How to encourage effective (and ethical) impulse buying
This post was last updated on November 4, 2022.
We’ve all been there before: a box arrives on the doorstep, and we have no idea what it could be. Did we order something? Is it a gift? After some head-scratching, the realization sets in.
Oh yeah. Oops. We did buy his ’n’ hers reindeer PJs with that email coupon after all. Late-night shopping strikes again!
Impulse buying happens to the best of us—but it doesn’t have to end with regret. By incorporating irresistible and well-timed offers into your eCommerce marketing strategy, you can encourage impulse purchases that delight your customers and pave the way to long-term relationships with your brand.
What is impulse buying?
Impulse buying simply means making an unplanned purchase(s), which shoppers are doing now more than ever.
Impulse spending is up 14% year over year, according to survey data from SlickDeals.net, with 73% of consumers in 2022 saying they make most of their buying decisions on the spur of the moment. What’s more, shoppers are spending a whopping $314 per month on impulse purchases, up 72% since 2020. Impulse spending is one way to drive sales, even amid inflation and other economic headwinds. Even when shoppers are watching their wallets, last-minute extras can help nudge your store’s sales in the right direction.
4 top triggers of impulse buying
There could be many reasons behind a spontaneous purchase. Among the top triggers:
01. Savings in all forms
One-third of consumers said they made their most recent impulse purchase because “the price was too good to pass up,” according to Ipsos. To that end, it can help to use lower prices or discount offers to stimulate purchases. For example:
Create flash sales featuring a single item that’s steeply discounted for a limited time to incentivize faster purchases
Drop prices on items previously browsed or added to a customer’s cart to capture sales from shoppers on the fence
Offer “buy one, get one free” promotions to encourage shoppers to add more to their cart and/or try a new product
Include a “free gift with purchase” to convince shoppers to add enough products their carts to qualify for the bonus
02. Sensory treats
More than a third of shoppers—and 47% of Gen Z—buy items on impulse as a personal treat, Ipsos found. Encourage shoppers to splurge on themselves using lush visuals, enticing text, and even sounds to transform featured items into irresistible indulgences.
For the holidays, try “one for them, one for you” offers that reward buyers as they shop for their loved ones (you could also include “now gift yourself” messaging to encourage post-season indulgences)
Use videos, photos, and vivid product descriptions to emphasize the various qualities and benefits of your product both on your site and marketing channels
Post reaction videos, ASMR clips, and other creative content that engage multiple sense at once
03. Prime-time finds
The afternoon and evening hours when consumers are relaxing and shopping online for fun are ideal times to suggest impulse buys. More than a third of impulse spending (37%) occurs on mobile devices while consumers are shopping in bed, SlickDeals.net’s survey found.
Consider using geo-targeted, time-specific promotions to invite shoppers to make a purchase or stop by a nearby store at the most convenient times of the day
Theme promotions after popular TV shows that shoppers are likely to be watching in their leisure time
Try “night owl specials” to attract late-night shoppers
04. Items with a cause
By definition, impulse purchases resonate emotionally, but those emotions can also be directed towards higher ideals and good causes. The majority of shoppers (58%) ages 55 and younger say they’d pay more for products from brands that do good in the world, Edelman found. So, be vocal about the causes that your brand supports, as well as any sustainable eCommerce practices you observe.
Upsell customers on products that are sustainably sourced
Launch “donation with every purchase” campaigns that pledge to contribute a portion of each sale to a good cause
Describe the personal convictions of artists and/or creators who designed the products in your catalog, alongside rich visuals to stimulate like-minded purchases
The ethics of impulse buying
Logic is hardly a part of the equation when it comes to impulse buying. Most impulse buys are dictated by feelings of spontaneity, reward-seeking, and other emotional urges. These connections and triggers are deep-seated, which means they can override practical considerations, such as personal budgets or shopping lists.
As a merchant, it’s your responsibility to wield the power of impulse triggers wisely. Not only is it the right thing to do, but encouraging impulse spending—in an ethical way—also has business benefits:
Personalized recommendations boost sales. Highlighting products that shoppers need but didn’t think to buy is an effective use of eCommerce personalization. Consultancy McKinsey found that many high-growth companies owe their success to engaging customers with tailored offers and product picks, earning 40% more revenue from personalization than their slower-growing counterparts that have less refined strategies.
Inspiring the right kind of emotions builds trust in your brand. When shoppers come to their senses again after making an impulse purchase, you don’t want them to have regrets and feel like they’ve been duped. By connecting shoppers with items that they genuinely need and enjoy, your brand can engage all the right emotions: trust, appreciation, and satisfaction. These sentiments can foster brand trust and customer loyalty.
You’ll avoid costly returns. If customers have buyers’ remorse about items bought on impulse, they may request a refund, triggering extra costs for your business. The reverse logistics headaches of eCommerce returns can also add up, so encouraging the wrong kind of impulse offers can have an outsized negative impact on your operations.
Neil Verma, author of Checkout: The Step-by-Step, 7C Method to Build a Dominant Ecommerce Brand and founder of eBrandBuilders, stressed that impulse buys may seem spontaneous to shoppers. However, for the seller, they should be part of a well-integrated strategy that takes into account all the ways that consumers connect with the brand throughout the customer lifecycle.
“Building a brand takes time, and it’s fair to say that [some brands] are taking shortcuts in order to generate revenue for their businesses,” Verma told Wix. “If you are looking to build a brand-centric business and you understand what a brand is, every decision, tactic, and practice needs to be looked at, as it's forming an impression in customers’ minds.”
Dos and donts of encouraging ethical impulse buying
Given the many potential benefits and pitfalls, promoting impulse buying requires a conscientious strategy in line with your overall eCommerce branding. As with any new initiative, conduct research in advance about what resonates with your audience and monitor results closely. In addition to tracking sales, returns, and other standard metrics, pay special attention to customer service feedback regarding promotions that encourage impulse buys, and be prepared to adjust your plans if shoppers react negatively. A few guardrails to put in place:
DO offer recommendations. DON’T just use promotions to clear inventory.
Cross-selling and upselling can spur impulse additions to the eCommerce shopping cart, especially if you offer discounts or bundles featuring relevant picks. By contrast, simply slashing prices on whatever inventory is stale is unlikely to resonate, and shoppers may even resent only seeing promotions for items that are out of season or obsolete.
DO offer replenishment reminders. DON’T start sneaky subscriptions.
Shoppers browsing replenishment products, from beauty supplies to pet toys, may appreciate a proactive reminder that they’re due to place another order of items purchased previously. Back-in-stock alerts are another way to trigger reorders of favorite products. But that’s a far cry from disguising an ongoing subscription as a quick impulse buy. While subscription boxes are a great way to build recurring revenue, shoppers need to expressly opt in and understand what they’re signing up for. So go ahead and encourage a one-time impulse refill, but save the subscription options for follow-up email, which customers can consider at their leisure.
DO promote the free shipping threshold. DON’T erode margins with too many offers.
Free shipping is the offering most likely to convince shoppers to buy, according to survey data from Digital Commerce 360 and BizRate Insights. Displaying reminders of the amount shoppers still need to spend in order to meet your free-shipping threshold—and suggesting items that help them get there—can spur impulse additions. On the other hand, don’t offer free shipping so liberally that you end up killing your margins. Reserve free shipping incentives for kits and bundles, “buy one, get one free” promotions, and other sizable orders. Or, hold lower-cost items until the entire order can be sent in a single free shipment, rather than sending them item by item.
DO connect channels to coordinate offers. DON’T fatigue shoppers with constant hard-sell pitches.
To deliver impulse offers in a timely and easily-accessible way, consider deploying them across social media channels or SMS messages in addition to your eCommerce website. A coordinated omnichannel retail strategy will help avoid duplicating efforts or delivering inconsistent offers. But proceed with caution when it comes to using social commerce tools with built-in “buy” buttons: while half of all consumers (49%) have made an impulse buy based on something they saw on social media, 64% of those purchasers regret it, Bankrate found.
“Your goal should be to help your shoppers make the best decisions for themselves,” notes eCommerce brand mentor Monica Sharma-Patnekar in an interview with Wix. “Encourage them to make better choices versus buying something that is always a pure instant gratification. You can do that through your marketing, sharing your purpose, highlighting the value they get from your product and the role it plays in their life.”
Offer the right impulse buys for long-term gains
Impulse purchases happen in good times and bad, and your brand can benefit. With ethical selling rules in place, you can offer relevant, timely finds that are just what shoppers need, even if they didn’t know it beforehand. With the right approach, impulse buys can foster trust, leading to long-term loyalty.
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Head of Outbound Marketing, Wix eCommerce
Bogar leads thought leadership and outbound marketing for Wix eCommerce. He has an extremely soft spot for all things eCommerce, retail, tech, content, and marketing.
Allison Lee Editor, Wix eCommerce
Allison is the editor for the Wix eCommerce blog, with several years of experience reporting on eCommerce news, strategies, and founder stories.