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Online Merchants Home in on Imbibing Consumers

After enjoying a few drinks, some people go dancing. Others order food. For some, it’s time to shop online.

Close up of someone typing on a laptop.
Close up of someone typing on a laptop.

“I have my account linked to my phone, so it’s really easy,” said Tiffany Whitten, of Dayton, Ohio, whose most recent tipsy purchase made on her smartphone — a phone cover — arrived from Amazon, much to her surprise. “I was drunk and I bought it, and I forgot about it, and it showed up in the mail, and I was really excited.”

Shopping under the influence has long benefited high-end specialty retailers — witness the wine-and-cheese parties that are a staple of galleries and boutiques. Now the popularity of Internet sales has opened alcohol-induced purchases to the masses, including people like Ms. Whitten, who works in shipping and receiving and spent just $5 on the cat-shaped phone cover.

Chris Tansey, an accountant in Australia, went shopping online after drinking late one night (to be precise, it was well into the morning). By the end of the session, he had bought a $10,000 motorcycle tour of New Zealand.

“The hang-ups of spending your hard-earned cash are so far removed from your life when you’ve had a bottle of wine,” Mr. Tansey said in an email. The New Zealand trip was terrific, he said. But a pair of $3 sunglasses on eBay “turned out to be horrible fakes, with $17 of postage that I obviously didn’t see with beer goggles.”

Online retailers, of course, can never be sure whether customers are inebriated when they tap the “checkout” icon. One comparison-shopping site, Kelkoo, said almost half the people it surveyed in Britain, where it is based, had shopped online after drinking.

But while reliable data is hard to come by, retailers say they have their suspicions based on anecdotal evidence and traffic patterns on their Web sites — and some are adjusting their promotions accordingly.

“Post-bar, inhibitions can be impacted, and that can cause shopping, and hopefully healthy impulse buying,” said Andy Page, the president of Gilt Groupe, an online retailer that is adding more sales starting at 9 p.m. to respond to high traffic then — perhaps some of it by shoppers under the influence.

On eBay , the busiest time of day is from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. in each time zone. Asked if drinking might be a factor, Steve Yankovich, vice president for mobile for eBay, said, “Absolutely.”

He added: “I mean, if you think about what most people do when they get home from work in the evening, it’s decompression time. The consumer’s in a good mood.”

Nighttime shopping is growing over all. ChannelAdvisor, which runs e-commerce for hundreds of sites, says its order volumes peak about 8 p.m., and that shoppers are placing orders later and later: in 2011, the number of orders placed from 9 to midnight increased compared with previous years.

A recent array of nighttime offers sent to a shopper’s e-mail inbox included: from 6 to 9 p.m., a limited-quantity sale on fashions at Neiman Marcus; at 7:38 p.m., a promotion for three-day stays at Loews hotels; at 8:44 p.m., a promotion by Gilt for macaroons and faux-fur blankets; and at 2:23 a.m., an offer by Saks for a $2,000 gift card with purchase.

At QVC, the television shopping channel, traffic and viewers rise around noon, then quiet down until after 7 p.m. Then items like cosmetics and accessories sell briskly. “Call them girl treats — they seem to attract a really strong following once you get past dinnertime,” said Doug Rose, senior vice president for multichannel programming and marketing for the company. “You can probably come to your own conclusion as to what’s motivating her.”

Still, the nighttime spike requires delicacy among retailers: For reasons of propriety, they do not want to be seen as encouraging drunken shopping, and many people who inadvertently buy products in that state would most likely return them at high rates. On the other hand, a happy customer can lead to higher sales.

“In a shopping context, alcohol would lift people’s moods and make them feel more relaxed,” said Nancy Puccinelli, an associate fellow at the Oxford’s Saïd Business School who studies consumer behavior. “If we see a product and we feel good, we will evaluate the product more positively.”

Alcohol-fueled purchases, however, could lead to problems, she said. Even with online retailers storing credit card information and offering one-click checkout, alcohol reduces working memory, which means “at the time of purchase, you wouldn’t have the cognitive ability to think through. If you think about a sweater: is this the right size, is it the right color,” she said.

Kristin A. Kassaw, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Baylor, said online shopping while drunk could have serious financial consequences.

“When you’re loading things you can’t feel or touch into this fake cart, you don’t have a sense of, ‘I’m buying all this stuff, I’m buying too much.’ It takes you away from the actual spending-money experience,” she said.

In actual stores, despite the longer hours around the holidays, intoxicated shoppers seem to be rare — but when they do appear, they can be quite disruptive.

On Thanksgiving night around 11 p.m., a shopper at a Walmart in Florence, Ala., was stumbling in the aisles and grabbing onto items; police officers shot him with a stun gun and charged him with public intoxication. At a Best Buy in Lufkin, Tex., a drunken man disappeared into a bathroom around 4 a.m. on Black Friday and tried to flush a cable down the toilet, apparently to avoid being caught shoplifting.

And in Scarborough, Maine, early on the Friday after Thanksgiving, a man was arrested as he drove out of a Cabela’s parking lot, where he had ostensibly been drinking all night as he waited for the store to open.

Amanda Schuster, a wine-and-spirits writer and consultant in Brooklyn, N.Y., says she never shops in actual stores after drinking, but she finds it hard to resist the Web. “It feels productive in a way — like I didn’t just come home drunk and pass out, I went home and did something,” she said.

That something tends to be buying used CDs at Amazon . When an unexpected package shows up, “I try to backtrack a little bit, and I look in to my purchasing history, and I’m like, oh, yeah,” she said.

Regrets? She has a few.

“When did I get ‘Heart’s Greatest Hits’?” she said.

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