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The science behind an impulse purchase

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Retailers love our impulsive shopping habits, but these types of purchases are often a result of our psychological weakness.

Impulse shopping, we all do it. For some, our weakness strikes at the end of a crazy day. For others it’s the strategically placed treats straddling the checkout counters.

Impulse buying happens when we want to pamper ourselves, or discover a great deal, discount or buying incentive. But what else makes us vulnerable? The research says that it’s a lot of things; often all at once!

Are you really in control?

As consumers, we usually believe that we make conscious choices based on what we need and want. Most of us feel sure about the reasons behind our various purchases – from clothes and furniture, to breath-mints.

But the scientists who delve into the intricacies of human consumer behavior think that there is a lot more at play. Consumer surveys consistently show that people are likely to buy things that they didn’t plan to buy, things they don’t need, and even items they’re not sure they want – just because the impulse hit them.

It would seem that our mood, memories, fears and even our personality can be used to predict what we might pick up on a whim; and how much.

Typical reasons for impulse buying

The science suggests that impulse purchases may be motivated by a number of different factors:

1) Enjoyment:

We tend to pick up things that make us happy. The thought of immediate, pure pleasure can be insanely powerful; particularly when we are stressed out. Getting something new or getting a treat is a pick-me-up on a bad day, adds spice to a boring one, and can work as a strong incentive for a lazy day. Which would explain why my impulse buys are books and chocolate goodies; while my best friend’s stress shopping usually leads her to the cosmetics’ counter.

2) Loss aversion

(the desire to avoid missing out on something good): How often do you fall for the “Buy 2, Get 1 Free” or the “Limited Period Price Drop” deals? Whether it’s t-shirts or shampoo, we pick up things we don’t need if we aren’t sure that it will always be available; or if we think that we are getting a really good deal. The idea that we are getting more for the same amount of money spent speaks to most of us; even when we aren’t trying to save money.

3) Thinking you’ve spotted a bargain

Ever seen a 20% off (or even 5%) off sign on treats and suddenly felt that you just have to get some [of whatever the product is]?? This happens because our brain can often get fooled by the idea that something MAY be a good deal. And who doesn’t want a good deal?

4) The need to stockpile

As a species that fears running out of resources; we have a tendency to stock up on things we think we should have. This need gets intensified when we find the resource in question is available for a limited time. Hence, the mad rush on Black Friday.

5) Biased evaluation of use

We are a very optimistic people. We are convinced that we will eat all the food we buy, wear every item of clothing, and use all the household items we pick up. It doesn’t really matter if we are told that this may not happen; we still go ahead and buy – optimistically.

Emotional appeal

Typically, people impulse buy things that make them feel good; or things that have an emotional value. Scientists tell us that this happens because such items help us feel better about ourselves and temporarily dampen our unhappy thoughts and self doubt.

They also found that the worse a person’s mood when they enter (or pass by) a shop, the more they are likely to make impulsive purchases.

distracted buyer is also an impulse buyer! When our mental resources are occupied elsewhere, we tend to buy things that seem appealing. Researchers think this happens because we have a limited amount of mental space.

So when we are trying to manage various situations that demand our attention (like buying groceries while carrying a tired baby, talking to a friend, or taking a work call); we have very little mental space left to make a thought out purchase decision. Usually, such moments lead us to buying things that seem interesting; and often ones that are not on the list.

Sell me ‘Happiness’

Every time we see the “Sale” sign, encounter new and exciting products, or buy things for loved ones, our brain makes decisions based on our emotional state. We want to be pleased by our purchases; and so we buy things that make us happy, as against practical, sensible options (which would explain why impulse bought shoes will likely be pretty; but not necessarily sensible).

The research also suggests that men and women tend to gravitate towards different types of things as mood boosters; and so tend to have different impulse buys. Men and women typically seem to prefer different things, possibly because they are expected by society to choose different things.

So while this means that the genders differ on what they reach out for; it also means that they are more likely to stay practical in different situations. So if you want to resist impulse buys, shopping with a member of the opposite sex may just help!!

Who is most likely to impulse buy’?

Some people go into a frenzy whilst shopping during sales, whilst other seem unaffected by any and every attempt to up-sell. What makes these two groups so different?

Researchs suggest there may be a distinct personality bias such that extroverted people are more likely to impulse buy. Conscientious people and those who have a high need for control over their environment seem far less likely to do so.

Also, people who are susceptible to stress or have impulse control issues in general are also more likely to impulse buy as a means of managing their stress.

For others, impulse buying may be an attempt at coping with feelings of being incomplete or being imperfect. When a consumer makes an emotional connection with an item, they can be led to believe that making the purchase will boost their social status, or feels ‘more complete’ in themselves.

Such a person is most likely to buy in impulse. On the other hand, people who feel confident, fulfilled, and in control of their lives have less need for baubles to feel better; and are less likely to buy something on impulse.