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Objectives. This study investigated how compulsive buyers make sense of their excessive shopping behaviour to explore possible sources of heterogeneity between compulsive buyers.

Method. Twenty female participants met ‘caseness’ for compulsive buying (CB) on the CB Scale (CBS), prior to completing a Q-sort specifically related to their experiences of shopping. Participants provided details of occupation, income, and debt levels and completed two psychometric scales: the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS) and Yale Brown Obsessive Compulsive Scale-Shopping Version (YBOCS-SV).

Results. Principle component analysis (PCA) identified two groups within the compulsive buyers (labelled positive reinforcement and emotional distress) that explained 44% of the study variance. Ten women defined the positive reinforcement factor and tended to identify with pleasurable aspects of buying. Six women characterized the emotional distress factor and endorsed varied financial, emotional, and interpersonal difficulties associated with their CB. The emotional distress group carried significantly greater current debt levels and had significantly more severe CB.

Conclusions. The study illustrates that compulsive buyers can relate to their ‘symptoms’ in dissimilar ways. The clinical implications of such heterogeneity are discussed, methodological shortcomings identified, and areas for future research indicated.