Drunk Shopping: Have You Done It?

A glass of wine+browsing your favorite online shops=totally normal. But with costly returns and skyrocketing credit card bills, the hangover can be bad for consumers and retailers alike.

A Dolce dress purchased by fashion news and features director Jen Ford, exhibit A, Louboutins bought by art director Barbara Reyes, a bottle-opener belt online associate fashion editor Ray Siegel picked up in Amsterdam, beauty director Jean Godfrey-June's purchase, a chicken deputy editor Esther Haynes purchased and fashion director Anne Keane's chairs

One chilly day in the dead of winter, I received a phone call from an unfamiliar number. “I’m calling from Bon’ Cui,” the voice on the line said. I recognized the name of the culinary accessories website that I sometimes troll late at night. “Ma’am, did you order our Nostalgia Electrics Pop-Up Hot Dog Toaster on Sunday?”

“No, what? I don’t think … um. Oh, wait,” I mumbled, as I gradually remembered sipping my way through two giant tumblers of wine on that particular night, then tipsily clicking through various sites, looking for things that would make my children’s lives more enjoyable, safer, happier. “I think I did.”

She needed the correct shipping address, because apparently there is no town known as “New York, Idaho,” and my bun warmer/dog cooker was in FedEx limbo. It’s true: Not only was I guilty of drinking and shopping, but I also failed to accurately scroll down through the list of states. That’s pretty drunk.

Turns out, I’m not the only one. Whether you call it sipping-and-clicking, or a BUI—buying under the influence—drunk shopping is on the rise. And while there is no definitive way to track how many purchases (online or otherwise) are made each year while the buyer was tippling, anecdotal evidence suggests that an increasing number of BUIs are leaving retailers with the headache of returns and consumers with just plain headaches.

Like the time writer Jill Kargman put her three kids to bed at her parents’ house on Nantucket, drank half a bottle of red wine and bemoaned her summer. She was sick of seeing embroidered whale pants and those ugly wicker purses. “I fell asleep, dreaming about autumn in New York,” she recalls, “and I awoke to a shipment confirmation.” She was shocked to discover that she’d drunk-ordered an extravagantly priced black pleated Burberry trench coat. Kargman says she never would have spent that kind of money had she been sober—this was apparently her subconscious way of saying, “Screw you, Nantucket; I’m ready to head back to New York.”

“Online shopping is so popular because it allows us to shop on our own time,” says Paco Underhill, an analyst of consumer behavior and the author most recently of What Women Want: The Global Market Turns Female Friendly. “And of course, some of that time we might be home with a glass of wine.” It may seem like harmless fun— many of us, after all, have clicked through retail sites while a bit buzzed, just like we’ve headed to Topshop after happy hour with the girls, and it’s turned out just fine. But consumers who regularly shop drunk can max out their credit cards or wind up with a houseful of crap, or both. Not to mention the hassle of having to return various unwanted items bought in an alcohol haze.

Bedford Nabors, a former vice president of ad sales for an online retail site, is famous among her friends for what she calls her “chardonnay shopping.” A few winters ago, she was living in Squaw Valley, a California ski resort town. One night, she frantically searched the Internet for some heels to wear to a dressy party. After 
consuming a full bottle of wine, she found the perfect Stuart Weitzman strappy sandals and ordered them for rush delivery.

“Two days later I found 13 boxes at the front door,” she says. Apparently, when she’d thought the order hadn’t gone through, she’d groggily clicked again and again—13 times.

Shopping while drinking has even been turned into a competitive sport. A director of marketing for an online beauty company tells me that at a cocktail-heavy party she attended, guests thought up an “extreme shopping” game. The rule: Buy something within 30 seconds using any technology you had. “I whipped outmy iPhone and the Gilt Groupe app,” she says. 
Her log-in information for the flash-sale site was already precaptured on the phone. “In seconds 
I had purchased a one-shoulder pink taffeta cocktail dress. When it arrived, I looked like a ridiculous Barbie impersonator.” She returned the dress but was issued only store credit—which she has yet to redeem.

Some women are also unknowingly buying items under the influence of Ambien. While the dangerous and weird side effects of that sleeping aid have been well publicized—with reports of people eating, driving and having sex while dozing—“sleep shopping” has not received much attention. Della Olsher, president of the D&E Marketing Group, was so stressed out during one New York Fashion Week, she was lying awake at night. She took two Ambien and turned on the TV. “Three weeks later UPS delivered a huge home gym set,” she says. She had no recollection of the purchase. “I had to return it,” she 
says. “It didn’t even fit in my apartment.”

All these what-was-I-thinking? purchases affect retailers, too. Big return rates can dramatically reduce profits, because the sites often have to absorb the costs for shipping and restocking. Retailers, however, can also make money off drunk consumers (have you noticed that when you’re two tequila drinks in, it’s the luxe items you start eyeing, not the lipstick and T-shirts?), which may be why none of the businesses contacted for this piece would agree to talk to me on the record about drunk shopping. One representative, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, acknowledged that it’s a dirty secret in the industry that many retailers have to deal with returns from possibly impaired shoppers; but of course, without some sort of Breathalyzer attached to consumers’ keyboards or shopping carts, there’s no way to monitor how many vodka shots they’ve consumed. “We do occasionally get people who return things, saying they spent too much, and we see that their order was placed at midnight,” the rep says, “and we wonder if they would have spent $8,000 at a more sensible hour!”

Various programs and websites attempt to prevent drunk texting, dialing and e-mailing: Google’s Gmail Goggles asks users to perform a set of mathematical problems at certain hours before allowing them to send e-mails. And the iPhone’s Designated Dialer app locks certain predesignated contacts before you drink; to unlock it, you have to perform a coordination exercise.

But no such programs exist—yet—for drunk shopping. Quite the opposite, in fact, now that technology connects us to the Internet 24 hours a day, delivering a nonstop stream of retail therapy, and specialized remote controls allow you to purchase items from shopping channels with just a few clicks—making it super-easy to order that 
microwave s’mores kit, bleary-eyed, at 3 am. (Okay, I confess to that one, too. Oh, and the complete set of Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts. And a faux-fur Dennis Basso coat from QVC. Oy vey!)

The fact is, when people are awake past midnight, clutching a bottle of beer, they’re often in a much different mind-set than during daylight hours. Charla Krupp, the author of How Not to Look Old, has been a guest on the home-shopping channels late at night and says it’s one of the premium times for retailers to hawk their goods. “Maybe people are feeling sorry for themselves, maybe they’ve had a few drinks,” she says. “It’s a vulnerable time for shoppers. And the danger is you buy things that won’t look good, but you’re too lazy to send them back.”

It’s not uncommon for consumers to be addicted to both alcohol and shopping. April Lane Benson, a New York psychologist, says substance-related compulsive shopping is on the rise: “We know there is an association between compulsive shopping and other behaviors, such as eating disorders, alcohol or drug abuse and depression.” And “compulsive shopping is more frequent on the Internet”—because it’s easy, anonymous and entertaining, she says. Plus, flash-sale sites make the act of purchasing seem imperative. “They create this urgency like it’s now or never. And you can’t ever get enough of what you don’t really need.” Just like that extra glass of pinot grigio.

Sometimes, though, when the hangover wears off, the purchases actually turn out to be successful ones. Kargman, the Nantucket shopper, wears her black Burberry trench coat all the time. “In vino veritas,” she says. “I have totally amortized the cost 
of my inebriated point-and-click.”

She may be the only one.

Relate? Tell us your tipsy shopping stories in the comments below!

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