Has The Internet Killed Impulse Buying?

  • by , Op-Ed Contributor, November 30, 2015

Have you ever bought something on a whim because it caught your eye or because it was a deal just too good to miss? Over 80% of Americans report they have made impulse purchases, and 40% of consumers say they regularly make unplanned purchases in-store.

Retailers have long capitalized on our impulsive human nature. But it was the emergence of consumer psychology in the 1950s that allowed marketers to get really, really good at it. All those candy bars at the checkout and can’t miss offers at end-caps are big business for retailers.

With the rise of e-commerce, mobile devices and social media, many have predicted the end of impulse shopping. Contrary to what’s been reported and many marketers’ fears, impulse purchasing is far from dead. However, it has fundamentally evolved from what it once was, and marketing must therefore evolve too. 

Impulse is now digital, and in the digital age these purchases are triggered by inspiration and desire to self-actualize. No longer are people’s purchases bound to what’s offered in stores because mobile has put the world at our fingertips, making us more impulsive than ever. In fact, impulse buys are now more likely to come from seeing an inspiring piece of social content on Pinterest, than from being lured by an end-cap display in-store.



Here’s how marketers can continue to drive impulse spending in the digital age:

1. Shift from “triggering” an impulse purchase to “inspiring” one. 

According to psychologists, people make most impulse purchases when they are at extremes of emotion: happy, sad, bored or seeking to reward themselves. And people use social media in the exact same way. They scan their Facebook, Instagram or Pinterest feeds when they are waiting in line or even bored in meetings. This has made it imperative for marketers to think of social media platforms as new sources of inspiration in order to capitalize on the 47% of people reporting they impulsively bought a product after seeing it on social media, says Vision Critical.

To illustrate: last summer, Instagram and Pinterest both launched “Buy Now” buttons, allowing consumers to buy direct without leaving those social platforms. By connecting quality, inspiring content experiences with people’s natural mobile behaviors and making it frictionless to actually buy, brands can inspire impulse purchases. Ikea and West Elm have been successfully using Instagram to drive inspiration and sales by making the purchase experience more integrated and seamless. To shift from triggering to inspiring consumers, marketers need to develop a dedicated social strategy, understanding the nuances and requirements of each platform. Then create inspiring, aspirational content and support it with paid media to drive reach and relevance with the right audiences.

2. Let social inspiration power the in-store experience

Just because social inspiration starts online, doesn’t mean it always leads to digital purchases. Social content has the power to impact the in-store experience. For example, Target partnered with Pinterest to create its AwesomeShop, where top pinned items are featured in stores. This allows retailers to create in-store product displays where items are curated. This is proving to be even more valuable than stacking products high and selling cheap, because it helps connect the shopping experience with the online destinations consumers turn to for inspiration and recommendations. With one-third of people visiting stores to test products in-person, per PwC, marketers can make the most of the experience by bringing the essence of social media into stores to help consumers see products differently. Beauty retailer Sephora, for example, encourages unplanned purchases by placing intriguing, sensory or seasonal items throughout its stores and on route to checkout.

3. Give consumers what they want, when they want it

Instant commerce services are changing the face of retail. Today a consumer can be scanning their Instagram feed, see a picture of a delicious dish posted by a friend, and can buy the ingredients without leaving their couch. Services like Instacart or Favor will send someone to the store and deliver all the ingredients within an hour or so. Delivery services like Minibar and Drizzly will do exactly the same thing for wine and beer. The emergence of this entirely new category of on-demand delivery business is making it possible for marketers to tap into consumers’ digitally inspired impulses, and satisfy them in real time, opening up new opportunities for spur of the moment digital purchases.

People will always be impulsive — we’re wired that way — so the consumer behavior of impulse purchasing is not dead. But it has evolved considerably to be more mobile, more about inspiration and to open the door to a series of new instant commerce businesses that are shaking up traditional retail. Marketers should constantly re-evaluate customers’ journeys and behaviors to find new ways to inspire them to purchase things relevant to their lives. By doing this, they can convert a generation of digitally savvy impulse shoppers into brand-loyal fans.

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