I recently read an interview with actress Rebel Wilson, where she talked about her online shopping habit.
Nights when she is free and at home, she says, she sits on her sofa and surfs the internet, buying up reams of clothes, beauty products and the like from retail sites.
“I buy everything,” she explained. “I think I’m addicted.”
And she probably is. Online shopping – that kick of buying something and watching as that delicious little order confirmation e-mail pops into our inboxes – can prove strangely addictive.
Which is why, according to a study published this week, two-thirds of women have returned something they have bought online in the past six months. They don’t really want the clothes, per se – it is just that the act of buying them is simply an adrenaline boost. The phenomenum is causing huge problems for retailers, who are taking the financial hit of processing the returns, or passing it on to the consumer.
When I was a teenager, back in the dark days when the world wide web was but in its infancy, shopping – in actual shops – was a social activity. Every Saturday, my friends and I would board the number 226 bus and make the journey from our village into the glamorous metropolis of Middlesbrough town centre, where we would spend hours in Topshop, Miss Selfridge and Tammy Girl, trying on everything in sight – and buying almost nothing.
If we were feeling flush for cash, we might treat ourselves to lunch, a jacket potato with cheese from a cafe and perhaps a nice cup of tea. We were the height of sophistication.
Then, going shopping was about the chat, the comradeship, the chance to see what we looked like in fashions that we would almost certainly never buy. What was even better was that there were no smartphones, so there was no pressure that changing room snaps would appear on Facebook the next day.
And from the retailer’s perspective, the point is that the few things we ever did buy, on which we spent our hard earned £15 monthly allowance, were treasured, carefully thought-out purchases. I don’t ever remember taking anything back the following week. In fact, I can still remember most of the clothes I bought – and I still own some of the items, more than 20 years on.
There was the duck egg blue, lacy shirt with the giant 70s collar; the black silk tunic which (I thought) looked just great with thick tights and bright purple Doc Marten boots. The dozens of slip dresses, which I must have chucked away sometime circa 2000 and now really wish I still had in my wardrobe as they seem to have made a massive comeback.
I know they have made a comeback because, last weekend, I went on a shopping spree and saw them in real life, hanging on shop rails and displayed on mannequins. It was exciting stuff. Heady in fact.
Going shopping was a novelty. I don’t think I have actually “been shopping” like that – i.e. spent more than 30 seconds running into a store for an essential item while my husband keeps the car engine running and my daughter naps – for about four years now. Coincidentally, about the same length of time as I have been a mother. Instead, the clothes I have bought over that period have been purchased online.
This week’s survey, commissioned by the BBC’s You and Yours programme, found that 63 per cent of people who had bought women’s clothing online in the past six months had returned one or more items. The figure wasn’t that different for all clothing, with 53 per cent of all online purchasers saying they had returned something they had bought over the internet.
The reason is that people now see their own bedrooms as they once would have regarded shop changing rooms – a place to try on things which they may or may not want to buy – and which may or may not suit them.
Try it on in a few different sizes? Check. Or two different colours? Check. Choose the one which looks best and hand the others back to the nice shop assistant? Check. Except the difference now is that the shop assistant is no longer a few feet away at the door of the changing room – she or he is potentially a few hundred miles away in a large warehouse somewhere in the south of England.
Not so easy if you are the retailer.
The other problems is that online shopping gives us too much choice.
During my recent shopping trip, I bought a particularly nice top, which I thought fitted well enough. On returning home, however, vertically challenged me discovered that Topshop does that exact same top in a petite fit – they just didn’t have it on sale in the Edinburgh store.
Once that cat was out of the bag, I started to find fault with the fit of the top I’d bought. Was it just a bit big? A tad gapey? Did it accentuate my out-of-proportion figure?
There was nothing else for it. I had to return the item I had bought and replace it with an online purchase of a petite version of the identical top. However, in buying the original garment, I had gone down a size in a bid to make up for my short body. Now, with the petite fit, would I need the smaller size or my usual size? I just didn’t know, so I opted to buy both – one of which I will inevitably return, putting myself right in the category of these pesky online shoppers who are costing the retailer so much money.
In the old days, of course, shopping with my friends, there would have been none of this palaver. I would have happily put up with the slightly-out-of-proportion top, blissfully unaware that there could be anything better. And, of course, Gemma and Carly would have been there to tell me it looked great.