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‘Pushy’ online retailers exacerbating mental health problems

Written by: Emma Lunn
The increased presence of buy now pay later products, one-click purchases and pushy marketing from shopping websites is leaving many people with mental health problems at risk of financial harm, according to the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute.

A poll by the institute shows that more than 3 million people with mental health problems have found it harder to control online spending since lockdown – and this is in part due to the design of online shopping sites.

The charity is calling on retailers to offer customers more tools to manage their online spending – such as the choice to opt out of buy now pay later services, or to have a cooling off period before completing purchases.

It’s also calling for action from regulators to ensure that online shopping sites comply with consumer protection laws.

The report from Money and Mental Health shows that the ease and convenience of online shopping can offer a lifeline for many people experiencing mental health problems – especially in the context of lockdown restrictions.

But it warns that the design of retail websites is making it extremely difficult for people with poor mental health, many of whom struggle with common symptoms such as impulsivity, reduced concentration and low morale, to stay in control of online spending.

In particular, the report shows that easy access to buy now pay later options and one-click purchasing, coupled with retailers’ use of pushy, personalised recommendations and notifications, is driving many people with poor mental health to spend more than they can afford online, and increasing their risk of financial harm.

The poll found that people who’ve experienced mental health problems in the past two years are twice as likely as the wider population to have spent more than they can afford online (29% compared to 12%), or to have purchased goods they don’t need (47% compared to 23%).

It also found that the pandemic has compounded these problems. A quarter of adults with recent mental health problems (26%) say they have struggled to stay in control of online spending during lockdown – amounting to 3 million people across the UK.

The report shows that the ever-present availability of buy now pay later products is a particular problem – with more than half of UK adults (56%) saying that buy now pay later services make it too easy to get into debt. Two in five (42%) of those with recent mental health problems said that buy now pay later has been harder to resist since lockdown.

Money and Mental Health is calling on the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to ensure that online shopping sites comply with consumer protection laws, for example not pressurising customers into impulsive purchases.

Helen Undy, chief executive of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, said: “Online retail can be a lifeline for people living with mental health problems who may struggle to leave the house, especially during the pandemic. But pushy sites and tempting ‘buy now pay later’ offers  can cause people to spend more than they can afford, risking both their financial and mental health.

“This is particularly challenging in lockdown, with many of us spending longer online, bombarded by adverts telling us that the latest new thing will make us feel better. At its worst, this can leave people in thousands of pounds of debt, with a single day’s shopping spree causing years of misery.

“With more people facing mental health problems this year, as we approach Black Friday retailers must take action to help customers stay in control. Simple steps, like making it easier for customers to avoid ‘buy now pay later’ options, could help people avoid serious financial harm at this difficult time.”

Gareth Shaw, head of money at Which?, said: “It’s important that retailers and buy now, pay later firms act responsibly, so it’s concerning that people with mental health problems risk being persuaded to spend more than they can afford when buying products online, particularly as we head into the Christmas period.

“As the buy now, pay later industry grows rapidly, the financial regulator needs to look at what safeguards these firms have in place to stop people from racking up large bills that they can’t pay back. It should also examine whether customers are losing out as a result of weaker consumer protections compared to other forms of credit.”

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