How to Encourage Impulse Buys and Unplanned Purchases

by Francesca Nicasio,
Retail Expert and Content Strategist, Vend

Impulse purchases account for a significant chunk of the consumer spending pie. According to a study by Marketing Support Inc. and Leo J. Shapiro and Associates, about one-third of all consumers make a sizeable impulse buy every week, with a median purchase of $30.

The numbers look even better for brick-and-mortar retailers. Research by A.T. Kearney indicates that 40 percent of consumers spend more money than they had planned in stores, while only 25 percent reported online impulse shopping.

“Online retailers are jealous,” notes Bob Phibbs, The Retail Doctor. “They can’t create an emotional connection to an object. They can’t show serendipity, like when a shopper is looking for a crib and suddenly sees a frog umbrella. They aren’t able to romance a product a shopper hadn’t even considered.”

Obviously, your brick-and-mortar store has a lot of things going for it in the impulse-buy department, but are you using its power and resources wisely? Here are a few pointers.

Increase visibility

“Seeing is buying” says Specialty Retailer. Donald R. Lichtenstein, a professor of marketing and associate dean at the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business, told the publication that getting customers to see your product is the first and most important step in impulse buying.

“Being in their faces, and placing the focus clearly on what you’re selling so that they can make a quick selection, sums up what a retail storeowner needs to do,” he stated.

One effective tactic to get shoppers to see your impulse products is signage. For signs, remember that red and yellow draw attention, that being said, your store sells color so the sky’s the limit. Feel free to test out a variety of color combinations that may better appeal to your artist customers.

Be strategic with positioning

Part of increasing visibility (and sales) with impulse purchases entails placing the merchandise where customers are sure to see it. The two most effective ways to pull this off is by positioning impulse products at the checkout area and by placing them near your bestsellers.

Placing products at the checkout zone is a common and highly effective tactic. Shoppers who are at the point-of-sale area are already in the mood to buy, so the chances of them making additional purchases are relatively higher. Another option is to have those items near the checkout queue.

Speaking of cues, take one from Victoria’s Secret. Most of its stores feature fixtures near the checkout counter that contain inexpensive lip glosses, trial size fragrances, and other small, branded items. Not only are they attractively displayed, these products typically come with a promotion (“Buy two get two free!”) that further entices shoppers.

Before you place impulse products near your prominent sellers, determine which parts of your store customers head to most frequently. What items do most usually go for? Strategically place merchandise near these areas or products to increase their visibility.
It helps if the merchandise you want to promote complements the bestsellers, like placing large brushes near a display of big canvases or board.

Choose impulse products wisely

The best impulse products are the ones that are easy to grab – both physically and mentally. Keep them simple. “Such products don’t need a lot of explaining,” explained business consultant Lynn Switanowski on ABC News. “They sell themselves because shoppers understand what they do.”

Hit the right psychological triggers

Make your impulse buys more noticeable and enticing by pushing the right consumer buttons. Try adding a “today only” description in signage to create urgency, for instance, or throw in a special offer so that shoppers see that they’re getting a good deal.

Often, if a product looks fresh or novel enough, you don’t necessarily need to add a note of urgency or a value highlight. Consider testing the impulse-purchase quality of the new and original items in your store – especially if they are handy and low-cost – to see how customers react.

Use online and mobile technology

A study on shopping behavior found that social media, mobile apps, and SMS marketing can drive unplanned visits or purchases.

According to Mobile Commerce Daily, “Twenty-one percent of respondents say they make more unplanned purchases because of shopping apps, 20 percent do the same because of retailer texts and 22 percent respond to retailer social media. These were the highest scoring tools in terms of encouraging shoppers to make more unplanned purchases.”

Be sure to leverage online and mobile tools to increase impulse store visits and purchases. If you’re on social media, make sure your fans are in the loop by posting news about items or promotions.

Do the same thing via e-mail and text. Grab the opportunity to bring people into your shop by alerting subscribers whenever you have something happening in your store. Just don’t overdo it. Keep messages relevant, and only alert people who have opted onto your list.

Train your associates in the art of suggestive selling

You can also encourage impulse buys for moderately-priced or even higher-priced merchandise. The key is training your associates to practice suggestive selling. When associates develop rapport with shoppers, they are in a much better position to recommend unplanned purchases. Remember that the products they recommend should truly benefit the customer and that the customer should be open to buying them. The last thing you want is buyer’s remorse later because of that particular larger-ticket purchase.

The best time for suggestive selling is when the customer is already holding a product. Suggesting complementary items is a way to increase add-on sales. Let’s say a customer is holding a sketch pad. From that point, you can recommend any type of marker, pencil, or watercolor and brushes. Suggestive selling works even better if the recommended items are on sale. Shoppers love getting a deal.

To be a successful suggestive seller, though, you really have to get to know the customer and establish a connection. Otherwise, you can’t make relevant recommendations.

Reese Evans, a former retail associate, recommends using suggestive selling to address objections. “If someone is in your store and saying things like, ‘I’m not sure about this…’ retailers should grab the opportunity to suggestive sell. The fact that the customer is eliminating items he might not like means he is seriously considering buying. If he weren’t, then he would have walked out of the store already.”

Francesca Nicasio writes about trends, tips, and other cool things that enable retailers to increase sales, serve customers better and be more awesome overall. She writes for Vend, a company that offers cloud-based point-of-sale and retail management software that lets retailers run their business in-store, online, and via mobile. To receive weekly retail tips visit

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