What constitutes impulse shopping? Is it just as prevalent at a time when budgets are tight? Charlotte Hardie finds out how retailers can boost the number of products bought on a whim

Research shows that the grocery categories a shopper impulsively buys from increased by a third since 2008

A mere 0.5%. That’s the tiny percentage of consumer messages given out on the average supermarket trip that actually penetrates a shopper’s psyche. The rest is completely bypassed. In short, the brain is very good at ignoring most of the things around it and only focusing on the things it wants to. Good news for shoppers on a budget, bad news for retailers who want to encourage their customers to buy on impulse.

During the downturn, there is some evidence to suggest shoppers are desperately trying to control the impulse to shop. Research by shopper marketing agency Saatchi & Saatchi X suggests that three quarters of those on a supermarket trip are now only going to aisles they have to, sticking to a budget, buying only the basics and buying only what is on their list. As director of strategy Simon Goodall says: “There’s a sense that shoppers are looking for a degree of control and trying to find ways to minimise their exposure to potentially tempting purchases.”

But there is also evidence that in many cases these well-meaning attempts at frugality and self control aren’t actually working. As Goodall points out: “We act on our emotions and rationalise them later.” Shopper insight firm Shoppercentric has conducted two sets of research into shoppers’ impulse shopping habits in a variety of different retailers from the grocers, to fashion and entertainment to big-ticket purchases such as electricals.

The first study was in 2008, the second was published last month and explored whether the propensity to impulse shop has changed amid continuing economic difficulties. It found that shoppers are as impulsive as ever before – in fact in some cases, even more so. They found that the number of grocery categories that a shopper buys from impulse actually increased by a third since 2008. Interestingly, though, the number of shoppers who would admit to actually being more impulsive now is 21%, compared with 27% three years ago. Shoppercentric managing director Danielle Pinnington says: “We had gone into this expecting impulse shopping to have dropped. We know people are more cost conscious but we were surprised at how stable the overall level is.”

Footloose and fancy free

The definition of impulse shopping, though, is a crucial factor. The very term conjures up images of frivolous, carefree spending that shoppers justify to themselves later on should they feel the need to. But Pinnington says buying on impulse in these times of economic difficulty actually indicates smart, savvy shopping. Often it’s about opportunism – seeing a good promotion or bargain that genuinely saves consumers money. It could be that someone has been considering buying something for a while, but they are finally prompted to do so when a clever offer or good sales tactics and customer service persuade them to open their wallet. “Emotions have moved away from frivolousness to one of ‘Maybe I’ve earned this’,” explains Pinnington. “Shoppers are adapting. There are ways of trimming spending without losing quality of life.”

Ian Addie, consumer psychologist at consumer insight and analytics agency Nunwood, is not surprised that shoppers are impulsive as ever. He insists that it is impossible to change inherent shopping habits, even if people convince themselves they are being stricter with themselves. “There are certainly people who make lists and stick to that, but most of us don’t. Not having a pre-ordained list of things makes us far more inclined to impulse shop. I equate it to foraging. Many people shop on a whim. It’s ingrained. They’re not going to suddenly change that behaviour unless they’re in severe financial straits.”

Consumer psychologist Dr Brian Young is similarly unsurprised. “People will claim that their decision making is rational, but usually if you look at consumption patterns they don’t change that much. That’s why it’s very difficult to get a new brand off the ground. The places where they shop may change, or the frequency of consumption, but not the way in which they actually shop.”

Brain matters

So what happens in your brain when you pick something up with a view to buying it? We might like to believe our purchasing decisions are made consciously and rationally, but actually they are far more usually made subconsciously and emotionally. By and large, the brain and body puts us on autopilot through much of our day-to-day activities, and in everyday situations such as supermarket shopping, subconscious and emotional responses play a strong role in decision making. Addie says that if you analyse brain activity while people make purchase choices, people will look at products without being aware of it for a fraction of a second, but long enough for the subconscious to take it in.

When the brain mulls over products the shopper ends up rejecting, it shows a high level of visual activity and the part of the brain responsible for focusing on visual attention goes into overdrive. When looking at a product you automatically put into your basket, the visual attention is lower and you’re not weighing up the pros and cons. “But it’s actually quite like what you might describe as love,” explains Addie. “It elicits a positive emotional response. The process of impulse shopping is not really that different, but you will see something with a big emotional spike.”

So how can retailers play to the emotions that are elicited when someone buys on impulse? And, more importantly, how can they ensure that they use that to increase their sales?

There is, of course, no one size fits all solution, but by and large, it needs to be visual. Retailers can’t expect to communicate in words because shoppers don’t spend time reading; brains are programmed to react more strongly to the visual than the written word. Retailers therefore need to play to the senses.

Getting the store right so that it brings about the optimum emotions in shoppers is one factor. Young says it affects shoppers’ mood and propensity to buy without them even being aware of it. To demonstrate the importance of subliminal perception, he points to an experiment in which students are put into two groups in two separate rooms and given a test to complete. In one room an Apple computer is placed inconspicuously in the corner of the room. In the other, there is an unbranded computer. Those in the Apple room perform the test in a more creative way. Thus, people’s behaviour can be affected greatly even by something they aren’t even aware is present. “Mood and consumption are very inter-related,” explains Young. “If you’re content and happy, for instance, then impulse buying can increase.”

Design solutions

Improving the design of the store environment so that it positively impacts shoppers’ mood is one solution, but retailers also need to be mindful of simple store operations. Pinnington says there was a feeling among those polled in Shoppercentric’s research that standards were slipping – they felt out-of-stocks were common, for instance, and there was a sense that promotions weren’t always effectively placed in shoppers’ line of sight or well displayed.

Addie says that to increase the amount of impulse shopping that takes place, products must be put in people’s way. Quite often people just don’t see the products retailers want to push. Or, they can be prominently displayed but in a place that is illogical. Understanding how people move around the store is critical. Often in fashion retailers, mannequins are placed high up on plinths or on walls. “People automatically walk around looking slightly downwards,” explains Addie.

He adds that shoppers often find it difficult to make a purchase decision based on one isolated product. Display one check shirt among a rail of plain shirts, and the sales of that one check shirt would not impress. Display it with another check shirt and the sales of one of them will go up because shoppers have a point of reference. “People intrinsically need to feel like they’ve made the right decision,” says Addie. “In a lot of cases people need to be able to compare things.”

Ikea is expert at persuading its shoppers to buy on impulse. Go there to buy a bed, and you can pretty much guarantee you will emerge with a trolley laden with anything from a bathroom mirror to a pot plant to a kitchen bowl. And much of that is to do with both the store environment and the emotional response it brings about. Ikea’s low prices make shoppers feel like they have to take advantage of its ‘too good to be true’ offers. Goodall says: “There’s also a sense of immediacy and urgency. You know you’re not going to come back to tomorrow and that drives those purchases.” He adds: “Experience means shoppers react in a particular way. Retailers need to create an experience that connects emotionally with shoppers and make that purchase permissible.”

Jason Kemp, managing director of store operations consultancy Envision Retail, agrees that Ikea is among the best at encouraging impulse shopping. He attributes this to three factors; price, product and association. “It’s about the way they merchandise it,” he says. Kemp believes many retailers are already good at encouraging shoppers to build their baskets by buying sweets near the supermarket checkout, for instance, or accessories near a fashion retailer’s checkout.

But he believes retailers should look at it differently. They all need to consider ways to market a ‘must-have’ product to keep coming through the doors. “It’s about encouraging more people in the store in the first place to commit to coming in and buying something. Once they’ve opened their mind to shop with you and committed to spending their money on one thing, the chances are they will buy something else when they’re there.”

That product or category, he says, must require a low level of evaluation that requires minimum effort. He gives the example of marketing tie-ups that might result in a fashion retailer selling a popular consumer magazine for £1. Well promoted, it would encourage – and give people an excuse – to go to that store to buy that magazine. And it would be difficult for any shopper not to have a look around while they’re there.

Moreover, technological developments mean there is more scope than ever to drive people into stores impulsively and therefore encourage them to buy impulsively. Smartphones line the pockets of ever more shoppers, and so more people are now permanently connected to the internet wherever they may be. Retailers are only just starting to scratch the surface in terms of how to capitalise on that – be that location-based marketing, group buying offers or through social media.

Shoppers are the ones in control of their spending, but everyone is open to temptation for a fleeting few seconds. Get the timing right and the sales are there for the taking.

Key findings on impulse shopping

  • Despite shoppers buying as impulsively as ever, just 21% of shoppers actually admit to being more impulsive now, compared with 27% in 2008
  • Women continue to be the more impulsive shoppers – 77% of women versus 71% of men when shopping for groceries, and 63% of women versus 50% of men when shopping for mid-cost items such as clothes
  • Promotions are an increasingly important factor driving impulsive behaviour compared with 2008
  • The number of grocery categories that a shopper impulsively buys from has increased by a third since 2008

Source: Shoppercentric ‘Windows on impulse revisited’