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On Black Friday, a ‘single day’s shopping spree can cause years of misery’

West Londoner Helen spent thousands in online shopping sprees and is campaigning to stop the tactics that cause consumers to fork out more than they can afford

It’s Black Friday and the onslaught of online bargains, deals and adverts is already hard to ignore.

The bombardment of adverts and deals is, of course, no accident. Lockdown hasn’t been a reprieve either. The push notifications, email alerts, banner ads and promoted posts are all new ways to remind the casual internet user to buy, buy more, and buy now.

They can pile on the pressure to spend more than people can afford and are tough to block out. One-click purchases or “buy now, pay later” deals can lock in impulsive buys. Walking away from a purchase is like a challenge to the algorithm, with adverts for the same product you just turned down appearing in online adverts or retailers’ emails.

Earlier this month, the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute (MMHPI) revealed the staggering impact these “pushy” tactics have on people living with mental health problems. More than three million people at risk of racking up lockdown debt, according to the research.

Last year, Brits spent more than £8.5 billion in the four-day weekend across Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Although Covid-19 has closed shops on the high street and had a devastating impact on the economy, an estimated £6.2bn is set to be spent this weekend, according to business analysts at PwC.

West Londoner Helen, 28, will not be taking part in Black Friday’s buying blitz. She is advising others to follow her example in ignoring online retailers. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder two years ago, she struggles with periods of hypomania that can see her lose track of her spending.

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Her most recent episode led to a £15,000 splurge on household furniture, decorations, clothes and cat food before she was able to stop.

Now she is campaigning for consumers to be given more power to avoid retailers’ marketing tactics and wants spending limits to be introduced on sites to stop shoppers spending more than they intended.

“I find that it works best for me just to try and avoid online retailers generally, unless there’s something that I really need,” said Helen.

“It seems to be impossible to look for one thing and come out the other end with one thing only. It seems they will try and influence you to buy things that other people have bought or buy things that they think will go well with that product. 

“I think especially during this time of the pandemic, it’s really important for people to just consciously avoid online retailers if they can because you can be easily influenced.”

Helen, who works full-time running a befriending programme to tackle loneliness, decided to speak to The Big Issue to raise awareness of how online retailers tap into 

Her online spending has had a devastating effect on her life both at home and at work.

“I will just buy things and I can’t even remember what I’m buying, or why I’m buying it and I just suddenly get a deluge of things through the post,” she said. “And if it’s anything that I even vaguely think is positive, I’ll just buy that.

“It really caused me to become suicidal and I was experiencing a lot of guilt and a lot of anxiety, a lot of negative thoughts. My whole self-belief went out the window, I just thought I can’t trust myself. I had a lot of guilt.

“I have periods where I suffer from very low moods and I find it difficult to do basic tasks. It makes it difficult to work.”

Helen has been supported by family and friends and now wants consumers to have more power to stop the onslaught of deals and offers pushed their way.

She warned that shoppers are particularly susceptible during the Covid-19 pandemic when  they are stuck at home and often have time on their hands.

“I find that can be really destructive [and] negative because it makes you go through that thought process all over again,” she said.

“I think in general with the showy offers or ‘buy so much to get this much money off’ deals, it is really tough to discipline yourself because it makes you feel very comfortable. It makes you feel that spending a lot is okay. And I think things like that, when I was in an episode, that was what caused me to just spend so much money.”

With more people on furlough or working from home , the added temptation may be even worse, she said, when there is “more time to engage in the tempting things like online shopping and gambling. And I think it’s very difficult when things are right there and you have the time – it’s very difficult to to resist them.”

MMHPI chief executive Helen Undy warned that a “single day’s shopping spree can cause years of misery” as she pointed out how retailers can reduce their impact on their customers’ mental health.

“Simple steps like giving people the option to have a ‘cooling off period’ before making purchases, or to opt out of ‘Buy-Now-Pay-later’ deals, could help people avoid serious financial harm now and in the weeks leading up to Christmas,” she said.

Durham University behavioural psychologist Mario Weick also warned that resisting the impulse to grab a quick deal can lead to greater happiness.

He said: “The purchasing experience is designed to give us a quick kick, with products to match that often emphasise fleeting pleasures.

“Spending money is more likely to promote happiness when the purchase is intrinsically rewarding, e.g. life experiences, personal development or on gifts that nurture meaningful relationships, rather than those driven by superficial motives.”

Anyone affected by the issues brought up in this story can contact the National Debtline for debt advice on 0808 808 4000 or Samaritans for support with mental health on 116 123.

Big Issue vendors need your help now more than ever. More than 1,000 vendors are out of work because of the second lockdown in England. They can’t sell the magazine and they can’t rely on the income they need.

The Big Issue is helping our vendors with supermarket vouchers and gift payments but we need your help to do that.

Pleasebuy this week’s magazine from the online shop ortake out a subscription to make sure we can continue to support our vendors over this difficult period. You can even link your subscription to your local vendor withour new online map.

Thank you all so much for your ongoing support.

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