How to encourage impulse purchases

Impulse purchases: we’ve all made them, we all probably regret a decent proportion of them. Making an impulsive, unplanned purchase from time to time seems inevitable, but are there ways for retailers in increase the likelihood that we might feel that impulse and act on it? The research paper “Cues on apparel websites that trigger impulse purchases” describes a study which aimed to identify potential cues and triggers that online retailers might use to encourage impulse purchases, and then the researchers looked at whether there was a correlation between the use of these cues and the retailer’s reported web sales total. It’s impossible to tell which of the sales on a website were impulse purchases and which weren’t, of course. But given that surveys have found that apparently around 50% of purchases in bricks-and-mortar stores are impulse buys, total sales both in real life and online are definitely driven to a decent extent by impulse purchases. We should therefore be able to see if there is a relationship between total sales and the things people think have induced them in the past to make an impulse purchase online.

There are quite a few cues on retail websites that people report thinking probably led them to make impulse purchases, fitting into four categories:

  • Promotions, e.g. buy-one-get-one-free deals, coupons, discount when you spend above a certain amount, gift with purchase, free shipping or shipping discount, ability to return online purchase to a physical store, competitions, membership discounts.
  • Sales, e.g. markdowns, clearance items, limited time only sales, discounted prices put in bold.
  • Ideas, e.g. featured items, featured outfits, top picks or favourites, gift ideas, items presented by price point (such as “items under $20″).
  • Suggestions, e.g. offering coordination items for the item currently viewed, suggesting visually similar items (not necessarily for coordination with currently viewed item), customer favourites, reviews and recommendations, last item viewed.

Perhaps surprisingly, it was the promotions category of impulse cues that people most commonly identified as leading to an impulse buy, particularly if it was free shipping or a shipping discount being offered. The next most commonly mentioned cue category was ideas, followed by sales (I personally would have thought this category would been a lot more encouraging than ideas-related cues), with suggestions coming in last.

The study then had a look at the extent to which each impulse cue was present on a range of websites (it was US-centric, so websites included those of Neiman Marcus, Saks, J.Crew, etc.) and then tried to see if there were any correlations between the use of particular cues and the web sales of each retailer, potentially revealing whether the use of such cues really does translate into greater sales, presumably partly driven by impulse buys.

Sure enough, web sales are very significantly correlated with the number of impulse cues on the retailer’s website. (For the statistics nerds out there, p < 0.00001 which, I think you’ll agree, is labouring the point.) So the more cues, the greater the web sales – and we’re talking sales in the hundreds of millions of US dollars for the upper-end retailers like Neiman Marcus. And what were the cues most greatly associated with the huge sales of the upper-end retailers (the top 30 of the top 99 online retailers) compared to the lower ones (the bottom 30 of the top 99 online retailers)? Upper-end retailers more frequently used “shop by outfit”, “new style”, “featured item”, “gift idea”, “price point”, “return purchase in store” and “suggested similar item” cues than the lower-end retailers. All up, the upper-end retailers provided more impulse cues overall than lower-end end retailers, which the researchers have taken to mean that the greater use of cues possibly results in greater web sales. (I do have reservations about the way some of the results have been interpreted in this study, but I won’t go into that right now.) The impulse cues mentioned above could be considered warning signs we can all use to know when we’re in dangerous territory regarding impulsive decision-making, because even though impulse purchases can sometimes be perfectly wonderful things that you love for years to come, that generally only happens when you impulse-purchase because of the item itself, and that alone. When you’ve got myriad other cues jostling for your attention and making your brain buzz and saying “buy now for all these fantastic reasons!”, you’re less likely to make a well considered, worthwhile purchase.

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