Impulse buying can be a tough habit to break. Experts explain why. / John Kuczala/USA WEEKEND
For Brittany Falconer, a new jacket is often a matter of circumstance and a bit of time. Need isn’t always part of the equation.
“I’ll stop in because I’m passing by a store, I have some time, and suddenly I’ve bought another Cole Haan jacket I really don’t need,” says Falconer, 25, a public relations account executive from Brookline, Mass. “It’s the ‘compare to’ price. Even though the jacket I bought cost $150, the would-be price was $300. I feel like I come out on top.”
That sort of illogical impulse buying isn’t limited to younger consumers. One 82-year-old woman spent $1,200 buying books, vitamins, clothing and jewelry — all within 24 hours, all online and all completely unnecessary.
Impulse shopping statistics are dated but disturbing. A 1998 study estimated North Americans spent more than $4 billion a year on impulse buys. In the absence of more current research, some analysts contend that price increases and other impulse-friendly developments (ATMs, the Internet) easily push impulse shopping into an annual $5 billion-plus consumer bash. Possibly much larger than that.
Individual consequences can sting, from strained relationships to money funneled from mortgages to overloaded credit cards.
“It’s become a major issue for all sorts of people,” says Tonia Boterf, a certified life coach who worked with that impulsive 82-year-old to rein in her binges.
What’s behind the impulse?
The causes of impulse shopping are varied and sometimes complicated. For some, it simply feels good — perhaps acquiring a status product boosts self-esteem. For others, it offsets depression or anger. Still others, like Falconer, revel in the thrill of the “deal.”
Studies have shown that when someone considers a purchase, a biochemical change occurs, which causes a mental high. “There’s a spike of dopamine in the brain at the excitement of an immediate form of reward,” explains David Krueger, author of The Secret Language of Money: How to Make Smarter Financial Decisions and Live a Richer Life. “It makes bad decision-making easy.”
That can set things in motion. Discouraged you didn’t get a promotion? Even though an impulse buy high may be short-lived (which often leads to buyer’s remorse when the thrill fades), you remember the rush you felt when you lugged that 42-inch HD TV home a year ago. There are sweet models an aisle away at 10% off and 10 inches wider — today only and $75 less than you paid for your first one!
An increasing pattern of impulse buying can evolve into compulsive buying, which, as New York psychologist April Benson explains, can be more chronic, more difficult to resist and more financially destructive.
Social factors are powerful, too. When you’re out with a group of friends on a shopping odyssey, buying something can earn implicit approval for “treating” yourself.
A shopping outing with children can be an impulse shopping gauntlet. When your kid starts howling over a toy or cereal, tossing it into the cart unplugs a public tantrum.
“Kids and shopping are parents’ weakest link,” consumer activist Christopher Elliott says. “Retailers know that if they get your kids, they get you.”
Retailers, marketers and others have crafted impulse shopping lures into insidious sales weapons. It’s not happenstance that sugary snacks are positioned at kids’ eye level or that milk, eggs and other staples are generally at the back of the store, requiring a trip along an array of temptation-laden lanes. A $300 suit inches away from an outfit twice that price seems a crafty buy. The fact that you don’t need a new suit is irrelevant.
There are other selling tricks. It’s a rare grocery store that doesn’t have at least one free sample set up. “They’re trying to portray a carnival-like atmosphere,” says Kristy Reynolds, a marketing professor at the University of Alabama. “Treasures” are also pervasive — items with a brief availability and touted low price. The message is clear: Buy now or lose out.
Internet shopping has opened destructive new venues for impulse shoppers. As Boterf notes, an increasingly computer-savvy population has made impulse shopping the social activity of choice for many — and particularly dangerous for people on limited, fixed incomes.
“Many older people feel isolated. There may be mobility issues. If they order online or telephone a catalog company, it’s a form of social contact,” Boterf says. “Then they hide things they buy in a closet and hope their son or daughter doesn’t find them. Sometimes, the packages are never opened at all.”