Compulsive Buying Tendencies of Adolescent Consumers

ABSTRACT - Based on the results of a qualitative study and a review of the relevant literature, research hypotheses pertaining to adolescent consumers' tendencies to buy compulsively are presented. The results of a survey of 394 adolescents support most of the hypotheses and show that teenagers' compulsive buying tendencies are influenced by both personal and environmental factors.


Alain d'Astous, Julie Maltais, and Caroline Roberge (1990) ,"Compulsive Buying Tendencies of Adolescent Consumers", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, eds. Marvin E. Goldberg, Gerald Gorn, and Richard W. Pollay, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 306-312.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17, 1990      Pages 306-312


Alain d'Astous, University of Sherbrooke

Julie Maltais, University of Sherbrooke

Caroline Roberge, University of Sherbrooke


Based on the results of a qualitative study and a review of the relevant literature, research hypotheses pertaining to adolescent consumers' tendencies to buy compulsively are presented. The results of a survey of 394 adolescents support most of the hypotheses and show that teenagers' compulsive buying tendencies are influenced by both personal and environmental factors.


The topic of compulsive consumption, that incontrollable urge to buy which affects a great many consumers, has received increasing attention from researchers during the past few years. This interest has been spurred by magazine articles with sensational overtones (e.g. Frook 1989; Holstrom 1985) and by some more serious research conducted by Faber and O'Guinn (1988; Faber, O'Guinn and Krych 1987; O'Guinn and Faber 1988). These researchers have reported several interesting findings about this intriguing form of addiction. Their general research strategy has been to contrast compulsive buyers from ordinary consumers on theoretically relevant variables. They have found compulsive consumers to be more materialistic but without necessarily attaching greater importance to the possession of consumer goods. They have also found them to be more envious, more likely to think that shopping is fun, less generous, more likely to feel guilty after buying things, higher on a general fantasy-imagination orientation and lower on self-esteem.

The compulsive versus normal research strategy has also been adopted in other studies. As part of the process of validating a measuring instrument, Valence, d'Astous and Fortier (1988) have found compulsive buyers to be more anxious in general and more likely to have in their family circle a parent showing an abusive consumer behavior such as alcoholism, toxicomania or bulimia. In yet another study (d'Astous and Bellemare 1989), a small number of compulsive and normal buyers matched on age, sex, income and occupation were contrasted on their reactions to print ads. The compulsive group was shown to react more favorably than the other group to image-oriented ads (e.g. "Polo Ralph Lauren. For those who have class.") as opposed to ads that emphasize product benefits (e.g. "Polo Ralph Lauren. Just quality."). The authors explain these results by arguing that compulsive consumers' buying frenzies serve as a means to improve their self-image. They prefer image-oriented advertising because it is consistent with buying as a mark of social status.

In a recent paper, d'Astous and Tremblay (1989) have taken a different approach to investigate the phenomenon of compulsive consumption. These researchers argue that there is a generalized urge to buy characterizing all consumers at different levels and probably at different times. According to their view, compulsive buyers are at the utmost of the urge to buy continuum all the time. This- leads d'Astous and Tremblay (1989) to propose that less extreme forms of compulsive buying behavior are also worth studying. So, instead of the familiar comparison research strategy, they looked at compulsive buying within the normal consumer population. They administered the compulsive buying scale developed by Valence, d'Astous and Fortier (1988) to a probabilistic sample of consumers and got results generally consistent with previous research Thus, the higher subjects were on compulsive buying, the lower their self esteem, the lower their age, the greater the extent of irrational use of credit cards and the greater the chance of being a woman. In addition, the authors reported some interesting relationships between compulsive buying tendencies and three items pertaining to childhood experiences: "When I was a kid, I could not help but spend immediately the money that I got" (r = 0.2977; p = 0.0001), "When I was young, I used to save the money I had in order to buy myself things that I wanted most" (r = 0.1898; p = 0.0095) and "When I was young, my parents used to buy me everything I wanted" (r = 0.1616; p = 0.0279). On the basis of these results, d'Astous and Tremblay (1989) speculated that compulsive buying tendencies might originate in early consumption experiences and therefore suggested to study the phenomenon within the teenager consumer population.

This paper presents the results of a research study whose objective was to follow the above suggestion and test several hypotheses related to compulsive buying tendencies in the adolescent consumer population.


Research hypotheses were developed through references to previous work on compulsive buying and on adolescent consumer behavior and by conducting a small-scale qualitative study with teenagers. The study involved twelve adolescents, age 13 to 18, who admitted having problems with controlling their spending. The interviews were semi-structured, conducted individually and organized around three main themes: consumption habits, social and family influences, and compulsive buying tendencies. The study also allowed a pre-test of a version of the Valence, d'Astous and Fortier (1988) compulsive buying scale modified to better relate to

adolescent language and interests.

The young consumers who participated in this preliminary study spend their money mostly on activities like going to the movies, restaurants, disco-dancing, arcade games and on buying records and tapes. They also spend some money on clothing, garments, cosmetics and perfumes. For most of them, their parents are the main source of income. A few would sometimes borrow money to buy the things they want.



In all cases, friends appear to play a significant role in these adolescents' consumption experiences. They usually show them their purchases and sometimes ask for their opinions. We have noted however that there is a common desire to be different from peers, which leads these young people to look for products that have distinctive characteristics. On the other hand, family interactions seem minimal. A few adolescents, mostly girls, said they talk with their parents when they plan to buy something expensive.

Our young subjects said they make a lot of unplanned purchases. Many admitted being impulsive and incapable of refraining from buying things they see in stores. Budgeting is also a problem since ten of the twelve participants said their weekly or monthly allowance quickly disappears. As one teenager commented: "As soon as I got some money, it seems to burn my hands! You know, it's like a nervous habit, I've got to give it out!"

Two final observations are of interest. First, contrary to our expectations, we found these youngsters to be very generous with their friends. They like to please people that they appreciate by offering them, with no particular reason, gifts and treats. Second, half of the participants said they tend to isolate themselves when they have a problem. We interpreted this as a sign of a tendency to introversion.

Table 1 presents the research hypotheses. Five of them (H2, H3, H7, H8 and H9) are suggested by the results of the preliminary study. The others have been-derived from the literature. Thus, the hypothesized relationship between compulsive buying tendencies and television viewing (H1) follows from Moschis and Churchill (1978) who reported a positive association between TV viewing and materialism among adolescents. It is also consistent with the general belief that advertising and by implication television advertising contributes to reinforce the materialistic ideal among members of society (see Pollay 1986). H4 and H5 are simple extensions of Valence, d'Astous and Fortier's (1988) result linking compulsive buying to the presence of other dysfunctional behaviors in the family. The hypothesized negative relationship with self-esteem (H6) comes from results obtained in studies conducted with adult consumers (d'Astous and Tremblay 1989; Faber, O'Guinn and Krych 1987; O'Guinn and Faber 1988). H10, which proposes a negative relationship between age and compulsive buying tendencies, is taken from d'Astous and Tremblay (1989) who reported such a relationship with adult consumers and from Moschis and Churchill (1978) who observed a positive correlation between age and the performance by adolescents of socially desirable consumer behaviors. H11, which concerns social class, follows from several studies (see the review by Moschis 1987) showing that young people from upper classes are more competent consumers and that lower class adolescents are more likely to exhibit deviant consumer behaviors (e.g. shoplifting) and more susceptible to marketing stimuli. In addition, d'Astous and Tremblay (1989) have shown that compulsive buying tendencies within the adult consumer population are lower in the upper-class. Finally, H12 is based on d'Astous and Tremblay (1989) who found that women are significantly higher than men on compulsive buying behavior tendencies.




A self-administered questionnaire containing all measures of interest was constructed and pretested to insure that the questions were clear and that there were no ambiguities. To facilitate the data collection, the researchers obtained the cooperation of school administrators and teachers. The questionnaire was distributed in student classes of four different schools: one public and one private high schools, one public and one private colleges. This was done in order to get some variability on age and social class. The final sample comprises a total of 394 French-Canadian adolescents aged between 13 and 19 years old (x = 15.96). Girls are a little superior in number, since they represent about 54 percent of the total sample.


Table 2 presents the items that make up the compulsive buying scale used in the study. The scale is an adaptation of an existing instrument that has been shown to meet satisfactory levels of reliability and validity (see Valence, d'Astous and Fortier 1988; d'Astous and Tremblay 1989). Some items were eliminated because of their irrelevance to teenagers (e.g. "I am one of those people who respond to direct mail offers") and most items were re-worded to enhance understandability. The self-esteem measure is composed of four items (e.g. "In general, I am satisfied of myself") selected from the well-known 10-item scale of Rosenberg (1965). The other scales were developed by the authors specifically for this study. Introversion is measured with three items such as "I like to give my opinion to others" and the rational consumer behavior scale has four-items such as "I rarely compare prices before I buy something". For all measures, respondents had to indicate their agreement with each item on a five-point Likert-type scale.


Reliability Estimates

Cronbach's alpha was computed for each scale. In spite of the important modifications to the original instruments, the compulsive buying and self-esteem scales' reliability estimates are very acceptable (0.7805 and 0.7311 respectively). The introversion and rational consumer behavior scales are less reliable (0.5900 and 0.5169 respectively), but the estimates meet the usually accepted norms for new measures (Churchill 1979).

Hypotheses Tests

Mass Media. The correlation between adolescents' estimates of the number of hours they watch television a day and their compulsive buying score is positive (r = 0.1123) and statistically significant (p = 0.0136; one-tailed test), which supports H1.



Peers Table 3 presents the estimated correlations between the items pertaining to peer influences and compulsive buying. All correlations are positive and statistically significant, which supports H2. Although the tendency to compulsive like buying behavior is positively associated with adolescents' perceived efforts to purchase distinctive products, that relationship is not strong (r = 0.0953)

Family As Table 3 shows, the hypothesis of a negative relationship between compulsive buying tendencies and family discussions about consumption matters (H3) is not supported. However, adolescents' perceptions of their parents' compulsion to buy is strongly associated with their own dispositions toward compulsive buying (H4).

Table 4 displays results relevant to the test of H5 which proposes a link between young consumers' tendencies to compulsive buying behavior and the presence of various problems in the family. Although compulsive buying means are consistently higher for adolescents who report such problems, the difference reaches statistical significance only in the case of divorce.

Individual. Three of the four hypotheses pertaining to individual characteristics are supported by the data. The correlation between compulsive buying tendencies and self-esteem (H6) is, as predicted, negative (r = - 0.1270) and highly significant (p = 0.0058; one-tailed test). However, adolescents who show greater dispositions to compulsive consumption are not more likely to be introverts (r = - 0.0825; p = 0.1031) and H7 is therefore rejected. The empirically-based hypothesis of an association between teenager's compulsion to buy and generosity (H9) is supported, the correlation with the item "I like to buy things to others without specific reason (gift, restaurant, ...)" being positive (r = 0.2627) and highly significant (p = 0.0001; one-tailed test). Finally, the correlation between the index of rational consumer behavior and adolescents' compulsive buying score is negative and significant (r = - 0.2897; p = 0,0001; one-tailed test), which supports H9.



Demographics. The correlation between age and compulsive buying tendencies is negative (r = -0.1925) and highly significant (p = 0.0001; one-tailed test), as predicted by H10. In order to test H 11, the occupation of the participants' father was transformed to a status rating using Hodges, Siegel and Rossi's (1966) index of occupational prestige. The appropriateness of this index as an estimate of the respondent's social class is questionable but no better measures were available. Still, the index appears to capture part of the social class construct since, as we expected, there is a significant mean difference between the status ratings of the fathers of public (X = 69.2474) and private (X = 76.2733) schools' students (t = 6.7823; p = 0.0001; two-tailed test). However, the hypothesis of higher compulsive buying scores in lower social classes has not been supported since the correlation between the occupational status index and the compulsive score is not significant (r = - 0.0612; p = 0.1228; one-tailed test). Finally, in support of H12, on average, girls have higher compulsive buying scores than boys (32.5667 versus 30.0670; t = 3.2923; d.f. = 387; p = 0.0005; one-tailed test).

Regression Analysis

All the results presented so far were obtained through simple bivariate analyses. In order to see if the relationships that were uncovered would hold in a multivariate context and to determine the relative importance of the various types of influences on compulsive buying, a multiple regression analysis was conducted using the compulsive score as dependent variable and the influence measures as independent variables. The results are displayed in Table 5. In comparison with the bivariate results, there are three important changes. First, adolescents' estimates of the number of hours they watch television a day is no longer significantly related to their compulsive buying score. Second, family communication becomes now significant. That is, the more adolescents agree that they talk with their parents when they want to buy something, the less inclined to compulsive buying they are. Finally, the regression coefficient attached to the self-esteem variable is not significant, a result that is also inconsistent with the bivariate analyses.

Although they are unsatisfactory as measures of the relative contribution of the independent variables in multiple regression, the standardized regression coefficients are often used for this purpose. Table 5 shows that the largest standardized beta is that associated with peer influences. The size of this coefficient is twice that of the second largest beta weight (parents' compulsiveness). This concurs with researchers' belief that peers play a significant role in the socialization of young consumers (see Moschis 1987).


To the authors' knowledge, this study represents the first investigation of the phenomenon of compulsive buying among adolescent consumers. Conceptually, our approach has been to think of compulsive buying as a generalized urge to buy characterizing all adolescent consumers at different levels instead of an all-or-none trait attributed only to individuals affected by a totally incontrollable and continuous craving for buying. Without denying the interest of adopting a quasi-pathological orientation to study compulsive buying behavior, we argue that our approach has much to offer to consumer research because it is driven by the belief that less excessive forms of dysfunctional consumption behavior are also important and must be studied.



The results of our study show that adolescents' compulsive buying tendencies seem to be influenced by many personal and environmental factors. Some of these results are consistent with prior compulsive buying studies involving adult consumers. Thus, higher scores on compulsive buying have been previously associated with female and younger consumers (d'Astous and Tremblay 1989). Some other results are consistent with those of studies in the area of consumer socialization. For instance, the impact of peers on compulsive buying tendencies parallels Moschis and Churchill's (1978) conclusions about these influences on adolescents' materialistic attitudes. Also, the negative relationship between age and compulsive buying is consistent with Moschis and Churchill's (1978) finding that younger adolescents are less likely to engage in socially desirable consumer behaviors. Related to the latter result is an interesting research question: Does that imply that being a compulsive-like buyer is a stage that most adolescents pass through? Unfortunately, the cross-sectional nature of this study refrains us from providing even a partial answer to this question. Future studies using longitudinal data are needed to address the issue.

Finally, this study leads to new findings that contribute to our knowledge of the phenomenon. Thus, contrary to what Faber and O'Guinn (1988) have observed with adults, we have found that generosity is positively related to adolescents' tendency to buy compulsively. Perhaps, as some argue (see e.g. d'Astous and Bellemare 1989), compulsive buyers are generally motivated to improve their social image. For adolescents, sharing may be perceived as an appropriate means to achieve this objective. Other results of interest pertain to family influences. The positive relationship between parents' and adolescents' buying-mania for instance is intriguing. One possible explanation might be that there are modeling effects occurring. However, as noted by Faber, O'Guinn and Krych (1987), biological causes have been identified for compulsive behaviors, hence genetic inheritance is also a plausible alternative explanation. In addition, the study has brought some empirical evidence for the impact of family problems on teenagers' compulsive buying dispositions. Though not all family problems that were examined have a statistically significant influence, overall the pattern of results is consistent with the idea that conflicts, troubles or disorders within the family unit are potential explanatory factors for adolescents' compulsive consumption tendencies.


This study is an addition to the growing body of research on compulsive consumption. To this day, that phenomenon had not been studied with young consumers. We have shown that, while there are clear similarities between our results and those of other studies conducted with adult consumers (e.g. self-esteem), compulsive buying behavior among adolescents appears to have its own particularities (e.g. generosity). We have looked at some of the differences and tried to identify the important sources of influence. There remain many other research questions in this area and we hope that this study will stimulate some further research.


Churchill, Gilbert A. (1979), "A Paradigm for Developing Better Measures of Marketing Constructs", Journal of Marketing Research, 16 (February), 64-73.

d'Astous, A. et Y. Bellemare (1989), "Contrasting Compulsive and Normal Buyers' Reactions to Image Versus Product Quality Advertising," in Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Administrative Sciences Association of Canada, Marketing Division, ed. A. d'Astous, Montreal, 82-91.

d'Astous, A, et S. Tremblay (1989), 'The Compulsive Side of 'Normal' Consumers: An Empirical Study," in Marketing Thought and Practice in the 1990's, Vol 1, Eds, G. J. Avlonitis, N.K. Papavasiliou et A.G. Kouremenos, Athens: The Athens School of Economics and Business Science, 657-669.

Faber, Ronald J. and Thomas C. O'Guinn (1988), "Compulsive Consumption and Credit Abuse," Journal of Consumer Policy, 11, 97-109.

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Frook, J.E. (1987), "Are You a Spendaholic?," Family Circle, (November), 44, 97, 99-101.

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Holstrom, D. (1985), "Controlling Compulsive Spending," American Way, (October), 67-69.

Moschis, Georges P. (1987), Consumer Socialization: A Life-Cycle Perspective, Lexington, MA: Lexington Book.

Moschis, Georges P. and Gilbert A. Churchill (1978), "Consumer Socialization: A Theoretical and Empirical Analysis," Journal of Marketing, (Summer), 4048.

O'Guinn, Thomas C. and Ronald J. Faber (1988), "An Exploration of the World of Compulsive Consumption: Correlates, Aetiology, and Consequences," unpublished working paper, University of Illinois.

Pollay, Richard W. (1986), 'The Distorted Mirror: Reflections on the Unintended Consequences of Advertising," Journal of Marketing, (April), 1836.

Rosenberg, M. (1965), Society and the Adolescent Self-Image, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Valence, Gilles, Alain d'Astous and Louis Fortier (1988), "Compulsive Buying: Concept and Measurement," Journal of Consumer Policy, 11, 419-433



Alain d'Astous, University of Sherbrooke
Julie Maltais, University of Sherbrooke
Caroline Roberge, University of Sherbrooke


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 17 | 1990

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