Why do I Buy Random Stuff Online? – A Science Question.

Emily Swinkels
Digital Strategist
We’ve all been there. You’re walking around the mall, your head is pounding to the rhythm of the latest Young Jeezy single, and all you want to do is get your shopping done and get to the food court for some Dippin’ Dots. You race around the store, throw things into your bag that are somewhere close to your size, and get out of Dodge. Ultimately, the next day you wake up nursing your Dots hangover and start wondering, “why did I buy this crap?”
Sad Bunny Had Too Many Dippin’ Dots
What you may not realize, is that each piece of your retail shopping experience is scientifically measured, modeled and ultimately injected into your brain. Everything from the music volume, the smells, the lighting and what shape the mannequins are are carefully selected to maximize the number of dollars that exit your wallet. Impulse buys are a great way to increase the dollars-per-sale of a retailer, and are exactly the types of purchase that all of this science is trying to create. [Paco Underhill’s “Why We Buy” is a good primer into all of this] The question many online retailers and marketers have been asking, is “how can we transition that in-store experience into an online-shopping experience?”

If your first thought was, “oh, I can totally play loud music while people shop my site,” then just let me say:

There are two types of purchases; Planned and Unplanned. Both types of purchases can potentially fall under “impulse” buys, but they have two totally different mechanisms. For planned impulse purchases, all you need to do is present the customer with a reminder that they want to buy that item. This is where Amazon’s “people have also purchased” section is good. They know what people tend to buy alongside specific products, and can remind customers to add those things to their cart. It’s also a place you can dive deep into your shopping data to find purchasing patterns and to serve up relevant products around the time a customer usually replaces them.

The second type is a bit trickier to tackle. The unplanned impulse purchase requires two things to happen. The first is to break down the barriers of will power, and the second is to give the customer a rationalization to buy the product. A really interesting article, written in 2007 by Kathleen Vohs and Donald Faber, finds these impulse buys are characterized by a customer’s “depletion of regulatory assets.” In layman’s terms, that means you only have so much willpower, and by creating an environment where that’s depleted, customers are more likely to buy something, and more likely to place a high value on something. Once those conditions are present, a customer just has to have a rational reason to make the purchase. These were broken down in a paper called “…Do I need it, do I, do I really need this?”: Exploring the Role of Rationalization in Impulse Buying Episodes (unfortunately behind a paywall) . The main rationalizations are:

  1. Denial of Responsibility: A circumstance in which one argues that one is not personally accountable for the behavior because factors beyond one’s control are operating; e.g. “Was such a one-off bargain and my friends insisted that I buy it.”
  2. Denial of Injury: A circumstance in which one contends that the consequences of the behavior are not really serious e.g. “What’s the big deal, it was such a small purchase anyway.”
  3. Denial of Victim: A circumstance in which one counters the blame for personal actions by arguing that somebody else is the victimizer; e.g. “It’s the retailer’s fault; the way they promote these things, it’s like you buy them before you realize it.”
  4. Condemning the Condemners: A circumstance in which one deflects fault by pointing out that those who would condemn engage in similar activities; e.g. “Nowadays, everybody indulges him/herself by buying something absolutely unnecessary once in awhile.”
  5. Appeal to Higher Loyalties: A circumstance in which one argues that behavior is the result of an attempt to actualize some higher order ideal or value; e.g. ‘I was so tired and frustrated, and I really needed something to lift my mood so I just had to do it.’

Keep calm and play Candy Crush
The study also found that two other techniques were used often by shoppers: that a family member had just bought something similar in expense, and that they felt like they deserved it after complete a goal (whether that’s having a tough week at work, or sticking to a diet).
One of the best examples of this are gaming apps that use in-app purchasing. For the person who is on a particularly tough level of Candy Crush, the urge to pony up a dollar to get some extra moves, or buy a power-up can be overwhelming. You’ve severely depleted your mental reserves working hard on the level, and such a small purchase is easy to justify based on it’s perceived value and perceived costs.

Pretty much any time a customer is engaged in a thought-involved process, whether its an online survey, writing a review, or reading an in-depth article, you can increase their likelihood to buy something off your site.

Beyond that, there are a few other ways online mirrors retail.

  • The longer a person is in the store or on the site, the more they will buy
  • Contact with a staff member or salesperson will increase the amount a customer buys
  • Unnecessarily long, or harried, checkouts will decrease customer satisfaction
  • Make it easy for customers to find what they want, even if it’s harder to stock the shelves or create the pages that way. Men especially will leave if they can’t easily find what they are looking for.
  • When people touch an item, they are more likely to buy it. In a digital world this can be watching videos, reading reviews and looking at the extra photos.

So there you have it. A few things you can be doing to drive sales and keep your customers happy. By closely targeting your messaging and products, keeping the checkout process slick, and being available to help out, you can create lots of return business, and increase your dollars-per-sale at the same time.

Emily Swinkels
Emily Swinkels, Digital Strategist at eROI.