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Wednesday, 8 March, 2000, 11:18 GMT
When the shopping habit costs too much

Shopping: Leisure for most, addiction for some
Shopping, as Victoria Beckham or Meg Mathews would confirm, is a popular British leisure pursuit.

Millions of us head off in droves every weekend, to hang out in the High Street or mingle in malls.

Bassey: Really is a big spender
And for the majority, the biggest problems this entails are finding somewhere to park, or coaxing information out of surly shop assistants.

But for some of us, the love of the boutique can lead to more serious problems.

Shirley Bassey was recently warned to curb her legendary spending sprees, or risk running out of money.

Last year, Sir Elton John had to borrow 25m to clear debts despite having an estimated 160m fortune, after reportedly spending 250,000 a week on credit cards.

Although Elton's levels of debt are obviously rare, getting into serious debt through shopping is not.

Clergymen complain malls are the new cathedrals
The charity Consumer Credit Counselling Service deals with about 50,000 people a year whose shopping has got them into financial trouble.

Alan Cape, head of operations and finance at the CCCS, says a typical client will ring up for the first time once they hit 18,000-20,000 - usually on store cards.

He says many are facing repossession and potential homelessness, because they are trying to pay off the cards with money which should be going on the mortgage.

The CCCS can help many people out of trouble, with simple budgeting and prioritisation schemes. But some people are unaware of where to go to get help - or are beyond it.

Earlier this month, shopaholic bank clerk Julie Ahronson was jailed for 12 months after stealing more than 30,000 from her bosses to feed her "pathological shopping disorder".

Elton: Shop-it man
Last November, nurse Trudi Susyn killed herself after attempts to cure her addiction failed; she had been spending up to 7,000 per week.

And in May last year single mother Masimi Dawson hanged herself after being charged with stealing 106,963 from work to cover enormous debts run up by shopping.

Although these extreme outcomes are rare, the addictive, destructive impulses behind them are not.

Dr Adrienne Baker, a senior lecturer in psychotherapy at Regents College, and who runs a clinic for shopping addiction, says an estimated 2-8% of adults in the UK are shopaholics.

Like many counsellors, Dr Baker views shopaholism like other addictions, as a compulsive behaviour which is a symptom of a spiritual emptiness.

Men are compulsive shoppers too
"It masks a great deal of pain," she says. "It's a symptom of low self-esteem, of bleakness, of aloneness even in the midst of people, often of depression."

She says compulsive shoppers are looking for objects to replace a lack of love. But, as with other addictions, it creates a destructive cycle.

There may be a point of "exhilaration" when the object has been found and a decision to buy has been made, she says - but dismay and self-loathing set in even at the till. And then it starts again.

But Dr Baker pinpoints two crucial differences between shopaholism and most other addictions.

One is that the addiction is not yet taken seriously by society.

Posh: Serious shopper
"It is usually laughed off as if it is only affecting bored, affluent, middle-aged women," she says.

"It's not, it can affect everyone. It can affect men, it can affect teenagers, it can affect people from any social background."

She points out that compulsive shopping by men often goes unrecognised, even though it affects them too.

She says increasing numbers of men are going on High Street binges, and that male compulsive shopping often manifests itself in "collecting".

The second difference, says Dr Baker, is that shopping, unlike drugs and to some extent alcohol and gambling, is entirely socially acceptable and therefore easily available.

At least the internet won't make it worse
"You can't open your eyes, you can't eat your cereal in the morning without being persuaded to buy something," she said. "And we're even being told not that this thing is 'want', but that it is 'need'."

And there are fears the problem could get worse in the future.

The Trading Standards Institute recently warned that teenagers are more than twice as likely as adults to display a "pathological" interest in shopping.

It says we could be storing up a huge problem of debt, unless young people are taught about finance and encouraged in a sense of self-esteem.

But there is one spark of light on the horizon. Dr Baker believes the ease of shopping on the internet will not make the problem worse.

"People who need to shop addictively need to be there, in the buzz of shopping," she said. "They need that energy."

Which may explain the lack of pictures of celebrity shopaholics logging onto Amazon or Jungle.Com in the tabloids every day.

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