Defining Impulse Purchasing

Francis Piron, University of Texas at San Antonio
[ to cite ]:
Francis Piron (1991) ,"Defining Impulse Purchasing", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 509-514.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 509-514


Francis Piron, University of Texas at San Antonio

Impulse purchasing is an important phenomenon for researchers in consumer behavior and retailing. A multitude of empirical evidence has been collected in an effort to measure the prevalence of purchases made on impulse. Unfortunately, existing definitions come short of fully capturing the phenomenon, and in turn yield measurements that do not accurately reflect the pervasiveness of impulse purchasing. The definition offered in this paper will help measure the pervasiveness of impulse purchasing more faithfully. The proposed definition is constructed on elements from existing definitions, and introduces and defines a new dimension: "on-the-spot."

Impulse purchasing is a phenomenon that started to trigger consumer researchers' interest forty years ago (Clover 1950; DuPont Studies 1945, 1949, 1959, 1965; West 1951). In response to this interest, considerable efforts have been invested toward defining impulse purchasing, and have resulted in a proliferation of definitions. Typically, as researchers strived to frame a "better" definition of impulse purchasing, their attempt was combined with an investigation on the pervasiveness of impulse purchasing. One of the results of this "growth" process is that consumer researchers are left with a wealth of ambiguous information. One cannot compare impulse purchasing defined by Kollat and Willett (1967) simply as unplanned purchasing with the "relatively extraordinary and exciting" phenomenon that Rook (1987, p.191) defines as impulse purchasing. The purpose of this paper is 1) to offer a review of existing definitions of impulse purchasing, 2) propose a now definition of impulse purchasing, and 3) demonstrate how the new definition improves over the previous ones.


Impulse Purchasing = Unplanned Purchasing

As illustrated in Table 1 (for a full discussion on and comparison between the definitions, see Piron 1989), the early studies viewed impulse purchasing to be strictly similar to unplanned purchasing (Clover 1950; DuPont Studies 1945 1949, 1954, 1959, 1965; West 1951), and were conducted with managerial interests in mind (i.e., for the retailers' benefit). The purchase, not the consumer, was investigated. Researchers were solely interested in the pervasiveness of impulse purchasing and recorded it as the difference between shoppers' intended and actual purchases.

Impulse Purchasing = Unplanned Purchasing + Exposure to a Stimulus

While Applebaum (1951) was the first to suggest that impulse purchasing may stem from the consumer's exposure to a stimulus while in the store, Nesbitt (1959) viewed it as intelligent shopping. In other words, smart shoppers do not plan their purchases, but search for and take advantage of in-store promotions, thus maximizing their buying power.

The understanding of impulse purchasing was greatly improved through Stern's (1962) identification of four distinct types of impulse purchasing: planned, pure, reminder and suggestion impulse purchasing. Planned impulse purchasing is equivalent to Nesbitt's (1959) understanding of the phenomenon, as described above. Pure impulse purchasing occurs when consumers experience "truly impulsive buying, the novelty or escape purchase which breaks a normal buying pattern" (Stern 1962, p.59). Reminder impulse purchasing occurs when the consumer is reminded of the need to buy an item upon seeing it. Finally, suggestion impulse buying

occurs when a shopper sees a product for the first time and visualizes a need for it ... [suggestion buying is distinguished from reminder buying in that the shopper has no prior knowledge of the product to assist her in the purchase (p.59-60).

Stern's conceptualization of impulse purchasing is based on the premise that the making of an impulse purchase, be it planned, pure, reminder or suggestion, is linked to the consumer's exposure to a stimulus (e.g., "a shopper sees a product" above).

"Traditional" marketer-controlled stimuli such as the product itself, the product's position on the shelf, atmospherics (Kotler 1972), salesmanship, tie-ins have been identified by consumer researchers as prompts for unplanned or impulse purchases. Departing from the-more conventional view of stimuli described above, Hirschman (1985) proposed that autistic (i.e., self-generated) stimuli are also accountable for unplanned and impulse purchases. Hirschman's suggestion implies that the consumer's own train of thoughts may trigger the desire to make an unanticipated purchase. For example, as she is grocery shopping, a housewife may start thinking about the coming week-end, and decide to surprise her family with a picnic for which she will now have to purchase unplanned items.

Impulse Purchasing = a "Hedonically Complex" Experience

Rook and Hoch's (1985) article has focused attention on the cognitive and emotional responses which consumers may experience during an impulse purchase. In their eyes, these responses define the essence of an impulse purchase. Rook and Hoch (1985) and Rook (1987) constructed a definition of the phenomenon resting on consumers' descriptions of thoughts and emotions experienced during impulse purchasing situations. An analysis of the descriptions yielded the following five "crucial elements that distinguish impulsive from non-impulsive consumer behavior" (p.23): 1) feeling a "sudden and spontaneous desire to act," 2) being in a "state of psychologic at disequilibrium," 3) experiencing a "psychological conflict and struggle," 4) reducing "cognitive evaluation," and 5) consuming "without regard for the consequences."



The first dimension is viewed as a "rapid change in psychological states," capturing the quickness and unexpectedness of the stimulation that is transformed into a desire to purchase. The second dimension ("state of psychological disequilibrium") is seen as a temporary loss of self-control caused by a "sudden and spontaneous desire to act." The "psychological conflict and struggle" arises as the consumer strives to regain some of the temporarily lost self-control, evaluating the immediate positive or pleasant aspects of the purchase against the delayed negative or unpleasant aspects of the purchase. As s/he experiences a reduction in "cognitive evaluation," the consumer becomes "the antithesis of classical models of 'economic man' as a rational expected utility maximizer" (p.24). In other words, the unexpected confrontation with the stimulus impairs the consumer's rationality. The fifth dimension ("disregard for future consequences") defines the consumer who chooses a small but immediate reward over a larger but delayed remuneration. Rook and Hoch refer to this dimension as the "pathological aspects of impulsive consumption" that may "deteriorate into a destructive character disorder."

Finally, summarizing the five dimensions identified earlier, Rook (1987) identifies impulse purchasing to be:

when a consumer experiences a sudden, often powerful and persistent urge to buy something immediately. The impulse to buy is hedonically complex and may stimulate emotional conflict. Also impulse buying is prone to occur with diminished regard for its consequences (p. l 91).

He then describes the phenomenon as "extraordinary," "a fast experience," "more emotional than rational," and concludes that "this interpretation is close in spirit to the 'pure impulse' behavior that Stern (1962) identified" (p.191).

In summary, a distinct shift can be observed with respect to the elements comprising the definitions of impulse purchasing formulated over the past forty years (see Table 1). Beginning with the simple equation where unplanned purchasing equals impulse purchasing, components such as "response to a stimulus," "thrill seeking," to name but a few, were incorporated in the definitions, eventually portraying a more "hedonically complex" phenomenon.


The second objective of this paper, to offer a definition of impulse purchasing that more accurately captures the phenomenon, rests on the premise that existing definitions do not adequately depict impulse purchasing. Specifically, equating impulse to unplanned purchasing fails to consider the many instances where unplanned purchases are not made impulsively. For example, consider an unplanned purchase where the consumer decides on buying a particular product after examining and comparing brands, contents and price, the purchase would be hard pressed to qualify as an impulse purchase.

Further, when, without regard for the consumer's reactions, impulse purchasing is simply defined as an unplanned purchase prompted by an exposure to a stimulus, the understanding of the phenomenon is seriously limited by its exclusion of the purchasing decision maker. However, when the definition implies that emotional and cognitive reactions must accompany the purchase (i.e., Rook 1987; Rook and Hoch 1985), the phenomenon may then be too narrowly defined. For instance, the shopper who, upon seeing canned vegetables, decides to purchase a can of the product may have made a suggestion or reminder impulse purchase

(Stern 1962); yet s/he is not expected to experience emotional or cognitive reactions such as those identified by Rook and Hoch.



In sum, existing definitions fail to adequately capture impulse purchasing by focusing on one element of the phenomenon (i.e., the purchase itself) to the expense of another (i.e., the consumer). Yet, when the consumer is considered, it is only with respect to his/her unusual behavior.


The above review indicates that none of the available definitions fully describes impulse purchasing (previous definitional shortcomings will be further discussed in a subsequent section). This state of affairs is not new and was noticed by previous researchers (Kollat and Willett 1969; Rook 1987; Rook and Hoch 1985). In this section, a simple statement defining impulse purchasing is offered, while the definitional elements are specified and illustrated in a following section. While the definition proposed in this paper integrates previously outlined dimensions into one definition, it also considers the responses given by 253 undergraduate students from two major universities (see Table 2) who were asked "to define impulse purchasing in [their] own words."

Impulse purchasing is formally defined as a purchase that is 1) unplanned, 2) the result of an exposure to a stimulus, 3) decided "on-the-spot." Impulse purchases can be further classified depending on the consumer's experiencing emotional and/or cognitive reactions, as defined later: An "Experiential Impulse Purchase" differs from a "Non-Experiential Impulse Purchase" as only the former is accompanied by emotional and/or cognitive reactions. As 8 brief illustration, the consumer who purchases an expensive designer leather jacket on impulse may experience a mixture of guilt and excitement (Experiential Impulse Purchase), but may not experience such reactions when purchasing a can of vegetables on impulse (Non-Experiential Impulse Purchase). The next section focuses on outlining and illustrating the elements making up the definition proposed in this paper, and is followed by a discussion describing how the proposed definition improves upon the previous ones.

Unplanned Purchasing

The definition of unplanned purchasing used here follows from Engel, Kollat and Blackwell (1968). An unplanned purchase is:

a buying action undertaken without a problem having been previously recognized or a buying intention formed prior to entering the store (p.483).

The concept that an impulse purchase is unplanned is central to all definitions of impulse purchasing. Also, almost 50% (see Table 2) of the students who were asked to define impulse purchasing did so using terms implying a lack of planning (e.g., "unexpected purchase," "I was not looking for the [product]) in the purchasing decision.

Exposure to a Stimulus

Only two of the previously conceived definitions of impulse purchasing (Applebaum 1951; Stern 1962) specifically include "exposure to a stimulus" in their formulation of an impulse purchase (see Table 1). However, almost 31% (see Table 2) of the students who were asked to define impulse purchasing incorporated the concept in making statements such as "[when you see something you had not planned to buy ...," or as "[b]uying a product without planning because it is on sale."

A review of the consumer research literature indicates that the stimuli associated to impulse purchasing can be categorized along four broad dimensions. First, impulse purchases can be made in response to marketers' suggestions and/or reminders (Stern 1962). Second, impulse purchasing may occur as a result of marketers' environmental manipulations through atmospherics (Kotler 1974), point-of-purchase and end aisle displays (see Shimp and DeLozier 1986 for a comprehensive review), shelf and product positioning (Bergman and Gilson 1986, Cox 1964, Engel et al. 1968), tie-ins ("relating different items in displays on the basis of how the products will be used" Berkman and Gilson 1986, p.505). Third, non-satisfactory or unavailable planned purchases (e.g., Iyer and Ahlawat's (1987) "shortfalls") may translate into impulse purchases. Finally, Hirschman (1985) identified autistic stimulation as a potential origin of impulse purchasing: Autistic stimulation refers to consumer-generated, non-environmentally induced arousal.


The third characteristic of an impulse purchase, as defined here, involves the time and location of the purchase. While earlier research identified the location element in the definition of impulse purchasing (cf. Engel et al. (1968) above), only very recently did researchers propose that both location and time elements of the purchase decision making are instrumental in differentiating impulse from non-impulse purchasing. Specifically, Settle and Alreck (1986) contend that:

the whole purchase decision process for impulse goods takes place at the point of sale and may take only a few seconds time (p.335).

Within the context of the definition of impulse purchasing proposed here, "on-the-spot" is defined as the immediate time and place where the purchase decision is processed and made. In other words, considering the first two definitional elements (i.e., the purchase is unplanned, and the desire to purchase is stirred by an unexpected encounter with a stimulus), impulse purchasing occurs when the decision .o purchase is made immediately upon seeing the product or the stimulus representing the product.

While only 3% (see Table 2) of the students surveyed specifically mentioned "on-the-spot," another 18% of the sample defined the decision to make an impulse purchase using terms such as "on the spur of the moment," "spontaneously," "on a whim," "suddenly," and "spontaneously." While such terms unequivocally incorporate the "time" element of "on-the-spot", they do not specifically refer to the "location" element imbedded in our definition of "on-the-spot."

The location element of the definition is nevertheless primordial since a purchase decision made immediately upon exposure to a stimulus, but away from the point-of-purchase, can translate either into a planned purchase or into a rescinded purchase decision. For example, a consumer who views a commercial and immediately decides s/he wants the product would still have to transport him/herself to the point-of-sale to acquire the product. In other words, the purchase would then be planned.

Emotional and/or Cognitive Reactions

The final element of the proposed definition relates to the consumer him/herself. Surely, and as illustrated earlier, not all unplanned purchases bought on the spot as a result of an exposure to a stimulus are accompanied by excitement, pleasure, or forgetfulness of reality, yet experiential impulse purchasing does occur. It is argued here that, contrary to assertions made in the most recent research (Rook 1987; Rook and Hoch 1985), experiencing emotional and/or cognitive reactions (i.e., feeling a "sudden and spontaneous desire to act," being in a "state of psychological disequilibrium," experiencing a "psychological conflict and struggle," reducing "cognitive evaluation," and consuming "without regard for the consequences.': are not-the determinant characteristic of an impulse purchase. In fact, both planned and unplanned purchases can be accompanied by emotions and cognitive reactions such as guilt, disregard for future consequences, to name but a few. In sum, as was proposed earlier, and since not all impulse purchases are accompanied with emotional and/or cognitive reactions, impulse purchasing can be experiential or non-experiential.

Previous study of the emotional and cognitive aspects of impulse purchasing is limited (for two exceptions, see Rook 1987; Rook and Hoch 1985). The emotion and cognitive reactions incorporated in the proposed definition are those identified by previous research, and defined in an earlier section. Specifically, Rook (1987) identified the "excitement and stimulation," "hedonic elements: feeling good, bad, guilty," "purchasing in response to moods," and a "sudden and imperative desire to purchase" as emotion reactions that may accompany an impulse purchase.

Rook (1987) and Rook and Hoch (1985) also identified the following cognitive reactions: (1) being in a state of psychological disequilibrium, which may result in experiencing a feeling of helplessness, (2) experiencing a psychological conflict and struggle, (3) experiencing a reduction of choice evaluation.

Another interesting "cognitive reaction" dimension is the one Navarick (1987) uses to define impulsivity and which can be labeled "reduced evaluation of consequences." That is, impulsive behaviors result from choosing an immediately available option over a future option as a result of a mental accounting where the present value of the future outcome compares unfavorably with the value of an immediate outcome.

Finally, a cognitive trait labeled: "discounting of own responsibility" is introduced. This trait became salient when analyzing the answers given by the sample of students mentioned above: A small percentage of students described the episode as an experience that could well fit in "the devil-made-me-do-it" category.


A complete definition of impulse purchasing must recognize that emotional and cognitive reactions may accompany, but are not a sine qua non condition to an impulse purchase. Further, a consumer does not have to experience all the reactions mentioned in the definition to make an experiential impulse purchase. Further, due to the lack of available evidence, it is acknowledged that this discussion is somewhat speculative and that the field of consumer research needs to spend renewed efforts, focused on the discovery and comprehension of such reactions, as well as on the acquisition of an understanding of the personal and environmental factors that may influence such experiences.

Finally, the definition proposed in this paper improves upon the previous definition as it offers both discernment and flexibility. First, discernment is found as unplanned purchasing is unequivocally differentiated from impulse purchasing because of the "on-the-spot" definitional requirement: Unplanned purchases not decided immediately upon the first encounter with the stimulus cannot qualify as an impulse purchase. Second, flexibility is offered as impulse purchases can be categorized according to the experiencing or non-experiencing of emotion and cognitive reactions.


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