MAD DOG: Attention Shoppers

Shopping is serious business. Just ask anyone who's woken up at 6 A.M. to be the first in line to get an XFL Barbie for a Christmas present, written a letter to the editor of the newspaper asking why they don't put all the ads in one handy pull-out section instead of hiding them between those icky news articles, or groused because stores don't hold a sale on Martin Luther King's birthday. Yet.

If you're a non-shopper like me it's hard to relate. After all, you don't plan your week around sale days. It's never crossed your mind that a one-week-old cinder block with a lifetime warranty could need replacing because it's "Oh so yesterday." And the idea of driving halfway across the state to save less on a reconditioned Thighmaster than the cost of the gas just doesn't make sense, especially since Suzanne Somers isn't there to give a private demonstration.

But that doesn't mean you shouldn't be supportive of the poor, unfortunate people who break out in a sweat anytime they see a percent sign and the word "off" within two paragraphs of each other. They need love and understanding too. That's why Conde Nast is putting out a new magazine for women about shopping called Lucky. Well, that smells like money. Lots of it.

There's little doubt the magazine will do well, especially on the newsstands where it will be snapped up by single men who read the name but don't notice that the cover is trumpeting articles like "Second mortgages -- the key to your spring wardrobe", "Online shopping, can it fulfill more than just orders?", and "If Nieman Marcus can remember your dress size, why can't hubby?"

Editor Kim France says, "It's not a princess-y, shopaholic magazine." Right, and there will be an Elton John, Jr. any day now. She says it's aimed at those who love to shop as well as those who hate it. How she intends on getting non-shoppers to read a shopping magazine is beyond me, unless she's planning on having centerfolds featuring "The Hunks of Macy's Shoe Department."

The question is, should they be encouraging shopping? After all, like drinking, gambling, and sex, too much shopping can lead to addiction. And like the first two of these, we don't want to get that carried away.

But if it does, there's help available. There's Compulsive Shoppers Anonymous, where people stand up and say, "Hi, my name is Shirley and I found the cutest little monogrammed gold toothpick cleaner at the Galleria the other day and just had to buy four of them." There are debt counselors who take people who are deep in debt, then increase it by charging them to help get them out of debt, a concept only Lewis Carroll, Bonnie and Clyde, or anyone who writes federal tax regulations could appreciate.

And then there are the psychiatrists, who have identified a syndrome they call compulsive-shopping disorder. This isn't to be confused with compulsive-shopping reorder, which is when you get home with something new and decide you simply have to have one in every color so you run back out to buy them even though the house is on fire, the dog is laying on its back with its feet in the air, and Survivor 2 is on. No, this is a bona fide, health-insurance-will-pay-for-it, medical problem.

According to the American Psychiatric Association (motto: "Sometimes a cigar may just be a cigar, but that doesn't mean we can't give it a fancy name and try to cure it."), compulsive-shopping disorder is "a consuming need to buy which often results in debt, personality and relationship disorders, and if we have anything to do with it, a new boat after we have the patient in therapy for a couple of years."

The usual treatment is to have the patient come in twice a week in the hope that the exorbitant fees mean they can't afford to shop as much. This is what's known in psychiatry as transference, though in this case it's more tangible than usual, with the money being transferred directly from the patient to the doctor.

But now they have a new weapon in their arsenal: electronic funds transfer. Just kidding. Actually they've had that for years. What is new is a drug to help combat compulsive shopping. Forest Laboratories (motto: "No, Mr. Gump doesn't work here and please don't call again.") has discovered that their antidepressant Celexa can help people who shop till they drop then get up and shop some more. They say that in tests, 80 percent of the people who took the drug improved. What they didn't say was how much time they spent going from pharmacy to pharmacy searching out the best deal on their prescription.

All of this gives shoppers very mixed signals. How are they to know whether to shop more, shop less, go into therapy, or head to the mall to complete their set of decorative hand-painted dinner plates featuring dogs paying off their credit card bills? The answer, I'm sure, will be in the next issue of Lucky.

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