We have an epidemic on our hands. We all have that donut maker or the all-in-one gym sitting in the basement collecting dust. While in the moment, we thought we were making a useful purchase, which by now we fully regret and question the logic behind it. There had to be something in our mind to make us logically approve the decision of making that type of purchase, right? Thanks to impulsive behavior, the answer is no. This is where impulse purchasing takes over and it becomes a nightmare for us, and a sweet dream for marketers. Impulse purchasing is the act of buying a product in a spur of the moment. In retrospect, we realize something triggered us to buy these items, and we need to figure out what it is before we run out of cash. As with many Americans, the credit card debt is one of the undesired end results of impulse purchases. Figuring out the science of impulse purchases will give us a good understanding of why it happens and how we can control it, or if we can at all?
Before we get into impulse buying and how it happens, we need to understand how big this potential epidemic truly is. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce and Bureau of Economic Analysis, an estimated 40% of all consumer spending is triggered by impulse buying. Based on the these figures, “that 40 percent translated into $4.2 trillion attributed to impulse buying during the last quarter of 2010” (EyeSurf). Is a certain group of people to blame and thus more likely to make impulse purchases? No, the bad news is that “no age group, gender or income level is immune to impulse buying” (EyeSurf). One potential outcome of impulsive buying is that we accrue more debt through credit cards. Over the past few decades, credit card debt has tripled while reaching $987 billion in 2008 (Brooks). Impulse purchasing can be good or bad, based on your perspective and opinion. For example, consumers who buy on impulse do help grow the economy and retail revenues. However, while they are helping grow the economy, they overspend and put themselves at risk for creating personal financial burdens.
So what causes us to go on these unexplained shopping sprees? The root of the problem lies within our nucleus accumbens, which is located in our pleasure center part of the brain. The nucleus accumbens is responsible for releasing dopamine, a neurotransmitter. Dopamine has a number of functions in our brain but we’ll focus on one specific function – reward. To simplify, dopamine “helps tell your body when you’ve done something good, and promotes our brains to remember what we did that was good and repeat to get the reward again” (Wilcox). Dopamine “remembers” through our experiences and memories and creates a wanting effect once it recognizes a potential reward. Impulsive behavior is therefore very affected by dopamine and the “wanting” effect. People who are addicted show a much higher level of dopamine in their brains (Harmon). So when it comes to impulsive shopping, we clearly see a reward; the good feeling of buying something new, the gratification of ownership, and sometimes even the satisfaction of paying less. Emily Yoffe also claims that dopamine promotes a state we want to be in. “So good does it feel that we seek out activities, or substances, that keep this system aroused”, and in our case we shop till we drop (1). While we aren’t aware of making an impulse purchase, the thought of buying something new and exciting or “being rewarded” is equally arousing. A never-ending demand for this experience is what makes us always susceptible and prone to impulsive buying and impulse behavior in general.
When it comes to impulse buying, we are really working against two opponents, our brain and marketing experts. Over the past three years, I’ve worked in the daily deal space and I’ve learned that daily deal companies strive because of impulse purchases. A daily deal is a deeply discounted sale, usually 50-90% off, with a limited time offer, usually 24 hours. During a daily deal promotion, daily deal companies count on impulse purchases to drive revenue. In a recent study by Jeffrey and Hodge, the majority of participants said that they only think about the deal for a few hours before purchasing it. An additional 18.4% responded as buying the deal as soon as they see it. Since dopamine triggers more of us wanting to achieve the reward, a daily deal is the perfect solution created by marketers. Every day, we expect to receive a new daily deal email with new savings, and we just can’t stop seeking out the reward. Marketers have become experts and finding ways to increase dopamine and sales. One of the most commonly used tactics is a “sale”. A sale is a limited time opportunity that gives consumers a great discount if they purchase during a limited time period. A sale, or thinking that we are getting a great deal, empowers us. According to EyeSurf, “the most significant motivation for impulse buying, which accounts for 88% of the impulse purchases, is that the item is on sale”. We are almost powerless against this tag team, our brain and marketers.
Overcoming the impulse to buy is not easy but it starts with realizing that you’ve fallen trap to some of these marketing tactics and ultimately your own impulsivity. Organization along with being prepared are the two key factors to making sure you walk out of the store or browse the web without buying something on impulse (Price). According to Sarah Henning, giving yourself a window and keeping your receipts will allow you to evaluate your purchase and in most cases, you are able to return it. There is no pride in keeping something that you won’t use. One other solution to keeping your impulse shopping in control comes in form of future pharmaceuticals that increase dopamine. Yes, you heard right. By increasing dopamine, however in the frontal cortex, scientists have discovered a way to decrease impulsive tendencies. Researchers at the University of California – San Francisco recently conducted a study that increased dopamine in the frontal cortex through tolcapone, a medication “that inhibits a dopamine-degrading enzyme” (O’Brien). By increasing dopamine in the frontal cortex, most participants chose a larger reward later instead of the smaller immediate reward. Since the frontal cortex is responsible for decision-making and problem solving, it helps us control our need for a reward.
As we tinker with possible cures for impulse buying, or whether or not it needs a cure, we also wonder about how this potential cure would impact our world. Controlling the impulse buying habits of the majority of shoppers could cause a tidal wave of events to happen. Imagine a world without impulse buying. Many people would be out of a job. Many businesses would never have a chance to compete. The Marketing industry would be dull and boring. We would all be a little bit richer, or would we? Depending on your economic views and theories, we’d all be in a different financial state. A world without the impulse purchase might not necessarily be better. I encourage you to tinker with the possibility and imagine a world without impulse purchases.
Brooks, David. “The Great Seduction.” Nytimes.com.
Harmon, Katherine. “Dopamine Determines Impulsive Behavior.” ScientificAmerican.com.
Henning, Sarah. “The Science of shopping: Impulsive Buying is nothing if not natural.” Lawrence Journal-World.
O’Brien, Jennifer. “Increasing Dopamine in Frontal Cortex Decreases Impulsive Tendency, UCSF-Gallo Scientists Find.” Ucsf.edu. University of California-San Francisco.
Price, Jason. Overcome Impulse Buying. One Money Design.
The Truth about Impulse Buying. EyeSurf.Info.
Wilcox, Christie. Understanding our Bodies: Dopamine and Its Rewards. Nutrition Wonderland.
Yoffe, Emily. “Seeking.” Slate. The Slate Group.