When Coltrane Curtis needs a break during the workday, he doesn't linger over a long lunch or head to the gym. He goes shopping. Recently, he picked up a pair of vintage Cazal aviators. One time, he bought a Zero Halliburton briefcase; another time, it was a $7,000 Leica camera.
Curtis, the 32-year-old owner of a marketing firm in New York, admits that he shops for clothes far more than his wife does. Evidence of this comes in the form of 600 pairs of sneakers stacked in boxes in the spare bedroom of his Tribeca apartment. In response to his habit, his wife has given him the kind of order that is usually heard coming from the mouths of grouchy sitcom husbands: Stop buying shoes.
A couple of decades ago, the stereotypical man of the house unwound from a hard day by watching a game with a glass of something on ice. His wife? She went shopping. But whether it's because ads for moisturizer now target men or because stores have started serving them snifters of brandy while they get fitted for shirts, guys are rewarding themselves in a way they never used to: by taking out their credit cards.
A recent study of men's buying habits done by WSL Strategic Retail found that guys in their twenties and early thirties visit a greater variety of stores than older men do. "They tend to shop more like women," says Wendy Liebmann, WSL's founder and president.
But unlike the classic Sex and the City-style shopaholic, for whom a trip to Barneys is a balm for a bad day, they're doing it on good days. James Sivco, a 36-year-old private-equity investor in Houston, just got a vintage golf bag to toast himself for having a profitable year. "It's almost all celebratory," he says of his shopping.
David Lewis, head of neuroscience for Mind Lab International in England, calls the male desire to pamper oneself with purchased goods "a kind of consumer masturbation." For a study in 2006, Dr. Lewis took 20 guys, ages 18 to 25, to a high-end lingerie shop and then to a sporting-goods store. When he asked them which experience they liked better, he says, "a number of men said, "That sex shop was really exciting.' In fact, their brain activity was much greater when they were looking at sneakers."
Luke, a 36-year-old restaurant-chain owner in Houston who's married with two kids (he asked to be identified by only his first name), regularly shops during his workday. On recent lunch breaks, he's bought himself perfectly cut khaki shorts and a pair of pajamas. He doesn't see his vice as a problem.
And few guys with a spending habit do have a problem, technically. But it may not be such a big leap from liberated male shopper to addict worthy of a guest spot on Oprah. The biggest warning sign: seeing suede wing tips on the screen where your boss's e-mail should be. According to April Lane Benson, the author of I Shop, Therefore I Am, "Compulsive shoppers are plagued by buying thoughts. Whenever you devote so much brain space to shopping, there's less to use for something else."