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Impulse purchasing: a qualitative exploration of the phenomenon

Geoff Bayley and Clive Nancarrow

Background
Most studies have concentrated on impulse buying and other forms of unplanned purchases in a retail context even though such behaviour is also likely to occur in the new shopping arenas of direct marketing (television shopping channels, catalogues, telemarketing and the WWW). Interestingly, Cobb and Hoyer (1986) have reported an underlying upward trend in unplanned purchasing and Welles (1986) reports most shoppers at least occasionally buy on impulse. The increased tendency to shop in supermarkets and hyperstores may partly explain the upward trend. Shopping is much easier with products highly visible and store environments acting as prompt lists, allowing customers to defer decision-making until they are in-store (Bowlbey, 1997; Stern, 1962). This and the increase in onestop shopping mean there is less need for shoppers to plan their excursions so meticulously. However, it is not clear how the increase in direct marketing, and catalogue shopping in particular, may have affected unplanned and impulse shopping. The ease with which goods can be returned might encourage impulse purchasing or possibly remove some of the excitement of a purchase less risk! Dittmar et al. (1996) observe that in more developed countries the consumption of products is a modern or post-modern means of acquiring and expressing a sense of selfidentity. Shopping has become a major leisure and lifestyle activity. This may explain the increase in unplanned, nonnecessity purchases. Marketers need to understand such consumer behaviour in order to formulate appropriate marketing strategy, allocate marketing budget below-the-line and design effective marketing tactics. Interestingly, Narasimhan et al. (1996), for instance, did not nd a statistically signicant relationship between the promotional elasticity of a product category and impulse buying on the basis of which the authors conclude that price-related promotions might not always be the answer to high impulse categories. Finally, both retailers and direct marketers need to know how best to attract a significant share of unplanned and impulse purchases. 99

The authors Geoff Bayley is Research Director at RDS Open Mind, London, UK. Clive Nancarrow is Principal Lecturer at Bristol Business School, the University of the West of England, Bristol, UK. Abstract This paper reviews the literature on unplanned purchasing and impulse purchasing in particular. Various denitions and explanations of the phenomena are examined. Because impulse purchasing may often be deemed socially undesirable, it is argued that a qualitative research approach is particularly appropriate in order to gain maximum insight. A study employing enabling techniques (including self-scripts, laddering and pyramiding) demonstrated that interviewees were remarkably consistent in their descriptions of the impulse purchase experience. There were, however, variations of the behaviour which might form the basis of a classication scheme. Most studies have only focused on retail impulse buying. This study explored the subject across both retail and direct buying contexts.

Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal Volume 1 Number 2 1998 pp. 99114 MCB University Press ISSN 1352-2752

Impulse purchasing: a qualitative exploration of the phenomenon

Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal Volume 1 Number 2 1998 99114

Geoff Bayley and Clive Nancarrow

Denitions and models


The literature reveals a number of attempts to dene the phenomena of unplanned and impulse purchasing. We briey review key denitions and descriptions of the impulse buying and attempt to distinguish it from other forms of unplanned purchases. In doing so we discuss the emotional and perceived irrational nature of impulse buying. We also examine impulsiveness as a trait, factors that may intervene in its expression and models to explain the phenomenon. Levels of planning and intent Engel and Blackwell (1982) dene an impulse purchase as a buying action undertaken without a problem previously having been consciously recognised or a buying intention formed prior to entering the store. Philipps and Bradshaw (1993) do not distinguish between unplanned and impulse purchases, but make the important point that consumer research also needs to focus on point-of-sale interaction with the shopper an often neglected area:
intent to purchase is far from xed and can continue to be modied right up to the point of purchase.

the unexpectedness of the environment offering a solution to an unconscious or unarticulated need or want may induce a shock of sorts that disturbs the shoppers emotional state of equilibrium for a while. The fourth category (a general need recognised) could mean a shopper has not decided on a product category nor brand, but relies on the shopping environment to provide stimulation. For example, shopping for a gift or for something different to wear might fall into this category, and so is not truly impulsive in nature. Characteristics of an impulse purchase Rook (1987) describes impulse buying as exhibiting a number of characteristics: the feeling of an overwhelming force from the product; an intense feeling of having to buy the product immediately; ignoring of any negative consequences from the purchase; feelings of excitement, even euphoria; the conict between control and indulgence. This description suggests emotion overpowering a more cautious and considered approach to a purchase. Rook and Fisher (1995) note Impulsive behaviour has a long history of being associated with immaturity, primitivism, foolishness, defects of the will, lower intelligence, and even social deviance and criminality. In Freudian psychoanalytical theory this might be explained in terms of the inuence of the Id and primary thought processes reecting the devil in us!
Primary process thinking is typical of dreaming, fantasy, and infantile life in which the laws of time and space and the distinction between opposites do not apply: the distinction between past, present and future no longer holds and different events may occur simultaneously and in the same place; one symbol may represent a number of different objects, or has several different and even contradictory meanings (Bateman and Holmes, 1995).

Cobb and Hoyer (1986) use the classication scheme shown in Table I which demonstrates that an impulse purchase occurs when there was neither intent to buy a specic brand nor even from the category prior to entering the store. Kollat and Willett (1967) proposed a typology of pre-purchase planning (also based on degree of planning or intent before entering a store): product and brand decided; product category decided; product class decided; a general need recognised; general need not recognised. The last type, (5), when it culminates in a purchase, may be regarded as a pure impulse purchase. Given that a need is not recognised until in-store, the act may still be rational, but
Table I Cobb and Hoyer (1986) classication scheme to demonstrate impulse purchasing

Intent to buy the category Yes No Intent to buy the brand Yes No Planner Partial planner Impulse purchaser

Bateman and Holmes description of the primary process seems to have some resonance with Rooks list of characteristics. In the eld of consumption, Rook and Fisher argue impulsive behaviour is sometimes associated with being bad and with negative consequences. These reactions could be rooted in the morality of frugality in the Protestant ethic of western cultures and its increasing conict with post-modernist 100

Impulse purchasing: a qualitative exploration of the phenomenon

Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal Volume 1 Number 2 1998 99114

Geoff Bayley and Clive Nancarrow

capitalism with its inducements to consume. The net effect may be a confused and guiltridden consumer. Cobb and Hoyer (1986) raise the spectre of social desirability bias in impulse purchase research. Mick (1996) discusses the nature of the potential bias (socially desirable responding SDR) and how this might confound research on impulsive behaviour. He notes the behaviour is often seen to be negative and so he coins the phrase a dark side variable. Given the history of associating impulsiveness with various forms of human weakness (Rook and Fisher, 1995), it is no surprise that some market research respondents may be reluctant to divulge fully on the subject. Indirect questioning and projective techniques in qualitative research may be one way of getting beneath social posturing. Rook and Fisher point out that some impulsive purchases can be motivated by generosity. Examples they give are buying a gift for a sick friend or suddenly deciding to pick up the tab for a meal. In such instances the acts may be normatively positive and leave the shopper feeling good (angelic rather than devilish!). Again, respondents in a research situation may be reticent (modest) about such behaviour and qualitative research techniques might be more productive. Irrational or rational act? Some market researchers have tended to regard impulse as synonymous with unplanned while psychologists and economists have focused on the irrational aspects of pure impulse purchasing (Dittmar et al., 1996). For instance, economists argue that at the time of purchase the value of the impulse buy outweighs its perceived cost, but this switches post-purchase with consequent feelings of regret. Psycho-analysts might explain the self-indulgent behaviour as driven by a primitive and unreasoned instinct or force. Other authors, however, have argued that an impulse purchase is not necessarily irrational. Malter (1996) argues that while impulse buying appears to be highly irrational behaviour spontaneous and seemingly choiceless, it can be seen to be rational by the consumer (and the cognitive psychologist!). In his exposition of embodied cognition he offers the following description of an impulse purchase:
the usual and natural mode of processing is automatic, in which the current conceptualization is dominated by the external environment

(especially by the target object). At the moment, projectable properties from the environment mesh perfectly with patterns of action from memory, producing an extremely coherent (i.e. seemingly rational) conceptualization, strong positive affect for the product and captivation.

Malter argues that it takes effort to draw back from the situation (consciously suppress the contribution of the environment and effortfully constructing counter-arguments). Thompson et al. (1990) argue that while impulse buying is an emotional rather than rational experience, this should not be read as suggesting it is irrational. The need for analytical evaluation is obviated because the products rightness is experienced directly. On this basis the act is reasonable rather than irrational, which seems to have some resonance with Malters theory. A case of the cognitive or emotional t between shopper and product being good, but not always an easy relationship to articulate. Thompson et al. apply an existential-phenomenological approach to the study of impulse buying and as one might expect, the existentialist analysis involves the concept of freedom:
impulse buying may be viewed as an act of freedom occurring within a restricted situation. Typically experienced by participants as giving control to the captivating product, impulse buying allows them to adhere to their desires rather than to external constraints. In this sense, the act of impulse buying is a means of not being controlled by certain life-world expectations (Thompson et al., 1990).

Paulhus (1984) notes the unconscious capacity for humans to see themselves in a positive light for instance, the tendency not to regret past decisions. This potential rewriting of a past script may, therefore, lead shoppers to perceive the decision as rational in retrospect. The literature on post-purchase dissonance and psychoanalytical defence mechanisms would seem relevant to this line of thinking. Impulse as a trait Rook and Fisher (1995) dene the buying impulsiveness trait as a consumers tendency to buy spontaneously, unreectively, immediately and kinetically. These authors carefully developed measure of impulsiveness is based on a self-description battery of nine scales (see Appendix). An important point to note is that the scale is designed to measure a general trait and is not linked to any specic categories. The researchers argue that those with a high score on this scale are more likely 101

Impulse purchasing: a qualitative exploration of the phenomenon

Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal Volume 1 Number 2 1998 99114

Geoff Bayley and Clive Nancarrow

to experience spontaneous buying stimuli; their shopping lists are more open and receptive to sudden buying ideas. Also their thinking is likely to be unreective, prompted by physical proximity to a desired product, dominated by emotional attraction to it, and absorbed by the promise of immediate gratication. Other researchers (for instance Narasimhan et al., 1996) have locked their measure of impulsive purchasing onto specic product categories.
Statement 1: I often buy this product on a whim when I pass by it in the store. Statement 2: I typically like to buy this product when the urge strikes me.

These researchers dene impulse for their respondents (on a whim/when the urge strikes me) but interestingly do not use the word impulse in the statements. This raises the question of whether these researchers were concerned with the possible ambiguity of the term or the potential research bias associated with a dark side variable. Rook and Fisher note that circumstances may intervene and prevent an impulse being acted on. For instance, a lack of time or nancial resources may inhibit an impulse purchase. The portability of the product, location of the shop, transport and weather may also be factors. Phillips and Bradshaw (1993) discuss the physical and psychological inuences in a shop and the need to study consumers in this environment to help develop strategies and tactics that cater for the impulse purchaser. In addition, those accompanying the shopper, or those who are absent but important in the shoppers life, inhibit or encourage the behaviour normative evaluations. The inuence of others present and absent Rook and Fisher (1995) argue that normative evaluations can inuence whether or not an impulse purchase takes place and two studies they carried out seemed to support this hypothesis. They distinguish their normative evaluations model from Fishbeins extended model by arguing that Fishbeins subjective norm is mediated through behavioural intention, while their normative evaluation refers specically to situations where intent is not relevant. It is a normative evaluation quite specically relating to impulsive behaviour and therefore will also be inuenced by the visibility of this behaviour.

Interestingly, their model seems to suggest that less public shopping (catalogue, WWW, by direct mail, telemarketing) and the associated anonymity may encourage impulse purchasing. Rook and Fisher note that some buying situations are recognised and accepted as encouraging impulsive behaviour and consequently there is little negative evaluation by others of impulsive behaviour in such contexts where it is the norm for example fun fairs, casinos and car boot sales. Lehhtonen and Menp a (1997) discuss the different types of shopping excursions in a mall in the suburbs of Helsinki and the roles they play beyond the simple acquisition of goods namely social bonding, norming of tastes and preferences, and play. In the latter case the shopper goes out with, as an end in itself, a longing to come across something that is unexpected or new, desirable and stands out from a grey and indifferent mass. In addition, shoppers can try on new things and styles and fantasise, wrapped in the anonymity of a self-service environment. These authors touch on shopping and consumption as a means of selfbuilding. On a similar theme, Dittmar et al. (1996) developed a social psychological model. Social constructionist model Dittmar et al. (1995) argue that some consumers impulse buy goods that offer them material symbols of personal and social identity. Hence, clothes are more likely to be impulse bought than, say, basic kitchen equipment. A propensity to impulse buy will be at its strongest when there is a perceived selfdiscrepancy between the actual self and the ideal self on the most important attributes to that person. Symbolic consumption or materialism are the compensatory mechanisms the authors focus on in their paper, though they acknowledge there are other strategies for rectifying the discrepancy. Dittmar et al. (1996) also regard pure impulse buying as a novelty or escape. A purchase which breaks the normal buying pattern. Interestingly their research also indicated that the impact of an impulse purchase on a persons mood was a signicant factor and the notion of some impulse purchases being carried out simply to lift mood is a possibility. This brief review of some of the literature has already suggested a number of different

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Impulse purchasing: a qualitative exploration of the phenomenon

Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal Volume 1 Number 2 1998 99114

Geoff Bayley and Clive Nancarrow

perspectives on what drives an impulse purchase: immediate gratication the victory of basic instincts over reason (Freudian); a break from the constraints of the world (existentialist); self image compensation (social constructionist); a mood change (cf. Elliot, 1994); cognitive simplied meshing of requirements and solution (new cognitive); irrational/dysfunctional decision-making (economic man model); Situational and personal predictors of impulse purchasing Cobb and Hoyer (1986) noted that not only had researchers experienced problems in operationalising the concept of impulse purchasing but also had not been too successful in identifying predictors of the phenomenon. Stern (1962) identied nine product-related factors that might be inuential: (1) low price; (2) marginal need for the product/brand; (3) mass distribution; (4) self-service; (5) mass advertising; (6) prominent store display; (7) short product life; (8) small size; (9) ease of storage. This suggests products that are more expensive and require more time and effort (high involvement purchases) are less likely to be bought on impulse. Kollat and Willetts (1967) research suggested that impulse purchasing was more likely to occur on a larger grocery trip and a major shop rather than an interim top-up. So while considerable focus had been placed on predicting which types of products led to impulse purchasing, Cobb and Hoyer argued that little attention had been paid to the personal characteristics of the impulse buyer, though they concede that Kollat and Willets research did also examine this aspect of the phenomenon, but with few statistically signicant ndings. Cobb and Hoyer carried out a study on 542 shoppers who bought either bathroom tissue and/or coffee in-store. Shoppers were given a self-completion questionnaire to determine shopping lifestyle, general shopping behaviour, personality and demographics. Cobb and Hoyer concluded that impulse purchasers

do very little in-store information processing and value quality almost as much as do planners. Their investigation was limited by the sample size of the impulse purchaser group.

Methodologies
A number of different research methodologies have been used to study different aspects of impulse buying in particular determining its incidence as well as the motivational and situational aspects of the phenomenon. Measuring the incidence of the phenomena Two commonly used methods to measure the incidence of such purchases involve stopping shoppers at the time of a store visit and checking which purchases were planned and which were not. One of these methods checks what shoppers intend to buy before entering a store and then re-interviews them on exit. This method has been criticised by Pollay (1968) as likely to prompt shoppers to formulate their mental shopping list and, perhaps, then commit to the list. On the other hand, memory failure and a desire to shorten the before interview may lead to the list of planned purchases being reported only partially, resulting in an over-read of unplanned purchases at the exit interview. An alternative procedure to this pre-post design is the post only design. Shoppers are interrogated about what they bought as they leave a shop and for each item they are asked whether the decision to buy an item was made before or while they were in store. This method may suffer from respondents over-reporting what they regard as a socially desirable (rational) planning behaviour and so might under-read unplanned purchases and impulse. Both these methods, as Dittmar et al. (1996) suggest, seem likely to lump together quite different types of purchases in the unplanned category. Table II lists four kinds of purchase that might be categorised as totally unplanned, but which do not seem to be examples of what some authors may have in mind as impulse buys. The need for a qualitative research approach Many authors have adopted positivist research approaches to the study of the phenomenon in that they set out to measure

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Impulse purchasing: a qualitative exploration of the phenomenon

Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal Volume 1 Number 2 1998 99114

Geoff Bayley and Clive Nancarrow

Table II Unplanned, non-impulsive purchases

The oversight not on a mental or written shopping list but needed. Shop display reminds the shopper and activates the need state The deferred decision decide to wait until in-store where a more informed decision can be made The shop as prompt no need to plan, a well oiled routine allowing shops to act as shopping prompt list The unplanned is demanded certain categories of products sometimes require an unplanned purchase. A shopper does not want to buy the same as before (for example, clothes, jewellery, gifts)

impulse purchasing dened by the interviewee (many studies dene the behaviour for the respondent); a broadening of the focus of the study to include direct marketing and so open up the possibility of greater insight (by comparison and contrast); the focus on benets, costs, motivations and emotions associated with the behaviour; attempts to neutralise SDR and encourage full disclosure; Given this approach, a holistic impression of the phenomenon might be formed and the basis of a model developed that will be both useful to practitioners as well as stimulate new lines of investigation.

various aspects of the behaviour and, in some instances, test hypotheses (Cobb and Hoyer, 1986, Dittmar et al., 1996; Rook and Fisher, 1995). However, Thompson et al. (1990) did carry out a small scale phenomenological study but unfortunately impulse purchasing was not the main focus of their study. Cobb and Hoyer (1986) state that it would be particularly interesting to examine motivational factors underlying partial planning versus impulse purchasing. This would seem to be an argument for qualitative research which would be more appropriate to explore what motivates and inuences impulse buying. Most studies have selected specific categories of retail products for study often for very good reasons. It may be more productive to let the shopper define what they mean by an impulse purchase which might therefore include direct purchases and so provide valuable insights by comparison and contrast. Letting the shopper choose the categories may also help the respondent to describe the salient features of the experience. Despite considerable research on the impulse buying, it is clear there is still much to be resolved. While the level of unplanned and/or impulse purchasing across different product categories has attracted most attention, there has also been some interest in other predictors of the phenomenon. Cobb and Hoyer have argued for research into the motivation of the behaviour and given the various explanations of what drives the behaviour, this seemed a useful line of investigation. Many studies have been positivist or quantitative in format, atomistic and have ignored the problem of SDR. A qualitative approach with the following unique combination of features may yield a different, richer and more meaningful perspective:

Research objectives
The objective in this study was to understand how respondents perceive and account for impulse shopping for themselves. We were interested in what styles of shopping and product areas they would include under the banner of an impulse shop. We wanted to determine the range of motives, benets, rewards, and concerns associated with buying on impulse. We also wished to explore the rational-emotional nature of the phenomenon.

Methodology
We were concerned not to pre-empt the content of the research and we wanted to facilitate respondents ability to be reective and open in expressing their feelings and emotions without self-censure or inhibition about how others may perceive them (minimising SDR). Accompanied shopping, shop exit interviews, group discussions and depth interviews were considered and ruled out. The rst two techniques seemed likely to encourage posturing and post-rationalisation respectively as it would be difcult and/or time consuming to build up the necessary rapport and trust to overcome such behaviours. Group discussions with eight or so participants who are strangers to each other might encourage disclosure (Krueger, 1994), though the presence of six to eight people might still bring about SDR, simply through the presence of one or two participants who may act in a judgmental manner. We wished to promote a more private

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Impulse purchasing: a qualitative exploration of the phenomenon

Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal Volume 1 Number 2 1998 99114

Geoff Bayley and Clive Nancarrow

and secure focus to encourage full disclosure on impulse purchases but depth interviews seemed inappropriate as they can lack the necessary level of psychological support for the respondent to disclose fully. We opted for two innovative research techniques, friendship pair interviews and selfscripts, both of which we have used across a variety of projects in recent years. A team of three researchers, all experienced in these approaches, worked on this project and crosschecking of outcomes and hypotheses across the team served as an important control. Two of the researchers adopted a grounded orientation to the analysis while the third researcher, familiar with the academic literature, used this as a framework for interviewing and analysis. This provided the basis for fruitful discussion and triangulation (Tindall, 1994). Friendship pairs Respondents are recruited as very close friends. Their familiarity with each other gives them the condence to openly explore and challenge both their own and each others behaviours, motivations, satisfactions and anxieties. The approach allows in-depth probing of personal feelings to an extent not achievable in groups. Compared to an individual depth interview, however, the friendship pair retains some of the spontaneity and surprising twists and turns that lead to insight in group discussions. It avoids the self-consciousness and concern to give the interviewer the right response that interviewees can experience in individual depth interviews. In the sessions we worked for some of the time with friends individual responses, encouraging and pursuing comparisons and contrasts between them. For part of the interviews, we explored the concept of impulsiveness outside the specic context of shopping and more in relation to values and attitudes to life in general. This off the subject exploration of personal values can throw fresh insight back on to the topic of specic enquiry, in a way that cannot occur when you constrain discussion into the area of immediate relevance to the project. In order to go off the subject we adapted questioning approaches used by George Kelly, namely Opposites, Laddering and Pyramiding (see Tindall, 1994). These are powerful in uncovering the personal denition and value of core and secondary constructs of 105

a person, or in the case of marketing the personal meanings associated with different behaviours. To give an illustration from the starting point of the word impulsive: (1) Opposites: Q. What, for you, is the opposite of impulsive? (This question can be repeatedly asked for each suggestion given until an agreed opposite is arrived at. Negative prexes, (unimpulsive) are disallowed). A. (For example) The opposite is predictability. (2) Laddering: Q. Which do you prefer impulsive or predictable? We then work on both poles separately by again asking repeatedly: Q. Why is it important to you to be impulsive? This creates a ladder of values, e.g. make the most of opportunities; acting resourcefully; self-respect; personal pride. (3) Pyramiding: Q. How would an observer know that you were being/had been impulsive? Repeat for each answer. Q. Specically what would you be doing, what physical behaviours or signs would denote this? An example of an impulse shop pyramid would be as in Figure 1. A succession of opposites, ladders and pyramids, using dimensions uncovered as new starting points, serves to open up a fertile range of ideas around the core concept. The playful aspect of the exercises helps to build rapport, trust and willingness to disclose as well as to suspend the urge to rationalise.
Figure 1 Impulse shop pyramid
Impulsive

Quick On my own Not thinking about the price Ignore any distractions Excited Pupils dilated

Lots of carrier bags

Same item in different colours

Impulse purchasing: a qualitative exploration of the phenomenon

Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal Volume 1 Number 2 1998 99114

Geoff Bayley and Clive Nancarrow

Self-scripts The self-scripts approach has similarly been adapted from Kellys technique of self-characterisations. We have used this on several projects as a pre-task for friendship pairs or group discussions. Additionally, for this project, we used this as an independent source of data. Self-scripts involve no questions save for the title of the area for consideration, in this case impulse shopping. It is a private process, respondents are not directly accountable to anybody but themselves and the technique is specically chosen to minimise self-censorship. Respondents are asked to write about themselves in relation to the topic/product area in the third person, as if a principal character in a play/lm but, from the standpoint of somebody who knows them really well. By writing in the third person, respondents free themselves from self-consciousness and a degree of self-censorship. Stepping outside of themselves and reecting on their behaviour and feelings serves to reveal embedded thoughts and emotions. They are asked to let their thoughts ow freely, not to prepare what they write and to write as little or as much as they like. Respondents enjoy the experience of writing self-scripts, although, at rst it feels strange. Once started, the writing gathers its own momentum and a level of self-discovery does occur. The technique does not require respondents to have anything more than basic literacy and works successfully across the social spectrum.

Sample differences Across the self-scripts common tendencies in impulsive shopping behaviour were more observable than differences by variables such as gender or life stage. Where such differences did occur they reinforce previous literature. Friendship pairs/self-scripts (16) From the sample of 46 self-script respondents, 16 were recruited for follow up friendship pairs (see Table IV).

Interpretation of the data


The presentation of our interpretation of the qualitative data will, where appropriate, make reference to the earlier literature review. Impulse purchasing consumer dened Examples of impulse purchases given by respondents excluded the following unplanned purchases: oversights, deferred decisions, the shop as prompt and the unplanned is demanded (see Table II). Though in the latter case where the shopper is looking for something different, limits (amount likely to be spent, number of items to be purchased, criteria for purchase, e.g. something (clothing) for the winter) are set and if the purchase goes beyond these then the purchase becomes classied as impulse. The accounts given by respondents indicate a common set of subjective feelings around a typical impulse purchase and many of these are in line with observations in previous papers (Rook and Fisher, 1996, Dittmar et al., 1996, Thompson et al., 1990): the object becomes irresistible; a must-have feeling takes over; there is an urgency about the decision to buy; a once and only opportunity; the purchase creates a magnied sense of self-awareness and excitement, a buzz, feel the adrenalin; the purchase is satisfying at the time and often raises self-esteem and/or mood (even naughtiness is read as rebellious, demonstrating freedom , a break from lifes constraints); guilt may tinge the purchase (either at the time or later) though a number of mechanisms can preserve a sense of rightness about the deed. These elements (object xation > urgency > adrenalin rush > lift to self-esteem/ mood > guilt) are characteristic of impulse buying 106

Sample
A total of eight friendship pairs (one-and-ahalf hour interviews) and 46 self-scripts were completed for this project during September/October 1997 in London, the Midlands and the North of England. Demographically, the sample was BC1C2, life-stage based and covered men and women as shown in Table III.
Table III Demographic stages of respondents

Pre-family Family, with children under 5 Family, with children 6-14 Family, with children 14-20 Empty nesters

10 respondents 10 respondents 10 respondents 8 respondents 8 respondents

Impulse purchasing: a qualitative exploration of the phenomenon

Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal Volume 1 Number 2 1998 99114

Geoff Bayley and Clive Nancarrow

Table IV Friendship pairs

1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8.

Pre-married/partnered Pre-married/partnered Married Married Married Married Married Empty nesters

No kids No kids Kids under 5 Kids under 5 Kids 6-14 Kids 14-20 Kids 6-14

Female Male Female Female Female Female Male M/F

C1C2 C1C2 BC1 C2 C1C2 C1C2 C1C2 C1

22-28 22-28 25-35 25-35 25-35 30-45 30-45 60-65

London London Leeds London Manchester Leeds London Manchester

across a range of product categories, from the necessary to the discretionary. It best describes the experience of physically (retail) shopping for goods. This process occurs irrespective of material value or product category. Respondents describe experiencing this mix of feelings when buying two for one grocery items, plastic kitchenware, personal items such as clothes or cosmetics, jewellery, even cars and houses. The intensity of the accompanying feelings can vary across product categories, from the necessary to the discretionary and from high to low involvement. Variations in impulse purchasing within our sample tended to occur by frequency of buying within personal discretionary areas rather than by impulsiveness generally. The most signicant feature of the self-scripts is that purchases of all kinds engender a similar process of captivation with the object and a boost to self-esteem through making the purchase. In the case of mail-order, catalogue purchasing and shopping channels, the merely representational contact with the product and the time lapse between buying and receiving does threaten to disrupt the usual process of the impulse purchase. (Though the fact you can return goods so easily does encourage trial purchases.) Many sellers appear to have recognised the importance of injecting a sense of urgency and once and for only opportunity in terms of availability or price to optimise impulsiveness in these media. Guilt and rationality Alongside the enjoyment of the impulse purchase, especially where the object purchased is a discretionary one, respondents selfscripts indicate a sense of confession and feelings of guilt. Comments such as She didnt really need it or Hes managed without up to now are common, alongside

judgements that She ought not to have done it. References to regret are most commonly about the expenditure; the captivation with the object usually remains intact. Such references to guilty feelings need to be understood at two levels, the personal and the public. Simultaneously, respondents derive signicant benet from making the purchase while upholding a public norm that this is inappropriate behaviour open to perceived public censure (normative evaluations, Rook and Fisher, 1995). While expressing varying degrees of regret about acting on impulse respondents are always quick to excuse themselves. The satisfactions associated with the purchase are a greater inuence on future behaviour. There is little indication of any conviction to curtail their impulsive shopping. It is clear that the concept of impulse buying implies a contrast to the perceived normal shopping state of mind that is controlled and considered, less aroused and urgent. Respondents accounts suggest rational describes normal shopping and emotional describes impulse shopping. Impulsiveness is seen to be surrendering to emotion even where the product is seen to full a necessary function and the purchase achieves some nancial advantage. For instance, bulk buying of food products in supermarkets is described as temporarily losing control in terms of actual needs. Respondents described impulse buying as a sporadic aberration. They also, however, describe impulse purchasing as a constant and signicant part of their shopping behaviour and this includes repeated discretionary purchases. It is in fact neither sporadic nor an aberration. This self-selected referral to a rationalemotional dichotomy about impulse purchasing is limiting and fails to account for the complex experience of shopping. Nevertheless,

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Impulse purchasing: a qualitative exploration of the phenomenon

Qualitative Market Research: An International Journal Volume 1 Number 2 1998 99114

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it is signicant to shoppers; its simplicity makes it accessible; I should behave rationally has become a publicly acknowledged ideal! In contrast, I got carried away with emotion has become an excuse, suggesting failing to live up to expectations. Respondents explanations of some impulse purchases could, of course, be interpreted in terms of the interaction, conict and reconciliation of the Id and super-ego and use of defence mechanisms. However, not all impulse purchases seem to be driven by self-interest (Id driven) and so the psycho-analysis model clearly has shortcomings. One consequence of this private-public dichotomy is that respondents have developed behavioural strategies that serve to rationalise or suspend feelings of guilt. These also maintain the prevailing public stereotype of the norm of the rational shopper. Over-buying: the possibility of taking it (one of them) back or of buying three and keeping two. Hidden owning: leave it in the carrier bag/ box/hide it in the wardrobe subjectively not bought; which defers the expenditure reckoning. Comparative expenditure: competing to consume resources at the level of your partner or peer; he spends his money on his bike, down the pub, on his camera equipment so it is fair that I spend some on myself. A self gift: a deserved self-indulgence, or a reward for other tasks, the weekly shop, caring for children, working long hours! In our laddering exercises impulsiveness was fairly consistently a creative and liberating force existing as a foil to conformity and greyness (some resonance with the existentialist viewpoint expounded by Thompson et al., 1990). It exists as a safetyvalve, a way of investing in and nurturing a sense of an independent and experimental self, free from obligations to others and given roles. The elevation of a rational ideal for shopping in the consumers mind fails to acknowledge the more general need for impulsiveness in our lives. The continued existence of the rational ideal at this removed level, in terms of personal relevance, perhaps suggests: the rational behaviour-guilt model suited shopping norms in less consumerist times? It is more central to an age when thrift was

a moral virtue and debt a personal disgrace; its accessibility has enabled it to remain prevalent. The functional/needs fullment model of shopping behaviour perhaps protects us from recognising our social and psychological dependency on shopping, and we still have an unwillingness to fully recognise the latter. Perhaps to do so lays us open to more compulsive behaviour?; a t with physical money transactions rather than credit ones? As an illustration of behaviour at odds with this norm, a survey by the Wall Street Journal published in 1997 described Generation X (under 35s) credit card debt as averaging 890 and the source of much of this was ascribed to impulse purchasing of holidays, mountain bikes and cars. While impulsiveness engenders guilt, and judgement primarily at an ideal or ritual level, it does not correspond to respondents feelings about acting impulsively at the point of purchase or lead them to curtail their behaviour. Before considering the content of their impulsive shopping behaviour, we need to consider why they are shopping beyond functional needs. What needs are served by impulse shopping? Functional versus socio-psychological models of shopping functional Underlying respondents accounts about their impulse purchases is a functional stereotype about shopping which is in effect a restatement of what we have already described as a rational-guilt model. The functional stereotype of shopping is characterised by: objective recognition of needs and wants; a conscious plan to buy; goods chosen with good value/functional performance criteria as the prime criteria for choice; the matching of outlay to resources. Such a functional stereotype serves a requirement to be a responsible and solvent economic manager. It is an important nding that respondents do include under their perceptions of impulsive behaviour purchases that full functional/good manager needs and benets. Respondents describe trolleys half full of impulse items, often purchased to bolster the good manager self-esteem and a

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resultant feeling of pride in obtaining bargains, irrespective of the nal bill. Other models for shopping do exist alongside the functional one, however, and other benets are derived from impulse shopping, besides the self-esteem derived from being a good economic manager. Socio-psychological At a pragmatic level, it is clear that most respondents do not shop with a specic plan or list of items to buy and that to do so is to deny themselves part of the pleasure and satisfaction of shopping. They choose to shop with a level of openness to making snap decisions in the shop environment. They value being open to the shop experience because important social and psychological benets are only obtainable through this openness. For example, socio-cultural benets: shops are a medium of information exchange about what is new/different in the contemporary scene; both looking and purchasing are ways of securing your belonging in the contemporary scene, ensuring you have kept apace/ not been left behind; there is both a personal and a family/ household responsibility to avoid being disadvantaged by being left behind. (cf. Douglas and Isherwood, 1978, Storey, 1994). Psychological benets are: afrming, developing, experimenting with your individual identity; protecting and boosting your self esteem (cf. Dittmar et al., 1996). From the standpoint of viewing shopping as a necessary surveillance exercise we can go on to consider impulse purchasing as something with a purpose and value that goes way beyond the sense of a sporadic aberration that is suggested by the functional model. Objects are bought for their symbolic role in terms of cultural meaning and psychological wellbeing, alongside their functional value, and sometimes independently of any functional value (witness from our sample: unopened bags and boxes in the wardrobe, the unread books on the shelves, the unplayed/rarely played CDs, the electronic gadgets or DIY equipment never used/rarely used). The socio-psychological value can become a dominant driver for an impulse purchase in

the shopping environment. Acquiring the object is not just a nancial transaction but also at some level is also a cultural and/or personal endorsement. It makes up a signicant part of the irresistibility, urgency, adrenalin and pride of the impulse buy. Shopping becomes an activity that involves imagination and decisiveness. To return home empty handed is to experience a sense of loss of selfesteem (imagination, decisiveness) and a weakening of your ability to stay apace of contemporary society.
If I was to come home from town without having bought anything I would feel like going straight to the gin bottle (female 35-45; two children).

Signicantly, the physical experience of shopping is capable of inverting our priorities as functional reasons to buy lose out to more psychological or sociological benets excited by the objects on view. This seemed to vary in degrees across factors such as: gender; life-stage; personality style; signicance of materialism as a measure of self-esteem for the person. It can also vary by type and style of shopping occasion: weekly grocery task; family/household; personal. Given this variation, our data suggest that the socio-psychological benets occur across the wide range of shopping trips. Regular supermarket shoppers often describe (the idea) of the family shop as an irksome repetitive task but this rarely represents their total mindset when they are in shops. Even the mundane, necessary household items can be the source of meaning, benet, of a burst of adrenalin or shopping buzz. This process can be summarised in a schematic diagram (Figure 2). The public norm of rational/functional purchasing continues to prevail in the passive state away from the immediacy of the
Figure 2 Functional versus socio-psychological reasons for shopping Setting out In the shops Heightened Economic/function Socio-psych Subdued Socio-psych. Economic/function Back home Economic/function Socio-psych.

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shopping experience. The socio-psychological requirement for openness takes over for the activity of shopping. The experience of shopping is about a dialogue between the individual psyche and the product, the result of which is a reward or self-afrmation for the shopper. Openness to this dialogue enables the shopper to full the desire for a boost in self-esteem. This can be fullled through a range of levels of functionality of the goods bought. Self-esteem can be reinforced and/or boosted in three areas, either discretely or in interaction with each other: (1) as a good economic manager, e.g. buy two get one free offers; (2) as a member of community/society (social), e.g. in product categories olive oil, bottled lager, unisex fragrances; (3) as an individual (psychological), e.g. shoes, clothes, lipstick. In any one purchase, and across different purchases in one shopping trip these different styles of benet can be achieved. Types of impulse shopping Analysis of our research ndings leads us to suggest: two different styles of openness to the shop experience; four different styles of motive and reward in relation to impulse purchases. Two styles of openness The research ndings indicate two differing styles of openness that correspond to our sense of either consciously going along with an impulse purchase or being totally overwhelmed by an impulse: Self-willed impulse. Individual semi-consciously directs impulse towards the purchase versus Captivated impulse. Individual submits to the passion of the impulse and enjoys a feeling of being totally out of control. Self-willed impulse. In some shopping situations respondents are aware of themselves as good economic managers and as a consequence can feel that an impulse purchase is to some extent self-willed. An example of this is reacting to offers that encourage bulk purchasing. In responding to these offers, they ignore any plans/partial plans such as shopping lists, expenditure limits, or the state of current stock. It becomes irresistible,

adrenalin inducing, satisfying. They are consciously acting in line with the functional ideal but also, accurately, describe this experience as an impulsive one. This sense of a self-willed impulse is also observable in purchase areas where more personal, social and psychological benets are desired. One tendency in self-willed impulse, is a step-by-step sequence whereby the individual takes a number of unintentional or unconsciously intentional decisions which inevitably lead to a purchase:
Id been to the iron-mongers and had about half an hour until I pick the kids up. I found myself driving past Reedmans and noticed I could park. I popped in and I came out with two jumpers. I hadnt thought about them at all (mother of three; 30-35 years old).

Mail-order and catalogue impulse purchases also appear to represent this more conscious self-willed openness to impulsiveness. Captivated impulse. This is more in line with the existing literature on impulse purchasing where the shoppers motives are at a level that lacks any degree of self-awareness. Four styles of impulse shopping Respondents self-scripts and research ndings from the friendship pairs suggest four principal categories of impulse purchases, differentiated in terms of the experience of the purchase and in terms of rewards and benets desired. In summary these are: (1) Accelerator impulse (self-conrmation role) stockpiling/advance purchase to full perceived future needs (Narasinhan et al., 1996 used the term accelerator). Conrms image of good shopper/ housewife. (2) Compensatory impulse (self-compensation role) could be a reward for completing an onerous task, mood elevator, a compensation for failure to secure purchases elsewhere or addresses a self-esteem (cf. Dittmar et al., 1996). (3) Breakthrough impulse (self-redening role) a sudden reaction to act now usually triggered by a desire to resolve a longstanding unconscious discontent or conict. This can involve high expenditure and be life changing. Often it can have functional as well as socio/psychological benets, e.g. buying a car on impulse occurred in a few self-scripts.

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(4) Blind impulse (dysfunctional) a sense of being overwhelmed by the product, irrespective of any function or cost constraint. There is a sense of rightness/ completeness, you have to have it immediately. Accelerator impulse An impulsive purchase that is motivated by a sudden desire to stock-up for a future need. The sense of self-esteem derived is related to being a good economic manager. If mistakes, wasted purchases, bad bargains occur the guilt that this engenders is rationalised as merely a side-effect of pursuing a legitimate bargain. Such errors of judgement rarely have any impact on modifying this behaviour in the future. The accelerator impulse is not a compensatory response to a feeling of lack of self-esteem. It is behaviour that reinforces an existing positive self-perception.
Her husband liked meatballs in the can, she already had six in the cupboard at home but she still bought another six and paid for four (age: 25-35). In this section he saw a pair of football boots in a sale. It was summer and not the football season but Steve knew that come September he would have to buy some new boots as his old ones were broken (age: 33).

Compensatory buying strategies appear to be repeated and become a characteristic behaviour of the respondent. Many see themselves as close to compulsive behaviour and rows with partners and problems with debt had been experienced. Nevertheless, there remains a level of self-awareness and consciousness throughout the shopping experience. There is a component of self-willing the impulse in the way in which they talk about or describe this. It is an enduring behaviour which gives them a signicant buzz and which they do not want to give up. They have a sense of liberating their more illicit, selsh, private persona and escaping the usual restraints and responsibilities of job, home, or family.
Sue is a single parent living on a budget but sometimes when she goes shopping she forgets this. She went into M&S and bought three pair of trousers with every intention of taking two back she couldnt decide between them and ended up keeping two out of three (age: 35-45 (with children)). Lindas a shopaholic, shes got wardrobes full of clothes shes never worn and shoes bursting out of cupboards still in their boxes. She sees something and thinks do I really need it, but the adrenalin kicks in and she thinks why not, I cant go home empty-handed her real weakness is shoes (age: 25, (pre-married)). Kaths been feeling a bit down lately and when she feels like that she wants to spend money, even though she hasnt got it. She doesnt smoke or drink and shopping seems to be a release from the real world. It makes life a little more exciting. Shoes are one of Kaths impulse buys and on one shopping trip she came home with two pairs (age: 45, (divorced)). Some impulse buys of Rosalinds are inexpensive, an exotic tropical fruit, she could buy 2lb of eating apples for the same price but that would be boring (age: 45-55, (empty-nester)).

Compensatory impulse The idea of impulsively buying something as a compensation and reward features strongly in the self-scripts, especially from female respondents. One common behaviour is the buying of clothes, shoes or personal cosmetics that are not objectively needed but may address a self-esteem decit. Respondents may also create a partial plan to purchase other items but have failed to nd the right style, the acceptable size. To return home empty handed not only feels like a wasted shopping trip but also undermines the very self-esteem and connectedness that shopping as a behaviour is meant to deliver. The prospect of failure militates against conscious planning or even partial planning and fosters a desire to be open and reactive. Another style of compensation maybe more broadly related to moods, a way of lifting an emotional down. Sometimes it is a way of rewarding oneself for completing other tasks that have been irksome or arduous. At other times it may be getting-yourown back on a partner or ensuring that your discretionary expenditure is not being out paced by your partners/peers.

Breakthrough impulse Breakthrough purchases are often high expenditure items including jewellery, art, cars, furniture, houses. They tend to have a higher than usual level of social-status, symbolic markers of our place in the community. At the same time many of these purchases are also primarily functional. Accounts suggest that respondents feel taken by surprise in their decision to buy. The purchase outcome is not consciously anticipated as a possibility, they did not set out with a predisposition to be open to such an occurrence, or even, subconsciously, to seek it out. Events unfold in an unpredictable and unrepeatable way, these are one-offs.

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Post-purchase rationales can be interpreted as indicating an underlying desire or need. Often the purchase can be seen as resolving an underlying conict and moving the individual forward, symbolising a signicant step/change in life. Such purchases are symbols of a change in status and the need for selfredenition.
A few years ago Winnie went out to buy a spare set of car keys and signed up for a new car. Usually shes not all that impulsive (age: 60-65, empty-nester). After a row with the wife he jumped in the car to drive around and to cool down. He drove past a house for sale and something made him stop. He put an offer on it there and then and went back to tell his wife the good news (age: 35, former at-dweller). There was a selection of paintings at the rear of the shop. Then one of the paintings seemed to leap out at John. It had to be that one. He knew that he had to make the decision there and then. There was a slight difculty he didnt have enough money on him. Knowing his own mind John realised that if he left he would not come back. He paid the shop a deposit for the painting, the decision was made. That painting now hangs on the wall of his dining room (age: 40, single).

Blind impulse The categories of accelerator, compensatory and breakthrough all suggest that impulsive behaviour does have an underlying purpose and that it fulls needs of either a functional, social or psychological nature. There are however odd examples of brainstorm purchases that appear to fall outside of explanation. The object shares the characteristics of being irresistible, urgent, exciting but in retrospect their purchase is likely to be more dysfunctional than functional. They may relate to aspects of the purchasers desire to experiment with identity or social-status but they are not obviously markers of self-esteem. They may also be simply a transient, dysfunctional captivation with an idea or aesthetic aspect of the product.
Once she bought a cast iron replace for 25 and didnt know why or what to do with it, that was probably her most embarrassing impulse buy (age: 46, empty-nester). We went to Woolworths where a plastic special kitchen set caught our eye; a bowl, a sink tidy and a knife and fork thing it wasnt much and we both bought one but when we got home we had to laugh cos wed got no use for any of it (pair aged 35-45, both mums of kids 5-15).

Summary of impulse styles With accelerator and compensatory impulse purchases there seems to be a higher frequency of occurrence and it is often an established and repeated behaviour. Although an intention to buy only comes into focus at the moment of seeing the product, there is an underlying predisposition to put themselves into the situation where this impulse can be triggered; a self-willed openness to consciously seek out and go along with the impulse. Breakthrough and blind impulse purchases tend to occur less often. For breakthrough purchases there is a deep and signicant sense of redening yourself in response to a perceived change in status or phase of ones life. The infrequency of such changes means the psychological process is less well recognised and the purchase behaviour seems to come out of the blue from a deeper level of subconsciousness. Blind purchases are also less frequent, seemingly as sudden and best explained in terms of a dysfunctional captivation. The classication of impulse shopping can be summarised in a classic two dimensional map as shown in Figure 3 (though with some purchases the location may be a case of emphasis):

Conclusions
The literature examined denitions and explanations of unplanned and impulse purchasing. The phenomenon of impulse

Figure 3 Two-dimensional map illustrating impulse shopping


High Functional Benefit

Accelerator Breakthrough SelfWilled Openness Compensatory (Blind) Captivated

High Symbolic Benefit

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purchasing has principally been researched from a positivist perspective with the risk that the dependence on this approach coupled with potential SDR bias may have limited insights into the subject. To understand and explain impulse purchasing in more depth, a qualitative research approach employing a number of enabling techniques was carried out. The qualitative research demonstrated that shoppers perceive impulse purchasing as a quite distinctive form of unplanned purchase. It is differentiated from the straightforward oversight, the deferred decision, shop as prompt and unplanned is demanded types of purchase. Some researchers have not differentiated unplanned from impulse purchases and this study would suggest that to not do so may confound attempts to study this phenomenon. An impulse purchase typically consists of a number phases: object xation> urgency> adrenalin rush>lift to self-esteem/or mood> (guilt?). A typology of impulse purchases is proposed that might provide a basis for future research as well as indicate appropriate marketing tactics. The four main types of impulse purchase described were accelerator, compensatory, breakthrough and blind impulse. These were mapped in terms of their functional versus socio-psychological need fullment and in terms of degree of being perceived to be self-willed or truly captivated. The ndings support the view that many impulse purchases arise from the fact that shoppers are psychologically pre-disposed to obtain a level of self-expression and social ties through shopping of all kinds and they are reluctant to reduce any shopping experience to an automatic, habitual task. The elation that accompanies the impulse buy, however, is likely to be partially deated as the functional/economic model kicks in once back home; not only Do I really need another pair of shoes? but also Why have I stocked up on another six cans of meatballs or eight packs of pasta ? The latter may be easier to rationalise or justify in terms of the economic/functional model than the former. Marketers may need to provide the supporting rationalisation in other instances (where this is morally justiable) though shoppers have a number of mechanisms to minimise feelings of guilt impulse purchasing in direct buying situations is noted and the implications for marketers are high-lighted.

As expected, shoppers think impulse purchasing is often seen by others in a negative light. It seems therefore to qualify as a dark side variable and, so, future research on impulse buying should consider how to handle potential SDR. The qualitative approach and combination of enabling techniques in this study seemed to encourage disclosure and minimise SDR, though, as is so often the case with consumer research, this is a subjective judgement (Gabriel, 1990). Finally, we concur with the school of consumer research that argues for more marketing research to be carried out in context, i.e. in a shopping environment (or its simulation). This would enable us to understand better how various stages of consumer readiness towards a category or brand are or might be transformed at point-of-sale. Given the increased tendency for shoppers not to plan and the potential socio-psychological benets of shopping and impulse purchasing, marketers cannot afford to ignore this stage of buying behaviour.

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Appendix. Buying impulsiveness scale


Rook and Fisher (1995) identied the following buying impulsiveness scale: I often buy things spontaneously. Just do it describes the way I do things. I often buy things without thinking. I see it. I buy it describes me. Sometimes I feel like buying things on the spur of the moment. I buy things according to how I feel at the moment. I carefully plan most of my purchases. Sometimes I am a bit reckless about what I buy.

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