Impulse buying – why we do it and how it’s triggered

Impulse buys are all around us especially online

There is sound psychology behind the well known sales maxim, “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.” Focus on the effects and benefits rather than on the item or service being sold.

Our imaginations grab hold of the potential gratification and – boom – we have bought it.

Psychologists believe that anticipation is more powerful than retrospection and can instantly change our emotional state. That’s the secret of ‘Retail Therapy’ no doubt. Excitement and pleasurable anticipation is like a drug for many, like aspirin for a headache.

Retailers have used this to whet buyers’ appetites since Eve presented Adam with the apple. The tried and trusted formula of the AIDA method still works in the internet age – Attention, Interest, Desire, Action. That’s the simple path that sellers take us along to make a sale.

Impulse purchases blend the first three into a split second of a powerful emotional surge that takes us right to the Action step. We whip out our plastic on the spot.

Why do we buy things on impulse?

Retail therapy is a real thing for many people. Impulse buying is often related to unhappiness or anxiety. Equally, people who enjoy shopping for fun are more likely to buy on impulse.

It’s a slippery slope. One taste of the sensation of pleasure, perhaps the guilty pleasure, means we are more likely to buy more items repeatedly in time just to continue the pleasurable experience.

How the internet and e-commerce has intensified our consumer appetites

Shops and convenience stores have become expert at encouraging impulse buying. The longer we wait in checkout queues lined by sweets, chocolate and snacks, the more tempted we are to buy something.

Online sites have ratcheted that up because they can do it all the time we stay on a website. We are under no pressure to leave the store. The desire for that sizzle grows and grows in our minds and we can order it with a single click. Buy Now buttons are the aspirin.

Contrast surfing the internet with how we were sold things in the last century. Advertising on TV, newspapers, magazines and catalogues worked at a slower pace. Now you read your Facebook page and ads are pushed at you non-stop.

The most significant difference is that once your attention, interest and desire have been activated, gratification and anticipation are just a few clicks and a few seconds away.

We want the item immediately. We may remember how Amazon seriously investigated drone delivery to satisfy that very craving – and it may still happen.

On the subject of pricing – why 9 is a magic number and other more surprising facts

The psychology of stimulus and sales psychology is well researched and fascinating.

This article by marketer Neil Patel summarises many examples of how one price point outsells another, very often a price ending in 9, such as £7.99 (no surprise there). However, there are little twists on that basic tenet that clever vendors exploit. It pays to know them.

Displaying a chart comparing our product with the competition does not always work as expected because our minds may not choose the lowest priced product.

Time saving is a surprisingly strong sales point, which is something that price comparison sites maximise. We often choose saving time over saving cash it seems.

What impact do price comparison websites have on impulse purchases?

Not a lot, is the short answer. Comparison sites work for people who are shopping around and who tend to do research before buying – the opposite of impulse purchases.

Website features that trigger impulse buys

A formal study into 60 fashion/apparel websites is still highly relevant although it was carried out 10 years ago. It identified 20 external cues that trigger impulse buying.

Just some of the most effective mechanisms that online vendors use to boost sales through impulse purchases are:

Sales – The classic technique, used by DFS sofas as a permanent feature (meaning it really does work despite the jokes). Price tags that show the original price slashed to the sales price.

Promotions such as time limits designed to create feelings of panic, that if you don’t buy now, you will miss your chance. Or BOGOFs which are a real cheat, as they make shoppers feel they are spending less when they are really spending more.

Ideas – Get free postage if you spend just a little bit more. Satisfy your need for instant gratification with guaranteed next day delivery.

Suggestions – Customers who bought X went on to buy Y and Z, or upsell pages at checkout for more expensive items, taking advantage of the fact that we are in a buying mood.

Finally . .

Knowing that you are being subjected to impulse buy triggers is an excellent first line of defence. Keeping your money in your purse or wallet gives a better sense of satisfaction next morning in most cases.



Dawson, S., Kim, M. (2010). Cues on apparel web sites that trigger impulse purchases. Journal of Fashion Marketing and Management. Retrieved from:

Patel, N. (2012). 5 Psychological Studies on Pricing That You Absolutely MUST Read.  Retrieved from

Van Boven, L., Ashworth, L., (2007). Looking Forward, Looking Back: Anticipation Is More Evocative Than Retrospection. Journal of Experimental Psychology 2007, Vol. 136, No. 2, 289 –300.

Zimmerman, I. (2012). What Motivates Impulse Buying? Psychology Today. Retrieved from: