Why Do We Impulse Shop?

Don’t be too hard on yourself for buying that item you didn’t need. Instead, find out why you spontaneously shop – and then do something about it.


If you’ve ever found it hard to visit the mall and not leave with something you didn’t need, then take comfort, you’re not alone. A 2016 poll by Princeton Survey Research Associates International found that five out of six Americans make impulse purchases. The other one probably just doesn’t want to admit it. “The vast majority of purchases we make are not specifically planned,” says Kyle Murray, director of the School of Retailing at the Alberta School of Business in Edmonton.

Impulse shopping may seem innocent – what difference does a little purchase here and there make? – but it can add up. A study from Harris Interactive found that people spend as much as $200 a month on spontaneous buys, while 71 percent have regretted buying goods on a whim. Even so, it’s hard to say no to impulse, partly because shopping has become an acceptable pastime. “Impulse buying is almost a glorified part of society,” says Laurie Campbell, CEO of the non-profit Credit Canada Debt Solutions. “It’s celebrated. We say, ‘Look at the new outfit I bought.”

Retailers are competing for our discretionary dollars, and they’re constantly trying to find ways to get us to spend our money in their stores.

It’s also difficult to ignore impulse because of our emotions and company marketing. Here’s why it’s so hard to say no – and what you can do about it.

We’re being seduced

Retailers are competing for our discretionary dollars, and they’re constantly trying to find ways to get us to spend our money in their stores. They put the things they know we’ll buy (like milk and bread in a grocery store) in the back and then make you wander through the aisles (where other things may catch your fancy) to get them.

Bright lights highlight choice items, like dresses, and retailers will use smells to make us relax and feel comfortable. “It’s all about keeping you in the store longer so you can see more and then buy more things,” says Murray. If they can get you to pick something up, you’re even more likely to be hooked: Research has shown it only takes 30 seconds of holding an item to make you feel ownership over it and value it more.

We’re scared of missing out

Companies play on what’s called our scarcity bias – humans value something more when it’s in short supply. Some say our “get-it-while-you-can” mentality is deep-rooted: Back in hunter-gatherer days, if a food supply, for example, was scarce, you really did need to snatch up what you could to survive. Murray says online retailers capitalize on our fear of missing out. Take, for example, that e-mail in your inbox telling you a sale is on for this afternoon only, or your Amazon search that tells you there are only three copies left of the book you want.

It feels good (for a bit)

The anticipation of a reward – perhaps a new pair of shoes or the latest iPhone – releases the feel-good chemical dopamine. Yes, retail therapy is real. “It’s like a high,” says Campbell. Unfortunately, as with any high, you will come down from the exuberance and might even feel remorse over making that purchase. “Many people think, ‘Why did I do that? What am I going to do when my credit card comes in?’” says Campbell.

It’s not that all impulse buying is a bad thing – you might luck into that item you never knew you needed. But it does become a problem if buying things without thinking is stopping you from reaching other financial goals, or if you are making purchases to fill an emotional void.

Combatting the impulse-shopping habit will take some work. Campbell suggests setting a budget – and sticking to it – and bringing only a set amount of cash into a store. If your inbox is filled with flash sales that you’re having trouble resisting, then get yourself off those mailing lists. Also, consider waiting 24 hours before buying something. If you still want it, then buy it. It’s more likely, though, that you’ll forget about it the next day.

Perhaps most importantly, take a close look at how you’re feeling when you make impulse purchases. If you’re doing it as a pick-me-up, or you’re shopping as a way to cope with anxiety, then try to find other ways to feel good – like exercising, reading or taking a course – that are healthier and cost less.

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