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.com 'til you drop: online shopping and the impulsive consumer

I recently came to the conclusion that the relationships in which I invest most of my time are unhealthy. This epiphany came to me at 3 a.m. on a Thursday morning when I had finished placing an order for two dresses and a necklace at Bluefly.com.

I realized the hours I had put into developing something meaningful and mutually beneficial for myself and the folks at Bluefly.com, j.crew.com, ebay.com and Girlshop.com, while deeply satisfying, were causing me to neglect other things. Things such as school.

At 3 a.m. I was supposed to be sleeping so that I would be sufficiently rested for my midterm, an examination I had not studied for because opening a book would cut heavily into my browsing time.

So in the best interest of my relationship with online retailers, I decided not to do any more online shopping this semester. Instead, I would focus on scholastic achievement. It wasn't as if I was going to sever all ties with my online enablers. By getting good grades I would have a better chance of landing a job that paid well. With an increase in my disposable income I could carry on an even more meaningful relationship with the online folks I had come to love in the past five months. So I resolved to have virtually nothing more to do with my favorite places.

After my midterm I dejectedly returned home. I sat down on my roommate's bed and began to lament that I no longer would be able to take advantage of j.crew online's amazing weekly sales. She made sympathetic noises but never once looked up from her computer screen.

Frustrated, I asked her what was so important she couldn't look up for 10 seconds to help me with my problems.

She waved her hand in my direction, "Hold on a second, I'm in the last two minutes of an e-bay auction for a baby G watch. It looks like I'm going to get it for under 50 bucks!"

"Are there any more?" I asked quietly as a familiar flush came over my body.

"There's a pink one being offered too, with the highest bid at $47," she informed me.

That's all I needed to hear. Within seconds I was online pledging $50 for my own pink watch. My heart pounded as I frantically keyed in my bid and waited for the auction's close. When I was declared the proud new owner of a pink baby G watch I hummed happily to myself. I was the victorious consumer. I was faster -- and more dedicated to capitalism -- than those other buyers. My roommate (incidentally the proud new owner of a yellow baby G watch) interrupted my mini-celebration.

"What are you so happy about?" she asked.

"I won the auction for the pink one. I made it just in the nick of time. It was one of my most awesome performances to date."

"Weren't you just mumbling something about taking a vow not to go online anymore?" she asked.

"Well ... but ... I needed a new watch."

"Yeah," was her only reply as she headed to the kitchen.

The depths of my addiction had gone unrecognized to me until this moment. She was right. I didn't need a new watch. I had been right before, I was wasting time and money with my virtual shopping sprees. I had been sucked in by the slick Web sites that featured quality merchandise at amazing discounts.

My only consolation was that I was not alone in my sickness.

Online retailers have made a killing in recent years. Astonishing amounts of money are being made by companies that use the Internet to sell their wares. Amazon.com, that monolithic purveyor of books and CDs, has begun to sell almost any product imaginable and has seen an increase in customers in the past year from two to 10 million. Vanity Fair reported last month that the company literally is pulling in billions of dollars in revenue.

My favorite online auction house, ebay, also is experiencing an astonishing amount of success. People can place bids on products ranging from watches and autographed pictures of celebrities to cars and paintings by artists like Vincent Van Gogh. According to Vanity Fair, the company reportedly is worth $25 billion.

Never before have so many had such direct access to such a diverse array of products. Launched in September 1998, Bluefly.com offers savings 25-75 percent off of retail prices on designer clothes and accessories.

Customers can buy Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs, Donna Karan and a plethora of others for a fraction of what they would in a department store. As an additional incentive to buy online, their Web site offers a 90-day return policy and a flat shipping rate. Consumers are enamored with Bluefly.

The Web site also reported that last quarter the company experienced over 140 percent growth.

The Internet is revolutionizing the way people work and live. There's something wonderful about the convenience of never having to leave your home that people respond to, and shopping is no exception. The convenience is so attractive that one might wonder if real malls might one day be obsolete.

The biggest drawback to the online shopping craze is of course the ease with which people can spend money that they don't actually have. Customers can lose track easily of what they're spending and end up going way over budget. Retailers put themselves at greater risk of fraud when they enter the online arena. Vanity Fair also said that ebay suffered a major PR blow when a 13-year-old placed $2.8 million worth of bids.

Still, everyone seems to love the freedom of shopping online and the trend continues to increase exponentially.

Giving up shopping online has proven to be much harder than I originally thought. Every time I go online I have to fight to control my urge to visit my favorite sites. The other day a package arrived for me. It contained purchases from my last visit to Bluefly.com.

As I eagerly unwrapped my new BCBG semi-formal dress in Wisteria -- acquired at 43 percent off of the original price -- I felt my pangs of withdrawal somewhat relieved. I'm hopeful that I can make it another two months without putting a dent in my bank account.

However, I know that with the aid of my new jade green aventurine power bead choker (that I got for 63 percent off of the retail price online) I will find the strength within myself to overcome my addiction to online shopping.

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