Impulse buying is the sudden and immediate purchase of a product without any pre-shopping intention. It occurs after shoppers experience an urge to buy, and is often spontaneous without any hesitation.
We’ve all been there before: Just yesterday I bought a Baby Yoda Christmas decoration because it was adorable. The minute I saw the little alien holding a candy cane, I put it in my cart. No questions asked.
Think of impulse buying as the power of temptation. The feeling of doing something you shouldn’t, but you just can’t help yourself.
In January 2020, before the pandemic, the average US consumer spent $155.03 on impulse buys monthly. A new poll from April 2020 revealed that number surged by 18%, with US shoppers spending $182.98 on impulse buys each month.
And retailers are cashing in.
So, what drives impulse buys? And what can you do in your store to encourage them? This guide covers exactly that.
Table of Contents
What is an impulse buy?
Impulse purchases differ from regular purchases in one key way: they are not consciously planned. Impulse purchases happen in the spur of the moment, they are hard to control, and are affected by emotional states such as anger or joy.
These unplanned purchases have become the norm for most shoppers.
Recent industry research shows that impulse buying accounts for between 40% and 80% of purchases.
It’s reported that over 87% of US shoppers make impulse buys, and more than 50% of all grocery is sold because of impulsiveness. The growth of online advertising, ecommerce, and installment payments has pushed the trend further. Yet, consumer scholars have been studying impulse buying in retail for a long time, with tens of thousands of articles published in recent decades.
In a review study, researchers Sarah Xiao and Michael Nicholson suggest that impulse buys include a number of antecedents, such as:
- Personality traits
- Buying beliefs and attitudes
- Sociocultural values
- Demographic factors
These factors are linked to internal factors (such as emotions) and external factors (such as environmental stimuli) that encourage impulse buying tendency.
According to well-cited research by social psychologist Wilhelm Hofmann, impulses emerge through the activation of the associative cluster in long-term memory in close interaction with perceptual stimulus input.
Let’s look at a quick example:
- You love cake and you see one at the bakery.
- Your brain activates a series of urges, desires, and impulses to eat it.
- These urges are stimulated by external stimuli like the cake design, the smell of the bakery, etc.
- You buy the cake without thinking about it.
Hofmann explains that, because of your past experiences with cake, your brain forms a cluster of links: (a) the concept of cake, (b) positive affect generated by the cake, (c) the repeated patterns of behavior that led to the positive effect.
And just like that, you have helplessly bought a delicious cake, and you ain’t mad about it.
So, what are people actually buying on impulse? A recent study by Slickdeals uncovered a shift in purchasing behavior post-pandemic.
Pre-pandemic impulse spending product categories included:
- Food and groceries (50%)
- Clothing (43%)
- Vehicles (41%)
- Household items (35%)
- Coffee (31%)
- Books (22%)
- Takeout (22%)
- Technology (21%)
- Toys (21%)
- Shoes (21%)
Post-pandemic impulse spending product categories included:
- Cleaning supplies (42%)
- Hand sanitizer (38%)
- Toilet paper (35%)
- Hand soap (32%)
- Canned food (31%)
- Dish detergent (30%)
- Clothing (22%)
- A treat you’ve had your eye on for a while (21%)
- Video games (20%)
- Home improvement (18%)
- Headphones (18%)
- Video game consoles (17%)
- Books (17%)
- Shoes (17%)
- School supplies (16%)
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Psychology of impulse buying
Impulse buying causes consumers to buy stuff immediately. But what’s the science behind it?
A key factor in triggering an impulse buy is the shopper’s emotional state. Emotions are intense feelings toward someone or something, and are often shown through facial expressions and manifestations including anger, fear, delight, enthusiasm, and excitement.
Studies show that both positive and negative emotions affect consumer buying behavior. The original idea was that happiness always preceded an impulsive purchase, producing effects such as pleasure and joy. Yet over time, we’ve learned that, under certain circumstances, shoppers tend to impulse buy to release negative feelings like stress, fatigue, and upset.
In fact, 72% of shoppers say impulse buying during the pandemic positively affected their mood, with two out of three respondents saying that it instantly turned a bad day around.
Previous data also suggests that face-related experiences can stimulate someone’s emotional responses, “face” being the self-image someone gets based on their social identity, whether on social media or in real-life.
Successfully gaining face, or prestige, in a social environment, can lead to impulse purchases. When someone loses face, or feels embarrassed, anxious, or rejected, they may end up buying on impulse, too. Self-gifting, or “retail therapy,” is another form of impulse buying one uses to manage their mood.
Countless studies show that people resist impulses that tempt them to do stuff like go back to sleep, eat snack foods, and impulse buy. In this view, Roy Baumeister conceptualized impulse buying as a battle between desire and self-control.
Self-control is the ability to override one’s thoughts, emotions, or automatic behaviors, and not act on them.
Research has identified three major elements of self-control:
- Standards, or having a clear shopping goal in mind. For example, a shopper goes to a specific shop to buy a suit for a wedding, or with a shopping list to the grocery store. Shoppers with unclear goals are more likely to lack self-control.
- Monitoring process, or tracking behavior and spending. Shoppers who monitor themselves are less likely to impulse buy.
- Self-regulatory resources, or the strength and energy to control one’s behavior. If a shopper’s self-control is fatigued (like a muscle), they are more likely to impulse buy.
Some scholars suggest that impulse buying results from a lack of self-control. When the desire for a product strikes and overwhelms the buyer, self-control fails and the shopper buys without hesitation.
A shopper’s norms also play into the psychology of impulse buying. Motives are internal sources of impulse buying that reflect arousal from a specific goal. For example, a shopper may believe that buying a pair of jeans will provide emotional gratification or reduce negative feelings.
These beliefs are more relevant if the item is novel and tells a shopper that they’re missing out. If a shopper had a similar shopping experience in the past, and it resulted in positive feelings, they are likely to evaluate the impulse purchase as a good thing.
Consider the cake example above. Through repeated experiences of buying cake and fulfilling your desires, your brain formed an associative cluster of links, mostly around the concept of cake and how it makes you feel before, during, and after eating it. The next time you see a cake, your prior experience tells you that it’ll provide positive emotions, which leads to you buying the cake on impulse.
What drives impulse shoppers
Now that you know the psychological elements behind impulse buys, let’s look at what drives shoppers to buy instantly.
Feeling of getting a deal
Impulse buying doesn’t always mean spending an entire paycheck on fancy products. People also buy products because they feel it’ll save them money in the long run.
According to Slickdeals’ recent survey, 52% of respondents would rather take advantage of a deal than pay full price. Sales promotions tend to impact sales because consumers are price conscious. Therefore, they are likely to buy products that offer greater savings.
Victoria’s Secret, for example, always has a buy one, get one or bundle promotion in its store. Both promotions give shoppers the chance to stock up on their favorite products in-store and online.
The retailer also offers two semi-annual sales each year, in the last days of June or July and December. Once the sale goes live in-store, shoppers get there that morning to get the best products, as the stores are normally stocked full during the first few days. Shoppers can save between 50% and 80% on PINK and Victoria’s Secret products during these sales, encouraging them to buy at a cheaper price and before inventory runs out.
A key factor for driving impulse buys is physical stimuli. Consumer research has shown that external factors such as retail signage, ambiance, marketing activities, and window displays influence consumer behavior.
As discussed above, internal factors include personality and psychological factors like emotions and self-control. While external factors include:
- Store environment. What’s the overall atmosphere of your store? Data suggests that a pleasant environment can encourage shoppers to shop around and do unplanned shopping. Higher levels of positive feelings lead to higher levels of impulse buying.
- Background music. The music your store plays impacts customer emotions and impulse buying. Studies show that soft background music slows the shopping pace of customers, resulting in them spending more time in your store and buying more products.
- Sales people. Sales people that provide guidance and a pleasant shopping experience stimulate consumer spending. A common strategy retailers use is telling customers about how happy other customers are with their purchases. They can also inform customers about the scarcity of a product, offer free samples or trials, and give money-back guarantees to encourage impulse buying.
- Promotions. Sales promotions like BOGO encourage customers to buy larger quantities of products. Free vouchers, refunds, free sampling, and giftbacks are also known to impact impulse buying.
When we feel a rush of emotion, such as stress, anxiety, or excitement, it’s harder to make rational buying decisions. Think about the last time you needed to finish a task, but found yourself scrolling through the web for hours. Or wanted to eat more veggies, only to order wings from Uber Eats at night.
Research from Princeton University shows that your brain battles between short-term rewards and long-term goals. When a shopper in your store sees something they need, the logical part of their brain tries to reason with them. It’ll tell them saving the $35 would be good for their bank accounts, and they don’t really need that shirt, while the emotional side of their brain doesn’t think about the future, and sees instant gratification as the ultimate reward.
Which side of the brain wins? It depends. In retail, research suggests that shoppers are more likely to spend in stores. The senses intake all the environmental cues and generate a strong response, which leads to a purchase without hesitation.
In the end, shopping offers a hit of dopamine that consumers crave for instant gratification. It’s that sensation retailers take advantage of in their stores that encourages people to buy.
Ever think about why you spend more than you wanted to when shopping? It’s because of strategic product placement, which entices you to buy more. Retailers don’t put products in random places by accident. There’s actually a lot of work that goes into it.
For example, your window display is ideal for differentiating and attracting customers into your store. Previous studies also suggest that window displays have a positive influence on impulsive buying when the products are in high demand. Retailers can create displays that generate an exciting shopping experience, which can lift shoppers’ moods and encourage impulse sales.
There are also tactics retailers can use in-store to encourage impulse buys:
- Block placement, which includes placing related products close to each other. For example, placing pens and pencils near notebooks. Block placement increases the possibility that shoppers will buy the other products too.
- Vertical placement, which involves showing items in a vertical display. You can place popular products closer to the shopper’s line of sight to attract them. Then, vertical placement lets shoppers scan items from top to bottom and analyze the display.
- Commercial placement, which refers to giving higher-value products a better shelf position than lower-value products.
Point-of-purchase displays are another placement tactic retailers use to encourage impulse buyers. This way, shoppers can browse featured products while they wait in line and can add them to their cart at the last minute.
Impulse buys don’t always come from promotions and strategic displays. Sometimes it’s all about novelty or the quality of being new and original. If products look unique and special, shoppers will notice them.
Research from Ridgeway, Kukar-Kinney and Monroe found that impulse buyers seek novelty items and are hyperactive. These sensation seekers experience positive feelings when finding new stuff that leads them to buy products right away.
The lesson here? Innovate on your product selection. Come up with original products based on customer feedback and sales, and offer items that shoppers can’t find elsewhere. This can cause excitement and enjoyment from shoppers, which leads to more sales.
Product bundling refers to when you package complementary products in a group that shoppers can buy together. They are often bundled together as a cross-sell or upsell. Studies have shown that impulse buying is more likely to occur when products are sold with bundling offers for hedonic goods, but not for utilitarian goods.
A study from Harvard Business School demonstrates how powerful product bundling can be as a tool to increase sales.
The study looked at a tactic Nintendo used when selling video games and consoles. The brand bundled the two related products together, leading to 100,000 units sold and over $1 million in video game sales. When Nintendo only bundled games together, sales decreased 20%.
Product bundling at checkout can also help customers pull the trigger on impulse buys. At your retail shop, it could look like a sales associate telling customers about a bundle promotion if they add one more item to their purchase. Or you could represent it on signs throughout your store and marketing assets.
How to encourage impulse shopping
1. Create a path for customers to follow
Encouraging impulse purchases requires the right mix of product selection and product placement. It’s much easier for you to find the best placement for impulse buys when customers follow a predetermined path through your store. By drawing on specific store layouts and interior design principles, you can lead customers past your high-demand items and plan for more predictable foot traffic.
When you design a path for customers to walk, you can better predict where customers will need a visual break, where they’re likely to linger, and which types of product displays they’ll pass on their way through the store. That makes it easier to determine the best placement for impulse displays.
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2. Place lower-priced impulse buys near checkout
The average customer isn’t going to impulsively spend $1,000 without a second thought. That’s why price is one of the most important factors in choosing the right products to use for impulse displays. For checkout and point-of-purchase impulse buying, it’s best to keep all products under about $20. That way, you can boost purchase values with products that customers are ready to buy without too much consideration.
Another way to keep impulse prices down is to use your designated impulse purchase areas to display products that are on sale. Take Bath & Body Works, for example. It frequently offers discounted samplers of new fragrances and little add-ons right next to the cash registers. Combining sale prices with the urgency of a limited-time promotion is a recipe for impulse buying.
3. Display impulse products around high-demand items
If you’re like me, when you think about impulse buys, you picture long, structured displays leading to the checkout counter in HomeGoods (they get me every time!). Your checkout area isn’t the only place where you can capitalize on impulse buying, though.
Another high-impact place to display impulse products is alongside your high-demand items—a separate display to give shoppers a visual break, or something included on your store’s power wall.
In this space, choose lower-priced products that complement in-demand anchor products. For example, a grocery store might display waffle cones in front of the ice cream freezer. You’ll capitalize on the attention and foot traffic that high-demand products draw combined with the urgency of impulse products.
4. Use the right language to communicate urgency
Impulse purchases only happen when you can create a sense of urgency in customers’ minds. Impulse buys generally draw on one of two things:
- Shoppers’ wants
- Staple items
That’s why candy and socks are two things you’ll often see near the checkout line. When you display products that customers desire, that desire does a lot of the heavy lifting that spurs shoppers to buy now. But when you use the checkout line to display promotional items or everyday staples, it’s your job to build that sense of Gotta have it now!
The right language—including phrases like “Buy now” and “Get it before they’re gone”—is one of the tools that can help you create more desire for staple items.
5. Anticipate your customers’ needs
When we talk about products that are impulse buys, we aren’t talking about a concrete or defined set of items. The products that your customers buy impulsively might be the same products that sell at your neighbor stores—or they might be completely different.
Understanding the best products for your impulse buy displays is all about knowing your customers and being able to anticipate their needs.
Are your customers marathon shoppers who spend hours going from one store to the next? They might respond to bottled water or lip balm in the checkout line. Is your customer shopping for home decor to capture a particular feeling in their space? Maybe scented candles are just what they’re missing to complete the room.
6. Draw attention to impulse buys
HomeGoods stores take advantage of the captive audience of customers waiting in line to check out. For other impulse displays throughout the store (or if you don’t have the space for point-of-purchase displays), you’ll need to take extra steps to draw attention to those products.
Aside from placing products in the right areas of your store, you can draw on three main things to grab shoppers’ attention:
- Signage. Use signage on and around impulse displays to get customers to pay attention, and, as we talked about before, use language that creates a sense of urgency.
- Lighting. Try colored lighting, spotlighting, or any lighting that sets the display apart from the rest of your store.
- Color. Bright, bold colors can draw customers’ attention and help create the feeling you want to go along with your impulse buys—like red for sale or promotional items.
7. Choose products that require little consideration
While it may seem obvious that high-priced products aren’t great for encouraging impulsivity, there’s more that goes into choosing the right impulse buys than just price. A high price can make shoppers pause before buying, but so can too many options.
That’s why the best impulse displays limit anything that requires the customer to decide between one option or another. For example, Old Navy’s flip-flops are brightly colored and inexpensive, so they might seem like a perfect impulse buy in the summer. But a display featuring all 50 different colors can overwhelm customers and make them hesitate long enough to reconsider the impulse.
So be deliberate in your product choices. Curate a few select items to populate your display so customers don’t have to spend too long choosing between different color or size variations.
8. Offer product samples or demos
Not every retail store can offer samples or demos of their products, but for those that can, they can go a long way in convincing shoppers to buy something they didn’t plan on. By giving shoppers a small taste (actual or metaphorical) of products, you can boost impulse buying.
Food sample stations throughout Whole Foods are a great example of this concept. You may not have come in looking for vegan muffins, but if you get a taste, you might not leave the store without them. Sephora’s makeovers are another perfect case study of retailers offering demos. Shoppers who come in to buy foundation might just fall in love with the lip stain employees put on them.
9. Showcase seasonal items
I don’t know about you, but when I go through a checkout line with seasonal decor, scented candles, or hand soap, I’m sold. Seasonal items are one of the best choices for your checkout and impulse displays because they tap into that sense of urgency—seasonal products are inherently available for a limited time.
Choosing to display seasonal items also makes it easy to switch up your point-of-purchase displays regularly, which is key to winning impulse buys from repeat customers who’ve seen your displays before.
FURTHER READING: Not sure how to create high-impact displays near your checkout counter? Learn more about how you can optimize your point-of-purchase displays to increase sales.
10. Train floor staff to encourage impulse buying
Getting customers to make impulse buys isn’t just about the products and where you put them. Your store employees are one of the most underutilized tools you have to encourage impulse purchases. Train your staff how to make complementary product suggestions on the floor and how to direct shopper attention to point-of-purchase displays.
At the end of the day, real conversations and recommendations are the most effective ways to get customers to make impulse purchases.
11. Leverage conditional promotions
Conditional promotions aim to encourage sales without hurting your revenues or basket values. They also motivate shoppers to look around your store and check out more products versus just looking at sale items.
Conditional promotions include:
- Buy one, get one on discount or free (BOGO)
- Buy and earn loyalty
- Buy and save on specific items
Free stuff is a powerful motivator. You can use that to your advantage by structuring conditional offers around your store. Low-cost products are often bought on impulse. So try to find products with higher margins in your offers to come out profitable.
Increase sales with impulse purchases
As you can see, taking advantage of impulse sales is critical as a retailer. The more shoppers enjoy their experience in your store, the more positive feelings they have toward impulse buying. A well-decorated, pleasant, and ambient store along with engaging surroundings and background music can keep shoppers around and buying more with less effort.
Test a few of the ideas above to start. The right strategy can change your store for the better, not just by making more sales, but in creating innovative and exciting experiences customers will remember.
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