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Why we buy: the science behind impulse purchasing

In Fashion, Fashion + Beauty, Features, Stories by Nicole Fuge

By Amanda Stevens, consumer trends and customer experience expert

We’ve all done it – the full-body swerve into a store you had no intention of visiting … until you caught sight of that must-have (completely impractical) pair of boots in the window. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone without a section of their wardrobe dedicated to unworn impulse purchases, or a kitchen shelf filled with those unused ‘useful’ gadgets.

Rack of clothesSometimes the rush of the retail-therapy high will carry you through to dinnertime and maybe even into the following week. More often, as you step through your front door laden with shopping bags, the first twinge of buyer’s remorse will rise to the surface.

So, why do we succumb to the fleeting joy of the impulse buy? What complex (or simple) thought processes do we go through when it comes to purchasing? And how can we implement a more mindful approach to spending?

As much as we’d like to think otherwise, most of the time consumer behaviour is driven by our unconscious mind to fulfil an array of emotional, rational and primal needs. I’ve spent years analysing the customer experience and buying behaviour and have identified four of the most common (and most persuasive) drivers of the impulse spend:

1 // The feel-good factor

It’s not called retail therapy for nothing. Typically, people impulse buy things that make them feel good, or things that have an emotional value. If we’ve had a bad day, buying something new is an instant mood-lifter. Scientists tell us that this is because such items help us feel better about ourselves and temporarily dampen unhappy thoughts. Studies have 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.

2 // The bargain-hunt factor

The power of a 20 per cent off sign or a ‘two-for-one’ deal is indisputable. These signs trigger the bargain-hunter within and fool our brains into thinking we need an item. It’s pretty hard to pass up a bargain – we feel like we’re missing out on something important. This ‘fear of missing out’ leads us to justify an impulse purchase based on what we’ve saved, rather than looking at an impulse purchase for what it is: an unbudgeted-for expense.

3 // The zombie apocalypse factor

As a species that fears running out of resources, we have a tendency to stock up on things we think we need to enable continued survival. This is driven by a primal instinct of scarcity and is the key unconscious motivator for many purchases during a sales frenzy.

4 // The delusion factor

Humans are by nature very optimistic. For better and worse, we routinely delude ourselves. We believe we’re better than average looking, better than average drivers … statistically, we can’t all be right. This optimism plays out in our buying habits, too: despite evidence to the contrary, we are convinced that we will eat all the food we buy, wear every item of clothing in our wardrobe and use all the makeup in our bathroom cabinet.

Clothes hanging on rackUnder the influence: How to rein in your impulse buying

In this modern-day ‘YOLO’ culture, frugality isn’t something that is often championed (or even taught at all). While we all deserve a truly fabulous ‘treat yo’self’ moment every now and then, awareness of your own consumer behaviour is key. Recognising what triggers your impulse buying and taking steps to learn how to address the problem will help you make better financial decisions.

Here are six tips to help you kick your impulse buying to the kerb.

1 // Implement a 30-day waitlist for big purchases

If you see something that you want to buy, write down the product and the name of the store and put it somewhere safely out of sight. If you are still thinking about the product 30 days later, go ahead and buy it. Didn’t give it another day’s thought? That’s a sign you didn’t actually need the item in the first place. Decision made.

2 // Flip your reward switch

You may feel like you want to treat yourself for achieving a goal or accomplishing something great by buying yourself a present of some sort. There are lots of other ways to reward yourself that don’t cost money – think a hike in nature, a picnic with a friend, or an indulgent morning reading in bed.

3 // Be mindful

Think about the last time you made an impulse purchase. Did the item keep you happy for a long time, or was it short-lived? Did you regret it? Consider if those feelings are worth the purchase. Approach your purchases in a mindful state and you will be less likely to be hit with buyer’s remorse down the track.

4 // Avoid credit cards

If you’re prone to impulse buying and know you’ll be tempted, don’t bring your credit card with you when you’re heading to the shops. Get rid of the thing that enables you—in this case, the card. Forced self-control is still self-control!

5 // Compare cost versus time

When the impulse to buy an item hits you, take a second. Found that perfect little black dress? Check the price tag and ask yourself whether it’s worth the cost. Compare the price with the time it would take to earn that money – how many hours would you have to work to pay for that dress? Is it really worth a full day of work?

6 // Give yourself a splurge account

If it’s within your budget, put some of your income towards a splurge account. That way, you can give in to an impulse every now and then without worrying about overspending. The amount you set aside should be determined after you’ve accounted for your fixed expenses like rent or mortgage repayments and other bills.

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