Love it. Want it. Need it. The Psychology Behind Impulse Buying
Arc dives into the psychology behind impulse purchases, and what it tells us about consumer behavior.
Nearly half of Americans’ purchases are impulse buys. But in a world where we now have the ability to research and plan everything down to the smallest detail, why is it that an unplanned item suddenly becomes irresistible?
Traditionally, marketers define an impulse buy as a shopper’s spontaneous decision to purchase something, usually inexpensive and triggered by proximity to the item. But almost anything can be susceptible to impulse and spontaneity. A new outfit. A car. An experience. In fact, 1 out of 5 Americans report spending more than $1,000 on an impulse buy.
To understand the impulse behind the impulse, we interviewed a Behavioral Psychologist, Dr. Sam Cohen, who specializes in the unconscious and its impact on behavior.
Dr. Sam says that impulse purchases are actually a result of one of two emotional needs due to subconscious drives by either the ego or super ego:
Need for soothing: In that buying moment, the shopper has a strong subconscious need for soothing and the Ego kicks in. A shopper may be feeling agitated, hungry, stressed or anxious without even being aware of it, and an impulse buy is a way to make them feel better and alleviate negative feelings. That’s why “retail therapy” is a thing. For example, a new outfit gives a confidence boost when we’re feeling self-conscious. A car gives us the feeling of power. A weekend getaway relieves stress.
The feeling we deserve a reward: This is where we see the Super Ego assert its influence to impulse purchase because we feel we did something good and deserve to be rewarded for it. For instance, if you met your weekly fitness goals, you may think you deserve a cheat day and order a pizza on your way home from work for dinner that night. Or if you got a promotion you feel you deserve a new handbag to mark the occasion.
Interestingly, impulse buying is not born from price or proximity. That’s just what closes the sale. It’s born from a current emotion, driven to soothe a negative feeling or to reward ourselves for a job well done.
So, what does this mean for brands?
It means that those two basic emotional needs—and the Ego and Super Ego—are a marketer’s best friends. But as Dr. Sam reminds us, “If you’re marketing around impulse, make sure it assists the person for good.”
Ego State: When tapping into the Ego, show people how your brand has the power to make them feel better—think Snickers’ “You’re not you when you’re hungry.”
Super Ego: For the Super Ego, it’s important that brands provide permission to indulge, otherwise, "It can create guilt,” cautions Dr. Sam. For example, an ice cream brand can be blamed for making someone feel unhealthy, disrupting your brand perception. But if the brand positions themselves as a mood-booster or reward, the perception will be built upon positive association. A win for both brand and consumer.
What does this mean for retailers?
Because impulse purchases are driven by the unplanned need for instant soothing, 79% of impulse purchases take place in physical stores.
Zone Marketing: Thinking through your zone marketing strategy and making room in “impulse zones” (perimeter, endcaps etc.) for products that fulfill impulse needs and make it easy to shop is critical. Look no further than the check-out line at Marshall’s or TJ Maxx. The line is filled with fun, treasure hunting items to drive impulse. They have mastered the retail formula for impulse.
And of course, with all the purchasing options today, we can’t overlook the ability to shop 24/7. Lately we are seeing more and more impulse purchasing happening online—particularly with Amazon referrals (“If you like this, you will love that.”)—and now with the advent of shoppable social media.
In-app Shopping: According to data and analytics company GlobalData, some 39% of online shoppers aged between 16 and 24 have used Instagram Shopping to buy, which means retailers targeting this demographic should recognize the potential of social media as an additional sales platform. Instagram Shopping has proven especially effective at driving impulse purchases, as it allows retailers to tag items featured in their Instagram posts.
**The Takeaway **
While we often think of impulse buying as a cheap, thoughtless and functional purchase, it meets a much larger need in people’s lives.
So, next time you’re problem-solving for how your category or brand can better reach consumers, try asking how it soothes someone, makes them feel more confident, or encourages them to be a better version of themselves. Because their purchase decisions resonate on a deeper level than even they might realize.