It’s a Saturday afternoon and you stop by Target or Costco or some other chain for a few necessary household items, like shampoo, batteries, tissues, laundry detergent, and milk. Inevitably though, you wind up leaving with additional items in your bags that you didn’t intend on buying…like a decorative wall clock, chewing gum, and the entire box set of Frasier. (There’s also a pretty good chance in the midst of all this, you forgot the milk.) Puzzled as you may be as to why this impulse shopping happens…all the time, rest assured that you’re hardly the only victim.
What’s come to be colloquially referred to as the “Target Effect” references the phenomenon of retail stores tapping into our psyches, compelling us to buy more than what we actually need. But how, exactly, do retailers pull this off and, way more importantly, how can we, as consumers, avoid the pitfalls of impulse shopping? Below, experts in fields of consumer habits and marketing share their secrets so we can be aware of them and become more mindful shoppers, owners, and people.
There are two main factors that lead a person to fall victim to impulse shopping, says Yanliu Huang, PhD, an associate professor of marketing at Drexel University. The first encompasses situational factors, like a shopper’s time and money (the more time and higher budget a person has, the more likely they are to purchase impulsively), and second includes customer characteristics, such as household size (a larger household occupancy is associated with a higher likelihood of impulse purchases). Dr. Huang also points out some broad generalizations that have to do with gender (women are more likely to impulse buy), age (older folks), and certain psychographic factors (people with a strong impulsivity trait are unsurprisingly more likely to engage in impulsive behavior).
“The vast majority of shopping that people do is not based on need,” says consumer behavior consultant and the author of Consumer.ology, Philip Graves. “It’s motivated by the drive to satisfy various psychological desires. When we find something that connects with one of the desires, we get a release of feel-good chemicals in our brains.”
That instant gratification is true with any kind of purchasing—but with impulse buying, in particular, there’s a “fast and spontaneous experience that is relatively stimulating and exciting,” Dr. Huang says. “It is more emotional than rational and tends to disrupt people’s regular routine.”
Big box stores rely on design and layout to keep you stimulated, and thus, spending. They accomplish this using two main strategies, Dr. Huang tells me. One of those ways is by prominently placing products that are hedonic in nature rather than utilitarian. “Hedonic products, such as ice cream, as opposed to utilitarian products, such as laundry detergent, are more likely to prompt positive emotional arousal and tend to be purchased and consumed in an impulse manner,” she says. Plus, the utilitarian products are more likely to be purchased no matter what. The other strategy is for stores to present products at eye-level. “Salient in-store display positions, such as aisle, bazaar, or end-cap lead to a higher likelihood of unplanned purchases,” she says.
Layout also plays a factor. Ever wonder why you have to head to the back of the store to get basic things like milk or toilet paper? That’s by design, to get you walk throughout the store and see all the products you had no previous intention to purchase—but now might.
No Bed Bath & Beyond trip needs to end with you, confused in the parking lot, going over your receipt, and feeling totally confused about where it all went wrong. A main strategy to employ, Dr. Huang says, is simple mindfulness. “Develop self-control strategies to regulate behavior and limit impulse buying.” A mantra or mindfulness meditation may help to keep you in the present moment and aware of your current needs. But something that will definitely help? A shopping list.
Have a plan of action ready for how you plan to handle offers and deals you may happen upon during your shopping mission, as those are the most likely culprits to distract you from your list. Also, recognize that it’s the job of the stores to get you to notice products and make you feel like you want them. “It’s worth asking yourself, ‘Why are they wanting me to notice this?’ when you find yourself looking at a display,” Graves says. By breaking down the meaning behind the message, the temptation may lose its hold over you.
Finally, as some post-shopping homework, consider the products you’ve purchased in the past few months and think about what you’ve actually used and what you actually value. “Chances are there will be purchases that don’t seem that great, and if you can reflect on what made you think it was a good idea to buy it at the time, you might be a little more cautious next time.” It’s a different kind of resistance training, but a valuable one at that.
Now that you’re safe from impulse shopping, make the most of your next grocery-store run. Here, learn the one item a food-poisoning expert says he’d never eat. Plus, these are the biggest label-reading mistakes you’re making at the supermarket.