The Whys of Buy: Impulse Buying

chickenebayThe other day, we were talking about what makes us buy (an appropriate topic for today, the biggest shopping day in the US) and Barb Newman, our General Manager, wondered what made us impulse buy? She was trying to figure out why she had dropped way more money than she intended on a purse. Being intrigued by the buying mechanism that seems to be locked in our skulls, I decided to do a little digging to find out what’s going on when we just seem to pick up something off the shelf on sheer whim.

Spool’s Impulse Buying Study

On doing some digging, I found a study done by Jared Spool, a usability consultant I have a tremendous amount of respect for. And Jared found that market research, as I posted about a few days ago, has its limits. As Jared’s starting point, he looked at survey’s conducted by The Yankee Group and Ernst and Young. Both surveys asked why respondents would make impulse purchases on the web. With the Yankee Group survey, 75% indicated because of price. Ernst and Young’s survey said that 88% of purchases were made due to price. Again, these were surveys where buyers were asked to rationalize their behavior. And saving money seems like a pretty rational reason.

But Jared wanted to see what real people shopping for real products did. As most usability people do, he wanted to observe real world behavior. So his group got 30 people, who had real things they wanted to buy, gave them some money and sent them on an online shopping trip to a few preselected sites that had what they were looking for.

What they found was significantly different that what the Yankee Group and Ernst and Young surveys showed. While many of the participants bought what they were looking for, a significant number, 34%, also added other items into their shopping cart that weren’t on their original lists. Was it because the prices were irrestible? No, in fact, only 8% of the impulse purchases were because of price.

Jared and his group purposely picked out shopping sites that had promotional offers and seasonal sales in prominent display positions, especially on the home pages. But very few of the purchases were of these sale items. The impulse buys were spread across 41% of the sites in the study, including everything from pet shops to computer accessory stores. Almost none of the items were on sale. They were just things that suddenly tweaked the shopper’s interest.

Here’s the other interesting thing about the study. Most of the impulse items were chosen while browsing through the category pages. They had chosen a category based on what they were shopping for and had found related items that struck their interest and were subsequently added to their cart.

The Nucleus Accumbens Made Me Do It

So, why do we impulse buy? I’m still not sure, but here are some hunches, based on some of the other research I’m doing in the mental mechanics of buying.

A study earlier this year by Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and the MIT Sloan School of Management might be able to shed a little light on Spool’s findings. Using fMRI imaging, they also gave participants money to go shopping. They then monitored activity in various parts of the brain.

They found that when we anticipate buying something, the pleasure center, the nucleus accumbens, is activated. We begin picturing ourselves in possession of a product and visualizing ourselves using it. We start to build neural pathways that reinforce what it would be like to have the product. But, if the price is excessive, the study found that the brain has a shut off mechanism.  A part of the brain known as the insula is activated and the part of the brain we use to balance gains versus losses, in other words, is the product worth the price, the medial prefrontal cortex, begins shutting down. We literally put the purchase out of our mind because the price is more than we’re willing to pay.

So, let’s go back to Jared Spool’s study. I suspect we get into shopping “modes” where the parts of the brain associated with acquisition of a product sustain some activity. We’re prepared to buy, so the nucleus accumbens kicks into gear and keeps firing. We’re in “buy” mode. And we’ve accepted that we have budget available. We start out looking for the product we intended to buy, but, on the way, if we see something we also decide we need, especially in a related category, our “buying” mechanism is already activated. We’re already primed to consider purchase. We’re not looking for a bargain (although finding one certainly wouldn’t hurt), but by the same token, an outrageous price would probably shut down the process by kicking in the insula. Think of the insula as the brain’s sprinkler system, snuffing out any impulsive sparks before we burn ourselves. As long as the price is reasonable, and doesn’t introduce significant “pain” we’re more likely to purchase.

The fMRI study also showed that once we flip into buy mode, we tend to stay in this groove. This is why it’s much more dangerous to shop with credit cards than cash. Credit cards allow us to put off the “pain” that might kick in the insula, letting the nucleus accumbens have its way. When cash runs out, it runs out. It forces us to pay more attention to the “pain”.

In Spool’s study, the pain had been effectively removed by giving the participants money to spend. And by browsing through categories where they already had interest, there was a greater likelihood to pick related products and purchase them through impulse. Bargain basement prices really had nothing to do with the process. It’s just that most of us don’t understand the mechanics of buying that happen at the subconscious level.

Back to Barb’s Purse

So let’s get back to Barb’s purse. Was it really a impulse buy? Well, not really. As I chatted more with Barb, she indicated that she had seen the purse earlier in a magazine, fallen in love with it, but the price was much higher than she wanted to pay. So Barb’s nucleus accumbens had gone into overdrive, but Barb, being a practical shopper, had quickly doused the flames when her insula kicked in. The pain was too great to make a purchase.

But, a few months later, she’s in the mall and sees that the store that carries the purse was having a 25% off everything in the store appreciation sale. Suddenly, the nucleus accumbens is reactivated, primed by all the visualization that Barb had done since first seeing the purse, thinking how great it would be to own it. The 25% off sale lowered the pain threshold enough to keep the insula from kicking in, and the next thing Barb knew, she had put down a deposit and put the purse on layaway. She didn’t know what hit her. Now, she knows it was a little bit of gray matter hiding deep in subcortal brain called the nucleus accumbens that’s to blame. But this wasn’t a true impulse buy. It was more like a delayed buy.

So, if you overspend today, remember, it was the nucleus accumbens that made you do it. Try explaining that one to your significant other.

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