Effects of Impulse Purchases on Consumers' Affective States

ABSTRACT - This article explores the relationship between consumers' impulse buying behavior and the internal affective states that follow their impulse purchases. The results of an exploratory study that examines how impulse buying is related to specific post- purchase affective states is reported. In addition, the effects of impulse buying on feeling state valence and intensity are discussed.


Meryl Paula Gardner and Dennis W. Rook (1988) ,"Effects of Impulse Purchases on Consumers' Affective States", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, eds. Micheal J. Houston, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 127-130.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15, 1988      Pages 127-130


Meryl Paula Gardner, New York University

Dennis W. Rook, DDDB Needham Worldwide


This article explores the relationship between consumers' impulse buying behavior and the internal affective states that follow their impulse purchases. The results of an exploratory study that examines how impulse buying is related to specific post- purchase affective states is reported. In addition, the effects of impulse buying on feeling state valence and intensity are discussed.


"When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping (anonymous)."

This popular American folk saying has appeared extensively on contemporary artifacts such as bumper stickers and tee-shirts,. and highlights ideas about buying's palliative effects. It also alludes more generally to the relationship between consumers' affective states and their buying behavior. Moods and emotions are central elements of the consumer's situational environment (Belk 1975). Findings from psychology (e.g., Isen and Simmonds 1978; Cunningham 1979; Isens and Shalker 1982) and consumer behavior (e.g., Berneman and Heeler 1986; Gardner and Wilhelm 1987; Goldberg and Gorn 1987) indicate feeling states influence a wide variety of internal processes and observable behaviors. (For a review of this research, see Gardner 1985.) One context where feeling state volatility and buyer behavior often interact is in consumer impulse buying. Shifts in affective state can stimulate pursuit of the instant gratification that buying provides. Conversely, the act of impulse buying and the associated possession of the product purchased can trigger changes in affective state. The relationships between consumers' affective states and their impulse buying behavior remain largely unexplored despite their importance.

Impulse buying is pervasive in the American marketplace today, and has been the target of market and consumer research for over forty years (e.g., Applebaum 1951; Bellenger et al. 1978; Clover 1950; Cobb and Hoyer 1986; Consumer Buying Habits Studies 1945; Katona and Mueller 1955; Kollat 1969; Rook 1987; West 1951). Contemporary marketing innovations such as 24-hour retailing, telemarketing, cash machines, "instant credit" and home shopping networks make it easier for the consumer to operate on whim now than ever before. In spite of the importance of impulse buying in America today, we know surprisingly little about the dynamics of this type of buyer behavior.

One way to gain insight into the motivation underlying impulse buying is to investigate the feeling states that follow it. From this perspective, mood states can be interpreted as affect- oriented elements animating impulse buying episodes. For example, Weinberg and Gottwald (1982), Rook and Hoch (1985), and Rook (1987) report impulse buying is more intense and arousing than contemplative buying.

The purpose of this paper is to provide a preliminary view of the relationship of impulse buying to post-purchase moods. The exploratory empirical study reported here examined the specific feeling states, valence of affective states and level of arousal associated with post-purchase feeling states. In addition, the work seeks to go beyond investigating positive versus negative affective states, to examine the relationship of impulse buying episodes to specific post-purchase affective states.


The data reported are part of a larger project to understand the relationship of feeling states to impulsive buying behavior. That project examines not only the affective consequences of impulsive buying (reported here), but also affective antecedents of impulse buying and buying impulsiveness as a trait. For a more complete description of the data collection procedures used in this project, see Rook and Gardner (1987).

Research Instrument

The data were collected using a six-page questionnaire titled: CONSUMER BUYING SURVEY. Respondents were initially provided with brief definitions of impulse buying and affective states. Impulse buying was defined as making a purchase in response to "a sudden, unexpected urge to buy something." Affective state was defined as "how you were feeling" at a moment in time. Respondents were asked about the feeling states that preceded and immediately followed their most recent impulse purchases. They were also asked how likely they would be to engage in impulse buying when experiencing various affective states, and how likely they would be to experience these feelings after an impulsive purchase. Respondents were further asked about the stability of their moods. Finally respondents were presented with questions for demographic classification, and for ranking the sample in terms of impulse buying frequency and proclivity. The questionnaire consisted of 11 open-ended questions, and 52 fixed- format response items.

Respondent Sample and Data Collection

One hundred fifty-five respondents were selected to represent a broad spectrum of the consuming adult population. Subjects were recruited in a variety of settings (including offices, street corners, coffee shops, beaches, and lobbies) in approximately equal proportion from three geographic locations (the Los Angeles, New York, and Washington, D.C. metropolitan areas) during the summer of 1986. Subjects were selected from three areas to increase the representativeness of the sample and minimize geographic artifacts which might arise from the use of one location. Subjects participated without financial compensation, and were promised copies of the study's findings. Recruiters used quota sampling to select respondents who would represent a broad age spectrum, proportionate representation of the sexes, and economic and cultural diversity. However, the sample is not presumed to be representative of the overall United States population.

Respondents ranged in age from 19 to 91 (X=37.6; s.d.=15.0). Roughly 25 percent of the sample belong to the 19-25 age group; 25 percent fall between 26 and 36; another quarter between 33 and 50; and approximately one quarter of the sample are over 50 years old. Slightly more than half the sample (54 percent) are female, and 46 percent are male. Almost 40 percent indicated a Protestant religious preference, 30 percent Catholic, 16 percent Jewish, and 14 percent "other" or no religious affiliation. Economically the sample is upscale. About one third of the respondents live in households with annual incomes below $40,000; another third reported household incomes between $40,000 and $75,000; and a final third indicated annual incomes above $75,000. This characteristic is mirrored in the sample's occupational data; respondents are concentrated in the managerial and professional categories, and also among the college student population.

All data were obtained through self-completion procedures. Respondents were given questionnaires and a "hot-line phone number" to call if they were confused about any of the questions. Each form took about one half hour to complete. Respondents took the questionnaires with them to their homes or desks and returned the completed forms within a week.

The questionnaire's eleven open-ended items were analyzed using content analytic procedures. Coding categories were derived both from the mood literature and inductively using a subsample of respondents. Relying on procedures outlined by Kassarjian (1977, 1983), two trained graduate student judges coded the responses into categories.


Post-Purchase Moods Better or Worse?

Respondents were asked to indicate whether they felt better, no different, or worse after making their most recent impulse purchases. Seventy-five percent (N=116) reported they felt "better" after their impulse purchase; 16 percent (N=25) said they felt "no different"; and 8 percent (N=13) said they felt "worse." When asked "Why?", those who reported feeling better cited a variety of product benefits generated by their impulse purchase, among these the vague but pervasive notion of "getting something you needed," and, also, accomplishing a necessary task. Other reasons given for feeling better after buying something on impulse include enjoyment of the novelty and surprise it provides, and getting a "good deal." Second only to receiving these various product benefits, respondents cited mood alteration as a reason for feeling better after making an impulse buy. These anecdotes highlight the ameliorative effects that impulse buying has on negative moods:

I was depressed-a long, shitty day at the beach. After I bought some more records I felt better (male-29).

I was frustrated with my kids and needed to get away from them...(they) were fighting, not minding, and I needed a change...I had had as much as I could take at that point...I had been wanting the item I bought and was happy to get it...l felt happy with myself and went home with no frustrated feelings for my kids (female-38).

I was depressed. I had lost 10 pounds and wanted a new image. (I was thinking about being) a widow for 7 years, unsatisfactory relationships, (and) changing or growing...I was confused about what I wanted to look like. I wanted to look sexy. I have a nice body and didn't know how to look 60 and yet sexy in a tasteful way. What the hell, what have I got to lose? (After the purchase) I felt fantastic because it made me feel 20 years younger, and I realized I had a fantastic body for a 60 year-old lady. I did it for myself. No thoughts of children, husband, I sacrificed enough, this was just for me (female-60).

I was kind of bored, wanted to do something different. My job is monotonous, the same daily activity, lack of social excitement...I needed to do something different and exciting, wanted to reward myself...(After the purchase) I was satisfied, it felt good to reward myself with the purchase (male- 25).

Whether someone is depressed, frustrated, or bored, impulse buying appears to be an effective tactic for breaking out of an undesirable mood state. Post-impulse purchase moods, however, are not uniformly positive. Respondents were asked to indicate, on a 5-point scale, the degree of happiness and/or guilt they experienced after their most recent impulse purchase. Over 90 percent of the sample fell within the "somewhat" to "extremely" happy range. These figures suggest impulse buying is a pervasive source of immediate gratification among a diverse population of consumers. On the other hand, considerable ambivalence is evident; 37.9 percent of the sample fell within the "somewhat" to "extremely" guilty range.

Specific Post-Impulse Purchase Moods

The most common post-purchase mood types further provide evidence of the mood altering features of impulse buying. Insights into specific moods following impulse purchases were gleaned from three measures:

1.) Mood selected from a list of 13 moods as most likely to follow an impulse purchase,

2.) Mood likelihood scale score for each mood based on 1=very likely, 6=not at all likely, and

3.) Respondents' post-purchase mood in last impulse buy.

As indicated in the Table, there is some consistency across measures. In addition, findings are consistent with those for mood valence, and indicate that consumers are quite likely to experience a positive mood after an impulsive purchase. Almost 80 percent of the moods selected as most likely to follow an impulse buy can be classified as positive. There is some evidence of ambivalence and negativity too; over 15 percent of post impulse-purchase moods are negative.



Consistency across measures is particularly strong among those mood states most associated with post-impulse purchase feelings. Five of the thirteen moods examined account together for 80% of the respondents' choices of mood most likely to follow an impulse purchase, four of the top five likelihood scores, and 91% of the respondents' choices of mood following their last impulse buys. These five affective states appear to be most strongly associated with post-impulse-purchase feelings, and will be discussed in some detail.

As indicated in the Table, a "pleasure" mood ranked first across all three measures. This is a broad, generalized mood that appears with various shadings. Respondents explained that their shopping experience was pleasant and enjoyable. They described themselves as basking in the after-glow of the act of possession, feeling they have accomplished something worthwhile:

My impulse purchases generally work out well...When I get home I'm generally pleased with how well it goes with what I already have, or fits the spot in the house I selected for it (female-35).

There is also a sense of release; the urgency to buy has been vented. The item can be taken off the consumer's mental list, allowing pleasure to replace tension. Basically the same ideas were echoed by the relatively fewer number of respondents (10 percent) who chose the "content/relaxed' mood as most likely to follow an impulse buy. Both mood likelihood scores and respondents' moods after their last impulse buy provide additional support for the role of this mood state as a consequence of impulse buying for some subjects.

All three measures suggest an "excitement" mood is a consequence of impulse buying for many respondents. This mood was chosen by 29 percent of the sample as most likely to follow an impulse purchase, ranked second in mood likelihood scale score, and tied for first as mood following most recent purchase. Respondents reported being excited simply by having something new in their possession, illuminating their materialistic tendencies (Belk 1984). This combines with the relative novelty of impulse buying per se to produce some giddiness and exhilaration. Respondents also described being excited and impatient about taking the object home to use it, to try it on, or to consume it. Basically the same ideas were echoed by the relatively fewer number of respondents (7%) who chose the "carefree" mood as most likely to follow an impulse buy. Both mood likelihood scores and respondents' moods after their last impulse buy provide additional support for the role of this mood state as a consequence of impulse buying for some subjects.

One mood that was considerably more prominent as an entry mood (Rook and Gardner, 1987) than as a post-purchase mood state was "powerful". This mood was selected by only 4% of the respondents as the mood most likely to follow an impulse purchase, ranked fifth in mood likelihood scale score, and was selected by less than 1% of the respondents as the mood consequence of their last impulse buy. Perhaps replacing some antecedent powerful moods are a growing sense of anxiety and guilt about having behaved impulsively. When asked to describe their mood following their most recent impulse purchase, just as many respondents said they were anxious and guilty (24 percent) as said they were feeling pleasure and excitement. Somewhat more limited support for the role of anxiety and guilt as consequences of impulsive buying is provided by respondents' choice of mood most likely to follow an impulse purchase (ranked fifth) and mood likelihood scale scores (ranked seventh). Post-purchase guilt and anxiety emerge in various forms. Some respondents say they feel a vague uneasiness as to whether they should have purchased or not. Others voice more specific guilt about overspending, failing to save, or buying something they "shouldn't have."


The results of this study suggest mood factors play an extensive and complex role in consumers' impulse buying behavior. These findings raise as many questions as answers; much basic research remains. In addition, methodological considerations limit the generalizability of the findings reported. Replications with more representative samples of respondents and extensions with different data collection procedures are warranted.

Additional research is also needed to investigate the effects of individual-difference variables on mood states that follow impulse buying. One variable of particular interest is mood stability. Almost everyone appears to experience positive moods after an impulse purchase (due to product satisfaction, quenching an urge, etc.). Because people whose moods fluctuate experience a wider range of moods, they may be more likely to experience negative moods after impulse purchases as -well. Support for this postulate is provided by preliminary examination of the data in this study.

Additional research is also needed to investigate the role of cultural factors in determining mood after impulse purchases. If one's culture advocates spontaneity and self-indulgence, one might feel better after spending than if one's upbringing says that such behaviors are sinful.

Further work is needed to investigate the interplay between the consumer's thoughts immediately preceding purchase and his / her feelings immediately after. One might postulate that when thoughts are materialistic or narcissistic they may involve basic values and be relatively central to one's self-definition. In contrast, situational thoughts may be relatively mundane and related to externally determined, expected, or temporally distant usage occasions. If this is so, materialistic and narcissistic thoughts may be associated with post-purchase moods involving high arousal (e.g., excitement), and situational thoughts may be associated with post-purchase moods involving relatively low arousal (e.g., pleasure). Some support for this is provided by the data, but further research is needed.

Research is also needed to investigate the relationship between antecedent moods and post-purchase moods to observe, on a micro level, which transitions are more or less likely. Research in this area can provide ideas for understanding the role of impulse buying in the mood changes people regularly experience in daily living and the nature of mood changes themselves.


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Meryl Paula Gardner, New York University
Dennis W. Rook, DDDB Needham Worldwide


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 15 | 1988

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