Why do we buy? Expert speaks on the psychology of impulse purchasing

How big is the section of your wardrobe that never gets worn? Or the collection of kitchen gadgets you haven’t once used? Shoppers and drug addicts may be indulging in similar highs, Amanda Stevens tells Marketing.

Amanda Stevens is a self-made veteran in the marketing industry, with years specialising in marketing to women and a keen interest in consumer behaviour and psychology. On her public speaking routes, Stevens has been exploring the phenomenon of impulse purchasing. Breaking it down to neurochemistry and isolating the satisfaction in buying, Stevens says there are a variety of factors contributing to impulse purchasing, and perhaps one that marketers are yet to capitalise on. Armed with qualitative and quantitative research into the buyer’s brain, social trends and psychology – Stevens says she is simply fascinated with one question, ‘why do we buy?’

Marketing speaks with Stevens about impulse purchasing, the minimalist movement and the lipstick indicator.

 

Marketing: what is the highest contributing factor to consumers making impulse purchases?

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Amanda Stevens: Ultimately, if you had to sum up why we buy – particularly around impulse purchasing – it’s that we get a dopamine hit. Shopping at its core is activating the pleasure spaces in our brain and that is the reason for impulse purchasing at a base level. But if you want to drill down to ‘what are typical reasons for purchasing?’, it really depends on the category. Basically it makes us feel good, so it taps into that pleasure centre in the brain and we get a ‘hit’, the way a drug addict gets a hit.

There are other reasons that might drive a particular purchase in a particular category. When you’re looking at cosmetics as a category, often loss aversion can be a reason as well. So if something is a limited edition or its being discontinued, there’s obviously a ‘fear of missing out’, if you like – that can trigger a purchase.

Bargain spotting is another one. If we think we’ve found a really good deal, the brain can be tricked into wanting something purely because it’s of good value. Often we will justify an impulse purchase based on how much we’ve saved rather than the actual purchase price.

There’s also this whole concept of rose coloured glasses. Let’s be honest, we all buy more than we need but humans, by nature, are very optimistic. We kind of delude ourselves by saying that something we buy is going to suit a particular purpose – which is the explanation for why we all have the section in our wardrobe full of clothes that we never wear.

 

What does this mean for marketers?

The fascinating trend that we’re starting to see emerge is this concept of social consciousness. I think we’re seeing a bit of a juxtaposition at the moment – the whole trend of buying less and being more socially responsible with our consumption? I think that’s going to be something that will continue to impact different sectors of retail. We are certainly starting to see that impact in the fast fashion sector.

What marketers are going to need to understand more and more is how impactful that social consciousness is on consumption, and really be able to tailor messages around not only value but quality. I think in the future we’re all going to buy less and de-clutter more. So marketers need to figure out how to appeal to the impulse side of our brain but also do so in a way that means we don’t have residual guilt over how much we’re buying.

 

At the time of purchase, how does one distinguish between an impulse buy that they know they’ll love and one that will end up in the section of the wardrobe that never gets worn?

Well that’s the million dollar question, isn’t it? As I said, the whole emerging trend of being more conscious with our shopping is potentially going to lead to less regret. I think that consumers are being a bit more responsible with their shopping and thinking about not only how that purchase impacts them, but the potential impact at a broader level of that product being made. From a consumer perspective we’re being more aware and thoughtful with our purchasing and that’s a trend we’re going to continue to see.

 

You’ve spoken a bit about mood in the past. How does the instantaneous mood of a consumer affect their buying rationale?

There’s this whole concept of the ‘lipstick indicator’, which is when the economy becomes very uncertain, sales of lipstick go up. This is because it’s a small purchase, it makes us feel good and therefore it’s a mood booster. That’s a really interesting correlation between global economic uncertainty and lipstick sales.

With shopping, particularly with women, there’s a real psychology around how something makes us feel. Sometimes it’s literally the process of shopping, not what we’re actually buying, which is where we get the pleasure spike from. So for me for example, because I have a one year old, my whole psychology around shopping is very different to what it was 18 months ago. Purely having a couple of hours to browse and shop without my baby can be a real moment of escape. I might not buy anything, but how I enjoy shopping now is very different to how I did 18 months ago.

 

How should marketers maximise their appeal to impulse buyers?

Ultimately I think the opportunity for marketers is to provide an experience. The experience is really what consumers are looking for, it’s often what a product or brand delivers to us. Particularly if we look at retail: the retailers that are going to win the battle for relevance over the next three to five years are those that are really focusing on the experience. Having a good quality product is a given, it’s not about that anymore.

I spoke at a retail event yesterday and my core message was: ‘what marketers need to do better than ever is get really close to their customers’. To see their brand through the eyes of their customers and deliver an experience that has that sense of ‘talkability’. It’s not about customer satisfaction anymore, those days are gone and brands that are focusing on satisfying their customers won’t be relevant in the next three to five years. The brands that will really win are those that are really delivering an amazing experience for their customers.

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Image copyright: oneinchpunch / 123RF Stock Photo

Josh Loh
BY Josh Loh ON 12 June 2018
Josh Loh is a newswriter and editorial assistant at MarketingMag.com.au