Stuck in a buyer’s market


On a certain mega sale day, my 27-year-old brother woke up three hours early to buy a smartphone for our dad. The website had promised him a discount of Rs 1,500, which he got. Chasing the high of that discount, he announced that he would also buy a flat-screen TV – which he was “getting at a great deal” for Rs 25,000. Our two-bedroom flat already has two TVs, so, early morning, we were forced to talk him down and get him to log out.

A few hours later, at work, a colleague said he was basking in the glow of getting a Rs 40,000 phone for Rs 23,000, but wondering what to do with his perfectly functional existing one.

As we teased him about his dilemma, another colleague announced that she had bought five “very pretty notebooks”, which she later realised she had no use for.
A quick post on Facebook, asking if there were others out there concerned about their online shopping habits, garnered 20 responses in 30 minutes.

For many, the online shopping compulsion is no laughing matter.

As websites turn to apps, and annual mega-deals turn into weekly snares, people, it turns out, are spending far more than they realise, and sometimes far more than they want to. Some are running up credit card bills they can’t pay, others are borrowing money from parents, still others are running out of space to put all their purchases – and some are battling mounting guilt over packages that were never even opened.

It’s a sea change from the time, about eight years ago, when online shopping websites were dismissed by consumer behaviour experts, who believed that the touch-and-feel-driven Indian buyer would never commit to an abstract. “The advent of shopping portals and increasing number of mobile internet users has phenomenally altered consumption patterns in the country,” says Piyul Mukherjee, a sociologist specialising in consumer behaviour. “The ease and convenience of shopping online – coupled with the service-first approach of easy exchange policies, pre-payment trials and multiple discounts – is making people give in to wants like they never did before.”

In this scenario, more is less, adds psychologist Deepti Makhija. “The endless variety of products available online, combined with the bombardment of SMSes, emails and customised ads constantly telling you what not to miss out on, lure you into a consumerist cycle,” says Dr Vivek Benegal, a professor of psychiatry at the NIMHANS de-addiction centre run by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore.

Driven by the compulsion, buyers are at risking of contracting affluenza, says Dr Makhija – “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more”.

In a sense, the online buyer is heading into a perfect storm.

“Even though none of the portals is making profits right now, given their huge logistics costs – and probably won’t for about three years – they will continue offering attractive deals and lowered prices as they aim to change the Indian consumer’s mindset and rake in the profits or get huge funding after they successfully build a large customer base,” says Sushmul Maheshwari, director of RNCOS, an e-commerce consultancy firm.

Marketing and advertising analytics are also playing a big role, says Nilotpal Chakravarti, associate vice-president of the Internet and Mobile Association of India. “When you talk about attending a friend’s wedding on Facebook, ads for portals selling ethnic wear will pop up on your page. This means somebody is tracking your cookies closely and knows exactly what to offer you,” Chakravarti adds.

People are even buying jewellery and lingerie online, encouraged by promises such as Zivame’s offer to exchange the product how many ever times it takes till the customer finds the right fit. The website is now receiving eight times many orders as it was three years ago. “We get 2,500 orders every day,” says Richa Kar, founder and CEO of Zivame.
This is driving the growth of the sector on the whole. “In 2007, we could count the number of shopping portals on our fingers. Now there are hundreds of them out there,” says Ashish Jhalani, founder of e-commerce research company etailing India.

Buyers’ Remorse
Anant Nigam’s friends call him Shoppers Stop. The 20-year-old college student is such an avid shopper, they say, that anything you need, chances are he either has it or can order it for you in seconds, at a discount, off one of the 12 shopping apps on his phone. “I can never resist weekend deals and sales days,” the youngster admits, laughing. “I buy everything online, from groceries to gadgets.”

Nigam spends his entire monthly allowance of Rs 3,000 online, and often needs at least another Rs 1,000, which he gets from his father, a technician with a TV news network. “About once a week, I buy something – wristbands or gym wear, sunglasses, watches or gifts for my girlfriend,” he says.

This is aside from the shopping he does for his family, who are also now hooked to the online deals. “Mom and Dad were very impressed when I showed them the online discounts. Now, they often ask me to use my apps to order groceries and electrical appliances too,” he says. “Now, malls are places to hang out and watch movies, not make purchases.”

Advertising professional Aanchal Bhargava, 28, spends about 40% of her salary online. “The commute from Noida to my Gurgaon office and back is long and boring, so I surf on my phone and laptop,” she says. Bhargava admits that she doesn’t need many of the things she buys – like more earrings or the 70 pairs of shoes she has bought online over the past three years.
“I get drawn in by the variety of pretty things available online and the convenience of buying them,” she says. “I do feel like crap for having spent so much, but I can’t stop. When I really need something, I step out and buy it. Shopping online is a feel-good thing.”
Madhurima Banerjee, 25, can no longer fit all her purchases into the cupboards and cabinets in her room. Slowly, they have crept onto the furniture; some now sit on the corners of her bed. “I may survive without eating or sleeping, but definitely not without shopping,” she says. Banerjee, a special educator, starts her day with a quick glance at the shopping websites bookmarked on her computer, and ends the day with the “satisfying feeling” that more goodies will be delivered soon.

Over the past four months, Banerjee has found herself overshooting her monthly shopping budget of Rs 9,000, and now has a running account with her father. She says it’s now natural for her to be penniless by the third week of every month. “I just wish Madhurima could restrict herself to things she actually needs,” says her father, Supriyo, an artist.

Shreya Badola, 25, buys about one thing a day, on average. “Earlier, I could shut my laptop and disconnect, but now these apps are on my phone and in my face all the time,” says the marketing executive.
Badola has 10 shopping apps on her phone, downloaded over the past three years. She spends about 60% of her salary on her online shopping – mainly shoes, clothes and accessories.

“When I had to go the mall, it was an effort… getting there, walking around. Now, it’s all just a click away,” she says. Badola, 25, now finds herself borrowing from her parents to take care of her “non-shopping expenses”.

“I sometimes wonder how I got into this situation,” she says. “I don’t even like some of the things I’ve bought. My father says I should invest. I sometimes agree – but shopping makes me happy.”