The Science of Impulse Purchases: How to Encourage Your Customers to Buy More on the Fly

The Science of Impulse Purchases: How to Encourage Your Customers to Buy More on the Fly

There you are standing in line, bored, waiting to check out at the grocery store, and you think, “screw it, I deserve some M&M’S.”

So, you throw a yellow pack of chocolate covered peanut goodness onto the conveyer belt. The package is “shareable” but you know that nobody will be enjoying this little indulgence except you.

But the question is why?

You know better. No rational person buys $200 worth of health food, intending to sabotage their goals. Yet, there you are saying, “leave it out,” to the cashier, finishing the pack before getting to your car.

How did the store persuade you to make the purchase?

The Psychology Behind the Impulse Buy

Whenever you make an “impulse buy,” meaning a decision that is unplanned and made just before the purchase, your choice doesn’t just appear out of thin air; there are a lot of psychological factors at play.

Buying behavior and understanding why people make the decisions they make is something that scientists and psychologists have been studying for decades.

Research psychiatrist George Ainslie found dysfunctional impulsiveness (i.e. the behavior of opting for smaller short-term rewards instead of holding out for larger long-term rewards) so puzzling that he studied it extensively.

The result? He published the prestigious report entitled  “Specious Reward: A Behavioral Theory of Impulsiveness and Impulse Control.”

Let’s take a look at his research in more detail.

Reasons For Impulsiveness

Now, I must say that Ainslie didn’t explicitly study impulse buying but rather dysfunctional impulsiveness (of which impulse buying is one subcategory) in general. That being said, his findings are very much applicable to impulse buying.

In the study, Ainslie comes up with three possibilities for impulsiveness:

  1. We succumb to an impulse because we do not understand the consequences of our behavior
  2. We know the consequences are bad, but we feel compelled by some "lower" principle (e.g. "the devil made me do it")
  3. We know the consequences but place too much weight upon satisfying present desires

So, why did you buy that pack of M&M’S® at the checkout?

Having told yourself “no” for such a prolonged period of time, is ultimately what throws you off your equilibrium. So you allow yourself to follow through with the purpose, justifying it as “just this once” and forgetting that the sugar content of a single package is just under the recommended total intake for a day.

Sure, you’re likely to weigh the pros and cons of your impulse purchases. But if the excitement and desire to buy the product right now are enough to overcome your objections, you’re buying that pack of M&M’S®, damn it!

And while M&M’S® have a low monetary value, the same principles are at play when the stakes are a lot higher. Also, context and decoy pricing play a huge role when it comes to impulse buys.

On it’s own, a $50 tie seems pricey at first glance – even when paired with a $200 jacket, I’m not sure that I’d go for it. Now, pair that same $50 tie with a $1000 suit and I’m far more likely to buy it. What a deal!

Or what about when you’re buying a new car and the salesman offers you the stereo of your dreams for an extra $500? You’re spending $25,000 on the car anyway, an extra $500 will not make any difference in the grand scheme of things. So obviously you’ll get the stereo.

Bringing the Impulse Shopping Experience Online

In the real world, there's a lot that you can to the actual space you're in to influence buying behaviors. You can attract customers with sounds and smells. You can design the layout of the store in a way that forces customers to follow pre-planned routes, have candy and magazines next to check-out counters and more.

In the online world, things are a lot different. Not only are you limited in the things that you can to (images and video), but to find success you have to also deeply understand the dynamics of the platform on what you're trying to disrupt.

You only have a couple of seconds to catch my attention, hook me in and make me take notice before I scroll right through your content never to be seen again. Doing it successfully is hard, but when you finally manage to break through the rewards will be worth it.

Take Youtube marketing as an example. Video is a medium with which a lot of companies have had great success with. Say you’re launching a new line of affordable shaving blades, how would you go about announcing it to the world?

Dollar Shave Club did it by making a funny video that caught consumers attention and got them tons of free media. It was so good that I shared it on my personal Facebook page – did you?

Dollar Shave Club Youtube commercial

Screenshot via Youtube/Dollar Shave Club

Or Old Spice on Imgur. Imgur is an online image hosting service with a very active community that doesn’t hesitate to engage with good content. Before Old Spice launched their Imgur-specific campaign, they made sure they understood the community first and then used that knowledge to drive an unbelievable amount of engagement.

Old Spice, of course, is no stranger to using different platforms and their communities to their advantage, they’ve used Twitter and Youtube to great effect for years.

What sets both of those campaigns apart is not that they had quality content (which they both did) or that they managed to come up with some amazing tactics.


What sets both of them apart is that they both had taken the time to really learn and understand what makes users take notice in the platform that they were trying to disrupt.

There’s hundreds of millions of pieces of content in both Youtube and Imgur but they still managed to catch people’s attention and stop them from scrolling forward and interact with their content instead. I personally saw both of these pieces of content on the respective platforms and it me stop and think, and ultimately buy from them.

Old Spice Imgur Campaign

Screenshot via Imgur

User Experience Matters

Once you’ve got the attention of your target audience, they’ll start searching for more info about you and eventually they’ll land on your ecommerce store.

What they see when they land will shape their opinion of you, which in return has an impact on sales. It makes a difference when the landing page looks like this:

House of Rave homepage

Versus when it look like this:

iHeartRaves homepage

The second one creates instant appeal and trust simply through design; the first page makes me wonder if it’s really even safe to give my credit card information to them.

Leaving the look and feel of an ecommerce site aside, an online store has the ability to collect an almost unlimited amount of (anonymous) data on it’s customers. And it’s that data that makes it possible to take an inside look into how visitors interact with your store which can then be used to optimize the user experience to match what customers are seeking.

Frequently Bought Together

As you gather more and more data about your online customers, you’ll become better at understanding and predicting what additional products you can recommend based on what’s already in their cart.

Amazon is the king of anticipating your needs and wants. Recently, I was browsing around on Amazon looking for a 3-season tent. Right underneath the price and description box was a “Frequently Bought Together” tab:

Amazon Frequently Bought Together

I may or may not already have a portable camping stove, but they make it so easy to add both to the cart that I’m likely to buy them together because it seems like a great deal. Wasn’t planning on buying a stove, but I bought it nonetheless.

The more data you have on your customers, the better your offers will get –making you more money. And you don’t even need to be Amazon to use it. Shopify has many apps that achieve the same results. One good one is Product Upsell, but there are many others so look around in our app store to find one that works for you.

Also, remember the $50 dollar tie from the beginning of this article? It didn’t seem like a reasonable upsell for a $200 jacket but seemed more than reasonable for a $1000 suit. The same applies online. Your add-on items have to make sense from a monetary perspective.

A $30 additional battery is a no brainer for a camera that costs $599. Would it make sense for $150 camera? It might, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Product Upsell - Shopify App

Product Upsell in action

Additionally, one of the greatest things about online selling is that you have precise customer data on what they bought and when. That information can later be used to retarget additional products for them.

With my tent and portable stove example, Amazon could be sending me an email in a couple of months, offering extras for my tent like a fitted fabric footprint that they know others have bought together with a tent.

This method can also be used to simply remarket the same add-on items that were displayed during check-out, but the customer never bought. After using the product, I might be more open to it. So it’s a good idea to at least send the email and try.

There are numerous strategies to use, but the more you can personalize, the better. You can learn so much more about your customers online via data collection and then use AI + personalization software to get results. In addition, you can provide a much better overall customer experience, and increase your average order value.

That’s exactly how Smoke Cartel was able to increase their average order value per customer – by using data and a recommendation engine.

Final Thoughts

A lot of our actions are based on impulse, and luckily for marketers, shopping is one of them. Many brick-and-mortar stores have mastered this concept, it’s about time you replicate their success online.

By understanding the psychology behind your customer's impulse purchases, and how to tap into it, you’ll be able to create an irresistible shopping environment.

Using these tips as inspiration, I hope you can start marketing towards the impulse buy on your website!

About the author

Aaron Orendorff

Previously the Editor in Chief of Shopify Plus, Aaron Orendorff is the VP of Marketing at Common Thread Collective. Named by Forbes as one of the top 10 B2B content marketers, his work has appeared on Mashable, Entrepreneur, Business Insider, Fast Company, Inc., Success Magazine, The Next Web, Content Marketing Institute, and more.

Check out Aaron Orendorff’s work