, and chronically low self-esteem.

Asked how prevalent a problem it is in Ireland, he replies: “We don’t have figures, but I know from my work and anecdotally, that it’s rocketing here. Often these shoppers seek help only when family or employers discover the debts, confront them about their spending and insist they call a halt to it.”

Explaining the chemical drive behind a shopping compulsion he says: “The spending spree brings a dopamine high. With that, there’s a craving for a sense of well-being. But after the buzz comes a fall, a come down that can be hard to manage.”

Happily, for most, shopping is in no way harrowing, being either a joy at best, or a necessarily evil at worst. At his Cork-based shop, Pinocchio’s Toys and Gifts, Wyon Stansfeld sees the whole gamut.

“At Christmas, panicked shoppers are often the ones who, the previous year, were entirely organised by October,” he says. Describing how he recognises their panic, he reveals: “The facial expression resembles that of a rabbit caught in the headlights. When I see that look, I know they need advice.”

Husband and wife team Wyon and Christel Stansfeld in their shop Pinocchio Toys and Gifts

While toy shopping might do that to an adult, men scouting for intimate apparel for their women need little advice according to Susan Hunter who runs a lingerie shop that bears her name, off Dublin’s Grafton St.

“Men are savvy shoppers,” she says. “Before going shopping, some take a photo of their partner’s undergarment in a drawer. That way they can’t forget the size.”

With the vital statistics to hand, bolder males let loose in a lingerie store might be tempted to buy the garments of their choice, but Hunter says they don’t, that they buy with the woman’s preferences in mind.

When I wonder whether this classy lady’s presence in her store keeps the shopping choices of her wilder and bolder male customers in check when it comes to buying intimate apparel for a lover, she sets me straight: “Men tend to be classical in their taste. They go for beauty. While they may select a silk bra and matching briefs for a partner, women are more likely to buy the reds and the slightly sexy stuff.”

As for the female approach to buying boozy gifts for men, Julian Alubaidy of Bubble Brothers’ wine merchants in Cork is an expert.

“Wives shop, knowing that the husband likes to drink a particular thing,” he says. “For them, only that particular thing will do.”

Julian Alubaidy of Bubble Brothers wine merchants.

Even so, not all are forthright enough to come out and say what they want: “Some are vague as to what they want to buy. Some have a hidden agenda. It’s up to me to find out what that is.”

I’m intrigued, so he continues: “Some might want to buy a Châteauneuf-du-Pape or another expensive bottle, but they won’t say that. They want me to suggest the purchase to them.”

While that somewhat puzzling dynamic doesn’t perturb Alubaidy in the least, some shopping habits cause him concern: “Pre-Christmas, we see lots of poor old folk spending an awful lot of money buying one of our best cases of wine as a gift for their doctors and consultants, who I’m sure, do wonderful work. Even so, the presents going out to hospitals and clinics are pretty eye-watering, as is the related expense.”

Given that eye-watering expense is something with which most consumers are all too familiar, it makes sense to shop smart. To do that, Susan Hunter believes women could learn a lot from their menfolk.

“When men see what they want, they buy it,” she says.

“They make an immediate decision and go for it; 99% of the time, they make the perfect choice. That’s because the first instinct is usually correct.”

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