Impulse Buy – or just Unplanned?

We’ve all been there. A quick stop off in the supermarket on the way home from work for a pint of milk and a loaf of bread quickly turns into a £50 shopping basket with no effort at all. But that litre bottle of Jack Daniels was just too good an opportunity to miss, wasn’t it, and the dog food was a “buy one, get one free offer”, after all. Sound familiar? If like me you are prone to experiences such as this, take heart. You are not alone. Estimates vary but, depending on the product category, behaviour such as this can account for up to 70% of the contents of our basket during the typical supermarket shop.

Despite the significance of this particular form of shopping and its importance to their business models, many retailers fail to capitalise effectively on our tendency to over buy and don’t always have the right form of in-store marketing in place at the crucial “moment of truth” (MOT). The reason for this under-leveraging lies in the tendency to view this as a single phenomenon when, in fact, there are actually two quite different forms of consumer decision-making at work here.

Let’s take my own trip to Sainsbury’s on Saturday morning to illustrate the distinction here. Walking past the bakery aisle, I saw a display of custard donuts (to which I am overly partial!) and instantly popped a bag into the shopping cart. This is impulse buying, more of an emotional response than anything. Little thought or effort (if any) required at all. Later in that same shopping trip, however, the block display of batteries caught my attention and it reminded me that I needed four for the television remote control. So, I paused, sought out the correct size (something I’m not always good at), compared multi-pack options, and put the Duracell pack into the shopping cart. Now, this is quite a different form of decision-making to my earlier encounter with the custard donuts. True, neither item was on my shopping list, but the purchase of batteries was far more involved. The display attracted my attention, I searched for the correct size, I compared pricing. Far more information-processing going on here than with the “gimme donuts!” response a few minutes earlier. My battery purchase was in fact an unplanned buy, rather than an impulsive one, and as a consumer I reacted to the display in a very different way.

This distinction between a purchase being impulsive and one that is simply unplanned is often lost in shopper marketing. In fact, it is more helpful to think of our in-store and online purchasing as forming a continuum of buying activities, from unplanned at one end to compulsive at the other, with the stereotypical impulse buy sitting somewhere in between. This is a point developed in our 2013 paper, where we also scope out a framework for better understanding impulse buying and the many factors that can act as triggers throughout these different processes.

Why does all this matter? Well, around 88% of products purchased that weren’t on our original shopping lists occur in response to encountering an unexpected price cut or multi-save opportunity, suggesting these are actually unplanned purchases rather than impulsive ones as is often assumed. The retailer that doesn’t fully understand this distinction does not have the optimal mix of shopper marketing triggers in place at the crucial moment and is therefore losing sales!