Psychology of Impulse Buying
We’ve all been victims of impulsive buying. Maybe you went shopping with a friend, swearing you weren’t going to spend any money and then *poof* you own a new shirt. Or maybe a new kitchen appliance caught your eye and you had to have it. Or maybe you had actually planned on going shopping, for, let’s say, groceries, and you end up buying a few items that weren’t on your list. Whatever the context may have been or what degree of planning you might have done prior to shopping, if you have ever bought something you did not plan on ahead of time (whether or not you can justify the purchase after the fact), you have participated in the culture of impulse buying. There are countless factors that influence an individual’s rash decision to buy impulsively and much research has been done to better understand this behavior. Furthermore, marketers often use this knowledge to promote impulse buying in the hopes of increasing their bottom line. But while impulse buying does indeed mean more product bought, it can also lead consumers to harbor negative post-shopping feelings about the producer and retailer (Zhang and Wang 2010).
Both consumers and marketers can benefit from understanding the psychological drivers of this behavior and the potential implications. Here I will discuss three main categories of factors that influence impulsive buying behavior (store environment, personal characteristics and buying conditions) to better understand these underlying forces.
(1) Store Environment
World-wide, stores spend exorbitant amounts on visual merchandising, interior design and other factors that contribute to the overall retail environment. But do these things actually have an influence on what people buy? One study that compared consumer behavior in small stores such as The Body Shop versus large stores like Ikea found that, independent of store size: a) highly stimulating environments b) perceived crowding and c) frequency of visits to the store all increase the frequency of impulse buying. Furthermore, what ends up triggering impulsive buying varies depending on the size of the store (Gupta, as cited in Muruganantham and Bhakat 2013). In small stores, price has the main influence. A shopper’s (non-conscious) reasoning might go something like, “I can see everything, know my options, have no real preference and so I will go with the cheapest thing.” In large stores, product displays have the main influence. Shoppers perhaps think, “There are too many products to actually comb through, so I will just go for what I can see.”
Other store factors, such as background music, fragrance and store layout also have effects on impulsive buying. There are two ways this effect could be operating. The first is that certain characteristics trigger impulsive tendencies in the shopper directly. The second is that these same characteristics trigger changes in mood or state of the shopper and this new mood or state makes the shopper more likely to buy impulsively. A study by Chang et al. (2011) found that shoppers who react more positively to the store environment are more likely to buy something they weren’t planning on, which lends credence to the latter of these potential pathways.
(2) Personal Characteristics of the Shopper
Psychologists have agreed that there exists a general trait of impulsivity (i.e. some people are more inclined towards impulsive behaviors than others) and Rook and Fisher believe that buying impulsiveness can be viewed as a specific sub-trait of this. Interestingly, one study by Rook and Fisher found that of individuals who can be characterized as having the buying impulsiveness trait, only those who deem “buying on impulse” as an OK normative behavior are likely to engage in such behavior. That is, opinions on the social norms that surround buying behaviors can have a direct moderating effect on an individual's eventual behavior.
Other traits related to impulsivity may also play a role in mediating shopping behavior. For example, in 2010, Sharma et al. found that those individuals who measure high in the trait of ‘Optimal Stimulation Level’ were more likely to indulge in impulsive buying behaviors, as a way of obtaining their optimal levels of stimulation via the “emotionally charged experience” of shopping on impulse.
Aside from traits, other personal factors definitely play into individual tendencies to partake in impulsive shopping. Increases in impulsive buying behavior can result as a response to negative feelings such as depression (Sneath 2009) or low self-esteem. Some individuals who shop for such reasons explain that they do so to fill a void or gain control over their life. Indeed, research suggests that there is in fact a link between shopping (especially getting good deals) and the release of mood-boosting endorphins.
(3) Buying Conditions
Many additional factors at the time of buying influence the likelihood of an impulsive purchase. For example, how much time one has, how much money one has and who you are shopping with. Some research has suggested that the more time spent in the store by a shopper before seeing item, the more likely they are to buy an item they had not planned on purchasing (Jeffrey and Hadge 2007 as cited in Muruganantham and Bhakat 2013) There has been no robust study of what the mechanism behind this phenomenon is, but it could be a form of cognitive dissonance. That is, the shopper could be, at a certain level, justifying the time he or she has spent in the store by making a purchase so that their time does not seem wasted.
The last piece of research I will discuss was conducted by Gibson et al. to study the effect of implicit priming on decision making. They recruited participants with no strong preferences and implicitly primed them to have positive associations with either Pepsi or Coke. The participants were then told that they could choose a prize for their time spent at the lab and were then presented with images of a Coke can and a Pepsi can. Before making this choice, some participants were told to memorize and remember an 8 digit number and made their final choice of Coke vs. Pepsi while under this cognitive load. In the group that was not under any cognitive load, there was no significant difference in choice: in both the Pepsi-primed and the Coke-primed group, roughly half chose Pepsi and half chose Coke. However, in the group that was distracted, (i.e. asked to remember the number) the Coke-primed participants were more likely to choose Coke and the Pepsi-primed more likely to choose Pepsi. This study implies that implicit primes can be especially effective when a shopper is distracted or not thinking fully about the act of shopping, as is the case with impulse buying. This could help explain why so many instances of impulse buying take place at the checkout counter, when the consumer is distracted by the process of checking out. The fact that the countless items near the registers, such as gum, magazines, candy and other knick knacks, are readily available and easy to grab make it that much more likely that a distracted customer will indulge their impulse to buy.
The psychology and driving forces behind impulsive shopping behavior are clearly plentiful -- it almost seems as though everything has some sort of impact on consumer behavior! This is true to a certain extent, since individuals are constantly interacting with and being influenced by their environment (whether they’re shopping or not), but the takeaway here is that there are numerous factors that consistently lead to predictable increases in impulsive buying behavior. In the future, researchers and marketers alike will surely tease apart the nuances of these factors. But before immediately capitalizing upon the effects they have on consumer behavior, one should remember that there are two sides to this story: yes, more items sold means more money coming in, but this could come at a cost to brand loyalty and image. Further research still needs to be done to figure out these sorts of implications, but nonetheless it is important to be aware of.
Note: The terms compulsive and impulsive are often used interchangeably in everyday speech, but they are in fact pretty different. Compulsive behavior is behavior that the individual feels needs to be done. They cannot help it, perhaps due to a mental disorder of some sort. For example, individuals diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder may feel the need to wash their hands over and over again. Impulsive behavior, on the other hand, is behavior that one probably would not do if they were to stop and think fully through it. For example, a generally risk-averse individual might impulsively dare to jump off a footbridge into the water below. If they were to have stopped and thought fully through this action and its consequences they might not have jumped. This blog post will focus on the psychology behind impulsive buying -- that is, buying something that one did not plan to buy -- and not the psychiatry/biology behind compulsive buying. For a nice review of the latter, see Lejoyeux and Weinstein 2010.