On an impulse

If an impulse purchase is defined as “anything that you didn’t intend buying when you walked into the shop”, then pretty much most of what I buy can be classified as an impulse purchase. Let’s get real – our lives are hectic and, whilst the theory behind it is great, one very rarely gets time to sit down and draw up a proper shopping list. Between working all day, playing taxi to 3 super-active boys, cooking dinner each night, doing homework, finding time to exercise and spending time with the family doesn’t leave a  whole lot of time to draw up shopping lists. As most of you can relate to, my regular visit to Woolworths or Pick ‘n Pay looks something more like a trolley dash than a planned shopping expedition. Whilst yanking my trolley (and I always seem to pick the one that veers randomly off to the left!) up and down the aisles, I tend to remember a whole array of items that I completely forgot I needed. The pack of multi-coloured cardboard needed for that school project, the bottle of mint jelly for tonight’s roast lamb, the bunch of flowers for a sick friend, the blue t-shirts that the kids need for  tomorrow’s sports day, and so the list of things that you didn’t know you needed goes. Sound familiar? Ofcourse it does. And the retailers know it, too. Which is why they employ a whole host of tactics that are designed to make us spend more (and unnecessary!)money during our frantic shopping trips.

The truth is that retailers have been cashing in on impulse buying for decades. They employ trained purchasing consultants who study the human psychology of spending, and then put mechanisms in place to ensure that (a) their shops are optimally designed, (b) their products are displayed in the right places and (c) that you are cleverly led through the shop so that all your ‘impulse buying’ mechanisms are on high alert. Have you ever reached for a packet of chips and been surprised to find that there’s a display of chocolates and 2 litre Cokes right next to the chips? Fancy that – exactly what you needed! Cooldrink and chocolates to go with your chips! That’s no coincidence – it’s a well thought out marketing strategy called grouping. Grouping is where retailers group a number of related items together that help to trigger impulse needs. For example, when you’re shopping for braai meat you shouldn’t be surprised to find marinade, braai salt, charcoal, blitz, gas firelighters, cooldrinks, paper plates and paper serviettes well within your reach.

Another tactic employed by retailers is the clever tactic of contrast – and I bet we’ve all fallen for this one! In order to make one product look attractive, retailers often place a similar (but more expensive) item right next to the cheaper item. The presence of the more expensive item makes the consumer feel that the cheaper item offers real value for money. By purchasing the cheaper item you are made to feel as though you are making a rational and logical choice, and not an impulsive one. Clever strategy.

Retailers regularly use the exclusivity tactic – especially when marketing to those people who like to keep up with the Joneses.  By making it clear that there is only very limited stock or that only a certain number of these items have been produced, the consumer is led to feel that he is special for having made this near-exclusive purchase. Once again, this tactic is designed to lead the consumer to believe this his purchase was NOT impulsive, but was a thought-out, rational purchase.

Ever dashed into Woolworths and headed straight for aisle number 2 to quickly pick up some rolls for lunch – only to find that the rolls are not longer displayed in aisle number 2? That’s not the shop simply trying to irritate you. That’s a cleverly designed tactic called organisation where retailers deliberately mix up their products so that consumers can’t find them. They know that, in your hunt for the bread rolls, you are bound to pick up a number of other items that you never knew you needed. Yet again, this tactic has been developed to trigger those impulse shopping neurons.

Imposing time limits on the sale of certain products is another trick used by retailers to trigger impulse shopping. Very often products are marked down to a special rate for only a certain period of time. This tactic leads the consumer to believe that, whilst he may not necessarily need the product, it would be stupid of him not to purchase it at such a good price.

Ever wondered why the sweet aisle near the checkout points (point of sale marketing) are waist-heigh? Well, they might be waist-heigh to you but they’re at eye-level to your child. That’s called positioning – putting the product at exactly the right place for the targeted consumer. Ever noticed how coffee and tea is displayed at eye-level to an adult, but Milo, hot chocolate and Nesquik are displayed at eye-level to a child. It all makes perfect sense!

Retailers also know that one of the key emotions that prevent consumers from making a purchase is guilt. In order to counter buyers’ guilt and remorse, retailers are pretty adept at highlighting the non-economic rewards of buying the product. It’s Mother’s Day and, if you really love your Mother, you’ll buy this gift and spoil her. The retailer is cleverly playing on your emotions by forcing the rational assumption that your love for your Mother should naturally outweigh any guilt that you feel at making the purchase. In order to further alleviate any guilt that you may still feel, the retailer will also go out of its way to offer you credit and a fantastic return policy. Which means that the consumer is receiving a triple marketing whammy: (i) they’re being made to feel guilty if they don’t spoil their Mother, (ii) they’re being offered credit to make the purchase (which means that not having cash is no excuse!) and (iii) their guilt is further alleviated because if your Mom doesn’t like the present, she can just bring it back, right?

The reality, however, is that retailers aren’t going the change or abandon their advertising and marketing tactics out of sympathy for the impulse shopper. In fact, they’re going to spend more money and do more research on how to get you and me to spend more money when we enter their stores. The only way that we’re going to escape the impulse shopping trap is to change our behaviour by being more vigilant and informed when entering a store. Take a look around next time you go shopping. Try to recognise the marketing “traps” before you fall for them. Whilst it’s not always practical to draw up a shopping list and stick to it, be aware of the possible pitfalls. Decide what you’re going to buy for Mom and how much you’re prepared to spend before you enter the store. That way you should avoid being entrapped by the impressive Mother’s Day display and lenient returns policy.

Whilst many people laugh off their impulse buying as a guilty pleasure or a charming personality trait, the reality is that many families suffer as a result of excessive impulse spending. Now, I’m certainly not preaching that we shouldn’t be allowed our luxuries and our indulgences. Ofcourse you are! Just make sure you’ve included “luxury spending” into your budget so you know how much you can indulge. I’d like to encourage you to think seriously about your spending habits. After you’ve been shopping, take out your slip and go through it carefully. Try and identify which items were purchased “unnecessarily” and as a result of clever marketing tactics. Make a mental note and try avoid that trap in the future. Another tip is to pay for your purchases with cash. When you are carrying a limited amount of cash in your wallet you are more likely to control your purchases than if you use your credit card.

My attitude towards shopping is really a matter of ‘forewarned is forearmed’. We don’t all have the time to prepare meticulous shopping lists and precise budgets, but we can equip ourselves with enough knowledge to avoid being taken advantage of as consumers. Yes, we all have needs, desires and longings – and these are exactly the emotions that retailers are trying to trigger and tease when we enter their stores. My advice is to recognise their marketing tactics for what they are. Acknowledge the emotions they are trying to trigger. Remain rational and logical about your purchases. Focus on your greater financial goals – a vehicle upgrade, a weekend away with the family, your child’s upcoming sports tour. Make a conscious decision not to be consumed by the attractive non-economic rewards that are being promised in order to counter your guilt. Taking control of your financial future begins with taking control over every single purchase. In every sense of the word, it pays to be a conscious and clever-thinking consumer.

Have a blessed weekend and a fantastic Mother’s Day!


Decide now what you’re going to buy Mom for Mother’s Day so that you don’t fall victim to clever in-store marketing tactics!

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