Antecedents of Spontaneous Buying Behavior During Temporary Markdowns

Peter J. McGoldrick, Manchester School of Management, UMIST
Erica J. Betts, Manchester School of Management, UMIST
Kathleen A. Keeling, Manchester School of Management, UMIST
ABSTRACT - Spontaneous buying during store-wide, 'seasonal sales’ has not been widely studied. The paper reviews the relevant cognitive, emotional and behavioral factors, then develops a model of spontaneous buying during 'seasonal sales’. Based upon qualitative evidence and a survey of over 1,000 shoppers, hierarchical regression and path analysis are applied. The role of socio-demographic and psychographic variables is assessed, with the moderating role of price and experiential satisfaction in predicting spontaneous buying: particular attention is given to measures for dissonance avoidance when buying in 'seasonal sales’.
[ to cite ]:
Peter J. McGoldrick, Erica J. Betts, and Kathleen A. Keeling (1999) ,"Antecedents of Spontaneous Buying Behavior During Temporary Markdowns", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 26-33.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 26-33


Peter J. McGoldrick, Manchester School of Management, UMIST

Erica J. Betts, Manchester School of Management, UMIST

Kathleen A. Keeling, Manchester School of Management, UMIST

[The authors are grateful for the sponsorship provided by the Office of Fair Trading and the Economic and Social Research Council, grant number R000221632.]


Spontaneous buying during store-wide, 'seasonal sales’ has not been widely studied. The paper reviews the relevant cognitive, emotional and behavioral factors, then develops a model of spontaneous buying during 'seasonal sales’. Based upon qualitative evidence and a survey of over 1,000 shoppers, hierarchical regression and path analysis are applied. The role of socio-demographic and psychographic variables is assessed, with the moderating role of price and experiential satisfaction in predicting spontaneous buying: particular attention is given to measures for dissonance avoidance when buying in 'seasonal sales’.

The 'seasonal sales’ dominate the European retail landscape, especially in clothing, for more than a month each winter and summer. In the U.K., a store 'on sale’ must be offering at least 10% of its merchandise, usually much more, at demonstrably reduced prices. 'Seasonal sales’ are therefore potentially a more pervasive influence upon consumer behavior than isolated product markdowns. They occur in predictable seasons, they involve a wide assortment of the merchandise, most stores in the sectors, and they usually effect a temporary repositioning, both in terms of store and clientele.

The 'seasonalsales’ engender a dramatically different 'servicescape’ (Bitner, 1992) for customers. The ambient conditions of noise and temperature are affected by the increased numbers of shoppers, the layout becomes more cramped and the signage and P.O.S. material is increased and more obviously intrusive. The quality of some of the goods on offer may be dubious as stores bring in 'special buys’ and 'seconds’ to swell the 'sale’ merchandise.

The weight of evidence in the literature is that changing the physical in-store environment will affect cognitive, emotional and behavioral reactions of customers towards the retail store.


Cognitive reactions to perceived negative changes will produce less positive appraisals of the environment and subsequent behavior will be modified in line with these appraisals (e.g., Donovan, Rossiter, Marcoolyn and Nesdale, 1994, Eroglu and Machleit, 1990). Additionally, the environmental conditions are likely to have a detrimental effect on the nature of service interactions (Prus,1986).

However, balanced against the factors above are the shoppers’ perceptions and appraisals of price reductions and savings to be made on purchases. The appeal of the 'bargain’ can be ascribed to two influences: acquisition utility and transaction utility (Thaler, 1985). Acquisition utility is an assessment of "the value of the good received compared to the outlay". Value conscious shoppers, concerned with "paying low prices, subject to some quality constraint" (Lichtenstein et al., 1990) may be able to achieve better value during the 'seasonal sales’. 'Economic’ shoppers (Stone, 1954) can be expected to display utilitarian behavioral reactions to the 'seasonal sales’.

Transaction utility depends "solely on the perceived merits of the 'deal’" (Thaler, 1985). It may be thought of as including satisfactions derived during the search and consumption process, i.e., the hedonic or experiential benefits (Hirschman and Holbrook, 1982). The size of the price reduction has the potential to make shoppers feel smart and resourceful. 'Smart shopper’ selfattributions can be a major source of satisfaction (Schindler, 1985; Sampson, 1964). It is difficult, however, to separate consumers’ orientations as towards either acquisition or transactions utility. The results of studies on coupon proneness led Lichtenstein et al. (1990) to suggest that "the frequency with which value consciousness, price consciousness, 'sale’ proneness and coupon proneness entered into the regression models suggests that both economic and non-economic price related factors underlie many marketplace behaviors".


In addition to the potential for feelings of satisfaction with savings made, there is also a heightened sense of excitement generated by the circumstances of the seasonal 'sale’. Prus (1986) sees the intensity of this excitement as generally affected by (a) the presales valuing of items, (b) perceptions of greater potential savings, (c) shorter time limits in which to respond, (d) apparent excess of shoppers over desired items.

Excitement is also generated by risk. Not all bargains are genuine (Ortmeyer, 1993), stores may bring in inferior merchandise to offer seemingly deep reductions for the 'sales’, alternatively, the stock of some 'good’ reductions will be limited. Thus, these risks may include buying with lower levels of certainty, or the risk involved in 'game playing’ behavior, e.g., waiting for the best reduction before buying incurs the risk of a stockout.


The physical store conditions of the 'seasonal sales’ featuring extra displays, reduced price tags, loud red 'sale’ signage and windows covered in paper to incite curiousity, are a bundle of situation specific cues, messages and suggestions, all likely to directly affect consumer behavior without the need for processing (Foxall and Goldsmith, 1994). Indeed, the seasonal 'sale’ environmental changes and the time bound nature of the price reductions could be argued to increase the likelihood of spontaneous purchasing. Prasad (1975) concludes that situational variables such as store-environment, product and tripspecific variables have more impact on unplanned buying in supermarkets than shopper characteristics.

Nonetheless, Rook and Fisher (1995) suggest that even strong buying 'impulses’ are often subject to cognitive appraisal due to such factors as lack of money, time pressure, social visibility or memory of past outcomes.

Thus, spontaneous purchasing may not be completely unplanned, especially in the circumstances of the 'seasonal sales’. Rees (1993) divides 'sale’ shoppers into the 'planners and the 'spontaneous shoppers’. Without condoning this rather crude dichotomy, it is reasonable that these 'planners’ are analogous to the strategic shopping behaviors described above. 'Spontaneous shoppers’, without specific plans, act upon more general expectations of reductions and their purchases will not be pre-planned to a large extent. This echoes one of the Stern (1962) classifications of 'impulse’ purchasingB'planned impulse’, or shopping with the intention of being influenced by price specials. Thus, customer responses to the 'seasonal sales’ are likely to be a mixture of positive and negative reactions akin to approachavoidance (Mehrabian and Russell, 1974), moderated by customer characteristics and beliefs. Customers may wish to avoid the increased crowds and cluttered stores (Eroglu and Machleit, 1990; Hui and Bateson, 1991) but feel the attraction of a 'bargain’, for reasons of both acquisition and transaction utility. At the same time, they may be attracted by the excitement generated whilst being aware that shopping in the 'seasonal sales’ is more risky.



Of course, for many individuals, shopping behaviors in the 'seasonal sales’ will intermix with each other: even the most determined 'planner’ may buy spontaneously when presented with a particularly good bargain. It is the interplay of customer reactions and cognitions about the 'seasonal sales’ and their influences on orientations towards functional and nonfunctional motivations and the propensity to spontaneous purchase behavior which this study seeks to understand more clearly. To this end, a conceptual model is developed, based on the framework presented by Bitner (1992), and tested through hierarchical regression. Consequently, results are presented examining the validity of the behaviors, motives and beliefs about shopping in the 'seasonal sales’ to be gleaned in the literature. To a large extent, due to the lack of research on the 'seasonal sales’ rather than more specific pricing research, this work is exploratory, therefore several factor analyses were undertaken.


The model used for this research adopts the premise from Bitner (1992) that perceptions of the environment are acted on by customer response moderators to produce cognitive responses that result in either approach or avoidance of the situation. This framework follows the implied causal flow from perception through beliefs to behavior explicit in popular social attitude theories e.g., the Theory of Reasoned Action, (Fishbein and Azjen, 1975) and provides the basis for a onceptual model of consumer reactions to the environment of the 'seasonal sales’. Babin and Darden (1995) and McGoldrick and Pieros (1998) have found support for the influence of response moderators on perceptions of the environment in retail settings.

It is intuitive that those with more disposable income may feel less risk of wasting money. 'Singles’ living independently may not only have more disposable income but also feel less accountable to others for spending (Babin and Darden 1995). Those able to shop without children may feel less time-pressured and able to weigh up the shopping choices more carefully. Also learning must play a part: the younger shopper will have had less exposure to the 'seasonal sales’ and so have had less chance to make mistakes and therefore may harbor less disillusionment with their decisional abilities.

This study argues that a person’s demographic status can have a direct impact on customer response through the decreased probability that certain cognitive factors will be triggered. This argument has support in the literature: Beatty and Ferell (1998) report direct effects of 'time available’ and 'money available’ on impulsive purchasing behavior. Notwithstanding, social attitude theories such as the Theory of Reasoned Action argue that the effect of variables such as age and gender are only represented through their effect on an individual’s beliefs and associated with behavior only because these factors are related to relevant beliefs.

Therefore, the model includes beliefs and images about shopping in the 'seasonal sales’ as further customer response moderators of the perceptions of the shopping environment. Extending Rosenberg (1956) to the 'seasonal sales’, customers will expect a bundle of benefits and disbenefits from shopping in the 'sales’, which will help or hinder the attainment of their shopping goals. People often have to rely on their own judgments of probability and value. However, they can still engage in processes that produce a subjective optimality by choosing the alternative with the highest subjective value. Consequently, customer responses in the model will be the orientation towards shopping in the 'seasonal sales’, whether predominantly functional or nonfunctional in character, or more likely, an admixture of both.

One important addition to the model can be made, that of the avoidance of dissonance. In the circumstances of spontaneous buying, even an individual’s postmoderation attraction may be further evaluated.

Shoppers may be unsure of their own judgment, especially since they will be aware of the risk involved in buying with lower levels of certainty. Baron (1991) found that consumers often anticipate feelings that would occur if their decisions yield negative or less positive outcomes. Anticipated regret can be expected, especially if the opinion of others about a 'sales’ purchase might be difficult to judge. This is because, even if (in line with expectancy value principles) a shopper chooses the option valued most highly there will be some features of the chosen alternative and some features of choices foregone that are incompatible with the decision (Festinger, 1964b). This anticipation of post-purchase dissonance will lead to pressures to defend or justify the decision. Thus, the anticipated regret can be incorporated into the evaluations and influence the choices made (Simonson, 1992). In the situation of the 'seasonal sales’ the perceived situational and time pressures to buy may reduce the decision process, thus the potential for dissonance will be higher.

Individuals are thought to actively avoid postdecision dissonance: this is assumed to work in two ways. Firstly, through selectivity biases: decision congruent material is more likely to be retrieved and is elaborated to bolster the decision, thus prices and bargains are more likely to be remembered. Secondly, through selective exposure (Festinger, 1964b). Shoppers will seek out decision congruent information and avoid exposure to decision incongruent material. Thus, they may seek reassurance about 'sale’ bys, perhaps exaggerating 'sale’ savings to gain this reassurance, or avoid looking at prices of other reduced goods. The action of anticipated regret could be argued to precipitate the consideration of these strategies to bolster the decision to purchase. Thus, the model shows two major pathways in the mediation of the perceptions of the environment. Firstly, shopper characteristics which reduce the likelihood of encountering dissonant information will increase the likelihood of spontaneous purchasing: those able to reduce the risk will be less likely to feel the effects of post-purchase dissonance. Secondly, cognitive appraisal may be stimulated by a variety of factors, such as lower income or having to account for the purchase. In these circumstances, beliefs about the 'seasonal sales’ will affect the shoppers’ orientation to the purchase. This may be moderated by the shoppers’ propensity to use behaviors that help avoid postpurchase dissonance.


The study upon which this paper is based pursued a number of objectives, including an evaluation of 'sale’ strategies, the consumer protection framework and shoppers’ knowledge of the law. Some elements of the methodology are therefore less germane to the focus of this paper, although they contribute additional perspectives.

Group discussions are acknowledged as a valuable aid to hypothesis development. Two groups of 7/8 'shoppers in context’ were recruited, using a meeting room in a very large shopping mall during the 1993 summer 'seasonal sales’. The informal agenda included their beliefs, motives, behaviors and knowledge of the relevant law. The discussions were tape recorded and transcribed to assist in questionnaire development. 50 semi-structured interviews were conducted during the winter 'sales’ of 1994, comprising equal proportions of males/females and age categories. These served to develop the main questionnaire, also providing an assessment of attention span and suggesting solutions to possible problems of recall and admissibility.

A pilot version of the full questionnaire was tested in summer 1994 with 100 interviews: a further test was conducted in the winter of 1995. Overall, a response rate of 57% was achieved in these pilot surveys.

The interviews were conducted in four shopping malls in the summer 'seasonal sales’ of 1995 and winter 1996. Quotas were based upon age, sex and the phase within the 'sale’. The mall intercept approach was used, the next shopper meeting quota requirements being approached after each interview. In view of the number of questions, the first part of the questionnaire was administered by direct interviewing: the second, longer part was then mailed back. This built commitment to cooperate; it also enabled unprompted awareness to be investigated at the interview, whereas longer and more sensitive questions could be included in part II. Attention was given to developing a revised format of the Likert scales, designed to reduce directional errors and improve parametric qualities. Responses ranged from 3 (disagree strongly) through zero (neutral) to +3 (agree strongly).


The overall response rate of part II questionnaires was 45%, high for a relatively complex task and assisted by the incentive of a free prize draw. After 2,624 initial interviews, the number of returned part II questionnaires was 1,178.

Content validity was a major rational for the extensive pre-testing. Construct validity is more complex in exploratory work but the procedure of factor analysis confirmed the emergence of distinct constructs. A series of seven reliability filters was included in the questionnaires, some 10.7% of part II returns being exclded on the basis of these.


Fifteen selfreported 'seasonal sale’ buying responses or tactics were entered into factor analysis as the response set. Specifying eigenvalues over one, four factors were extracted with the VARIMAX rotation. These accounted for 55.4 per cent of variance and there were no indications that preferable solution should be sought (see table 1). The solution was readily interpretable. 'Spontaneous buying behavior’ emerged as a separate factor from 'stockpiling’. Clearly, shoppers distinguish between the aspects of buying more than is needed and buying spontaneously. Also differentiated were 'forward planning’, a general inclination towards planning for the 'seasonal sales,’ and tactical behavior, working reduction schedules to their maximum effect.

'Spontaneous buying behavior’ contained the three most popular behavior patterns (see table 2). The 'seasonal sales’ seem to cause respondents to follow their buying impulses more than at other times; almost 60 percent buy more spontaneously and 56.4 percent cut short their search for price information. Buying spontaneously does appear to be related to the propensity to buy rashly with insufficient deliberation, as buying something that is never used also loads into this factor. Over half of those agreeing that they buy impulsively also admit that they have bought something they never used. More spontaneous behavior, less comparison price shopping and making mistakes are associated with heightened urgency to buy, due to low stock availability.


Space limitations preclude the inclusion of all 33 scales used in the construction of the factors shown in table 3. For the ten items in the belief set, three factors were extracted accounting for 49.1 per cent of variance.

For the eight variables in the image set, three factors with eigenvalues over one accounting for 61.6 of the variance were extracted. The first image factor concerns shoppers and their perceptions of the people they must interact with in the 'seasonal sales’; the second factor relates to the 'bargain basement’ perceptions of the stores in the 'seasonal sales’. Customers differentiate between the changes in environment due to increased crowding and other 'people’ components and the changes in the environment due to the altered layout and merchandising in the stores. The third summarises the perceptions of perpetual 'sales’, that is, whether shoppers believe they can distinguish between 'real seasonal sales’ and other promotional activities.








The focus group discussions and the literature suggested that shoppers engage in a number of strategies to avoid dissonance associated with 'seasonal sale’ shopping. This is not simply post-purchase dissonance reduction, as it also includes moderating beliefs to justify general buying behavior in the 'sales’. It includes the thoughts designed to avoid dissatisfaction and to increase satisfaction. Four items were included to capture these ideas, forming a single multiitem scale of 'dissonance avoidance’ for want of a more appropriate title. Despite the absence of factoring, the scale’s alpha was just about acceptable at .59. The items, results and index scale information are shown in table 4.

Two means of avoiding dissonance were reported by over 70 pe cent of respondents. The first, selective retention of particularly good 'sale’ prices, may enhance the capacity for 'sale’ price satisfaction. Remembering the good bargain prices provides congruence between beliefs and behavior, allowing people to feel comfortable about continuing to shop in the 'seasonal sales’, even if they have made poor purchase decisions in the past. Secondly, 72 percent of respondents have avoided looking at prices after they have purchased a product. This strategy of self-defence works by shielding shoppers from the knowledge that they could have achieved a better price, either in a different store or by deferring the purchase.



Almost half agreed that they sought reassurance from family and/or friends about the goods they bought in the 'sales’ being wise buys. This would suggest that most are aware of their capacity for transaction utility, which can blur their judgment. This postpurchase doubt can be appeased by the approval of other people. Finally, a minority, 15.9 per cent were willing to admit that they have exaggerated how much they had saved in the 'sales’, when telling their partner, parents or friends.

Shopping orientations were gauged from fifteen items. The two factors solution simply divided the orientations into price and non-price motives, or 'price satisfaction’ and 'experiential satisfaction’. This accords with the reasoning and results of Sheth (1983) and Thaler (1985).


Hierarchical regression was employed to investigate the relationships between variables in the conceptual model in figure 1. Table 5 displays the coefficients for the variables in the regression. The sociodemographic variables on their own account for 15.7% of the variance. Controlling for the influence of other variables, at entry, household income and the size of the centre being shopped do not make significant individual contributions. The addition of the belief and image variables increases R2 by .036, Finc (6, 843)=6.37 (p=.000). Of these variables, at entry, only 'sale scepticism’, 'people perception’, and 'stale sales’ make a significant individual contribution. At step three, where 'price satisfaction’ and 'experiential satisfaction’ orientations are added to the analysis, R2 increases by .095, Finc (2,841)=55.78 (p=.000). The addition of avoidance of dissonance, only increases R2 by .016, Finc (1,840)=19.16 (p=.000) giving a total R2=.304. Direct paths are shown as unbroken lines in figure 2, indirect paths as dashed lines.

In the final equation, 'single, independent’ status and 'age group’ retain a significant individual contribution. Household income also provides a significant individual contribution to the prediction of 'spontaneous buying behavior’ in the final equation. It steadily increases its contribution with the addition of each step.

It is possible to account for the direct effects of these variables on spontaneous buying behavior by reasoning that environmental stimuli do precipitate spontaneous buying responses in these groups, which are not cognitively evaluated. The strong direct path of 'age group’ can be accounted for by the suggestion from focus group participants that young people buy spontaneously because they are without the benefits of experience. With less negative experiential memories to be triggered, the probability of the response to stimuli being cognitively evaluated is lessened. However, since 'higher household income’ and 'single, independent status’ are also significant, this suggests that it is not age or lack of experience per se which contribute to spontaneous buying. Opportunity, through availability of higher discretionary income and/or lack of need to justify purchases, also plays a part. This is comparable to the construct of 'facilitating conditions’ (Triandis,1971). Beatty and Ferrell (1998) also report direct effects of one situational variable; 'money available’.

There is less need to evaluate the purchase in terms of other peoples’ responses if an individual is living independently. Higher household income may mean more disposable income and, therefore, less necessity to evaluate the purchase against other choices that would have to be forgone if economic resources were low.

The introduction of belief and image variables moderates the 'single, at home’ and household income (lower) variables, suggesting that having to consider others’ opinions or expenditure will facilitate cognitive evaluation.

None of the belief or image variables retains a significant direct individual contribution. Price and experiential satisfaction motivations mediate the original significant effects of 'sale scepticism’ and 'stale sales’: the original effect of 'people perception’ is mediated primarily by 'avoidance of dissonance’. Price and experiential satisfaction motivations both retain significant individual contributions, though the effects of both are mediated to some degree by 'avoidance of dissonance’. The reduction in the coefficient is greater for 'price satisfaction’ than for 'experiential’ satisfaction. 'Avoidance of dissonance’ also shows a strong positive individual contribution.

Inspection of the coefficients in table 5 also reveals the size of the indirect paths between the independent variables and the dependent variable (represented by broken lines in figure 2).

There is an indirect path from household income (lower) through price and experiential satisfactions to impulsive behavior. It is intuitive that the opportunity to save money and to make purchases in the 'seasonal sales’ that are otherwise out of reach will lead to the anticipation of increased satisfaction. It is also intuitive that those on lower incomes will buy in the 'sales’ to save money, regardless of the environmental conditions or their beliefs about the 'sales’.

Despite the lack of direct effects for the three attitude and the three image variables on 'spontaneous’ behavior, there are strong indirect effects for the three attitude variables. Low confidence in the system and high 'sales’ scepticism are mediated by the motivations for price and experiential satisfaction. 'Self confidence’ also shows a positive indirect path through these two variables.



It is interesting that price and experience satisfactions moderate 'sale scepticism’ and lower 'confidence in the system’ so strongly. This may be explained by the other strong path to price and experiential orientations, that of higher self-confidence. Shoppers may believe that buying in the 'sales’ is risky and not be certain that they are protected by the law from being offered bogus 'sales’ goods but justify their orientation to buy through their beliefs in their own ability to spot real bargains.

The effects of introducing avoidance of dissonance are only on the orientations to purchasing in the 'seasonal sales’. Whilst respectable, they are not exceedingly strong. This coupled with the feasible propensity to use selfconfidence to bolster buying decisions and overcome poor beliefs and images of the 'sales’ speaks of the impelling nature of the lure of a bargain, whether for price or experiential satisfactions.


An understanding of spontaneous buying behavior is of considerable value to practitioners and academics alike. Accordingly, the concept of impulse purchasing has attracted the attention of many researchers over the years (e.g., Stern, 1962; Rook and Fisher, 1995). In contrast the 'seasonal sales’ have been somewhat neglected within the marketing literature, in spite of their likely association with this form of buyer behavior.

This study has drawn upon insights from a number of cognate disciplines, plus empirical work utilising qualitative and quantitative methodologies. Detailed questionnaires, completed by over 1,000 'seasonal sale’ shoppers, form the basis of most analyses within this paper. The interplay of customer reactions and cognitions about the 'seasonal sales’, their influences on orientations towards functional and nonfunctional motivations, and the propensity to spontaneous purchase behavior are explored. To this end, a conceptual model is developed, based on the framework presented by Bitner (1992), and tested through hierarchical regression.



Being in younger age groups and price satisfaction are the strongest indicators of spontaneous buying. Evaluation of the spontaneous purchase response is triggered by lower incomes, and potentially having to account for purchases to other people. Lower household income also increases the influence of price and experiential satisfactions.

Shoppers overcome their misgivings in two ways, one through their confidence in their own ability to find true bargains and not be misled by retailers. The other is through their recall of the strategies for avoiding dissonance: those with a propensity to use these strategies can offset worries about price and experiential satisfaction and are more likely to engage in spontaneous buying.

The study has pointed to opportunities for retailers to target more effectively their 'seasonal sale’ offerings and communications. In contrast with the science underpinning pricing, range management, atmosphere, etc. during normal trading, positioning can be vague or ambiguous during 'sale’ periods.

While a model derived from a European study could be applied internationally, the study did also identify international differences in the law, therefore the style, of 'seasonal sales’. Other aspects of retail and cultural diversity are likely to create differences in 'sale’ behavior, presenting opportunities for international comparison or validation.


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