Product Symbolism, Self Meaning, and Holistic Matching: the Role of Information Processing in Impulsive Buying

ABSTRACT - Impulse buying represents an important form of consumer buying experience. Unfortunately, work examining this area has largely failed to consider the potential of a cognitive perspective. To fill this gap, this paper proposes an information processing account of what occurs in an impulsive buying episode. Specifically, it is suggested that much impulsive buying behavior can be characterized as a type of holistic information processing whereby a match is recognized between the symbolic meanings of a particular product and a consumer's self-concept. When such a match is recognized, the resulting urge to purchase the item will be instant, compelling, and affectively charged. So powerful, perhaps, that it overrides any more analytic assessments of the purchasing situation.


James E. Burroughs (1996) ,"Product Symbolism, Self Meaning, and Holistic Matching: the Role of Information Processing in Impulsive Buying", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 463-469.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 463-469


James E. Burroughs, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Impulse buying represents an important form of consumer buying experience. Unfortunately, work examining this area has largely failed to consider the potential of a cognitive perspective. To fill this gap, this paper proposes an information processing account of what occurs in an impulsive buying episode. Specifically, it is suggested that much impulsive buying behavior can be characterized as a type of holistic information processing whereby a match is recognized between the symbolic meanings of a particular product and a consumer's self-concept. When such a match is recognized, the resulting urge to purchase the item will be instant, compelling, and affectively charged. So powerful, perhaps, that it overrides any more analytic assessments of the purchasing situation.


Impulse buying is a phenomenon which has long been known to consumer researchers; going back to at least the DuPont Consumer Buying Studies initiated in the 1940's (DuPont 1965). Yet, within consumer research, impulsive buying has remained somewhat of an enigma (Rook 1987). The dominant paradigm in consumer research assumes a highly deliberate, analytic, consumer (cf. Bettman 1979; Engel, Blackwell, and Kollat 1978); and as such, has drawn criticism from some researchers who lament that it does a poor job of anticipating this more impulsive type of consumer response (Holbrook and Hirschman 1982; Olshavsky and Granbois 1979; Rook 1987). Meanwhile, specific considerations of impulse buying, have tended to remain at only a taxonomic level (i.e. types of products impulsively bought) (cf. Bellinger et al. 1978); leaving open still the question of the internal mechanisms which must surely drive such behaviors (cf. Rook 1987). It is, after all, "people, not products, who experience consuming impulses" (Rook and Hoch 1985).

Rook's (1987) inquiry provided a notable lift to the study of impulsive buying. In this study Rook utilized methods of phenomenological inquiry to go "inside the consumer," and provide a "thick description" (Geertz 1973) of this type of experience. His study demonstrated impulsive buying to be more than just unplanned purchasing; finding it to be instantly occurring, highly compelling, and hedonically complex. It is as if the consumer is momentarily possessed of forces beyond his/her control (Rook 1987). Such impulsive buying urges have been found to afflict nine out of ten consumers; at least occasionally (Welles 1986).

In complement to Rook's primarily affective account, this paper works to introduce a cognitive account of the impulsive buying experience. Specifically, it will be advanced that such episodes can be characterized by a holistic style of information processing on the part of the individual, which allows him or her to instantly, though perhaps inadvertently, map complex symbolic product meanings onto the self (Belk 1988; McCracken 1986); and in so doing, evoke the types of highly compelling responses described by Rook (1987). In effect, a partial realization of the consumer's deep-seeded, desired-self, is held out in the object in front of them.

Towards this account, this paper briefly reviews the extant literature on impulsive buying, reviews the literature on holistic information processing, and then integrates these perspectives into a unified account. With this as a base, the underlying role of this "self-object meaning-matching" is incorporated into the overall conceptualization. On the whole, it is hoped that this paper helps effect a convergence in the traditional and impulsive perspectives of consumer purchasing. The paper closes with a look at some of the future issues of this convergence.

As a caveat, this discussion is not intended to represent a comprehensive account of all forms of impulsive buying. Piron (1991) distinguishes between experiential impulse buying (the form considered below) and nonexperiential impulse buying. An example of nonexperiential impulse buying might be the spontaneous decision to buy a candy bar in a store checkout line. While certainly unplanned, this latter type of purchase seems an unlikely candidate for the types of complex experiences described by Rook (1987). Also, remembering that you were out of milk upon seeing it on the store shelf, though appearing impulsive, would again fall outside of the scope of the type of impulsive buying considered here.


As previously discussed, recent work in the area of impulsive buying has been largely informed by Rook's (1987) phenomenological investigation of the topic. Rook found that the requisites of the impulsive buying urge include: (1) a lack of preplanning by the individual whereby (2) a chance encounter with a product (or related stimulus) leads to (3) an immediate and powerful response, which, in turn, creates a state of (4) psychological disequilibrium such that the consumer feels momentarily out of control, and finally (5) this response is hedonically complex (see also Rook and Hoch 1985). To fully appreciate the depth and scope of the impulsive buying experience, this conceptualization is expanded along three lines: antecedents, characteristics, and outcomes.

Impulsive Buying Antecedents. The impulsive buying urge is unplanned. It appears to be set off when an individual incidentally encounters a relevant stimuli (usually the product itself) in the environment (Hoch and Loewenstein 1991; Rook 1987). Though considerable early research attempted to understand which classes of products would lead to such a response (see Bellenger et al. 1978 for a review), Rook (1987) provided that, since virtually any product could be impulsively purchased, the phenomenon was better considered person-centered rather than product-centered. This is not to imply that the product stimuli have not been found to play an important role (Cobb and Hoyer 1986; Hoch and Loewenstein 1991). Hoch and Loewenstein (1991) offer three product conditions which seem conducive to triggering the buying impulse: close physical proximity of the stimulus (e.g. the urge to buy is more likely to be evoked in a shopping mall than in one's office); close temporal proximity of the stimulus (i.e. the positive outcomes of making a purchase are believed to be experienced immediately, as opposed to at some distal point in time); and finally, a high social comparability of the stimulus. That is, an object is more likely to incite an impulsive response if the individual knows that others within his or her social circle already possess such an object.

Impulsive Buying Characteristics. In further describing what the consumer experiences when the impulsive buying urge takes hold, Rook (1987) identifies several themes: the impulsive buying urge appears to arise spontaneously; the impulsive buying urge feels intense; the impulse buying urge reflects animate forces; and the impulsive buying urge is synchronistic. The discussion of the first theme is rather straightforward. After an individual initially encounters a relevant stimulus he/she seems instantly and inexplicably drawn to it (Wolman 1973). What is of relevance is the speed and automaticity with which this appears to occur:

I was in the Pottery Barn browsing, and saw this crystal candle holder. It came over me instantly. (male-34 in Rook 1987, p. 193)

Coupled with the impulsive urge's swiftness is its intensity. Individuals often report feeling overcome by the need to make a purchase. This need demands satisfaction immediately, and may persist even after the stimulus is removed:

Once I can see it in my mind, it won't go away until I buy it. If I can see it, that's it. (female-55, describing a piece of jewelry in Rook 1987, p. 193)

Moreover, the need to possess the object often appears, to the individual, to go beyond a merely personal decision; it is as if the object itself comes to have a stake in the purchase:

The pants were shrieking "buy me," so I knew right then I had better walk away and try and get something else done. (female-35 in Rook and Hoch 1985, p. 25)

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, the consumer perceives an element of synchronicity; that is, the object is perceived to be "meant" for the individual:

It felt like something that you had been looking for for a long time had appeared before your eyes, and if you don't buy it now you won't have another chance. It is just the right place and time. (female-37, describing a pair of shoes in Rook 1987, p. 194)

As an additional note, the consumer buying episode may be fraught with emotion (Gardner and Rook 1988; Rook 1987; Weinberg and Gottwald 1982). These emotions often appear to be in conflict, though, at least initially, the individual seems enthralled with the possibility of making a purchase.

Impulsive Buying Outcomes. A resonant theme throughout the impulse buying studies is the momentary loss of control that accompanies these encounters. Ultimately there are, of course, two possible outcomes. The consumer may overcome the urge, and forgo the purchase; or, incapable of delaying reward, give in to temptation. When one gives in to the urge, a potpourri of thoughts and emotions may ensue. Rook (1987) reports that occasionally the elation is sustained as the appropriateness of the purchase is confirmed. Or, more likely, there are feelings of remorse as the monetary repercussions (and occasionally more serious issues such as health problems) become apparent (Gardner and Rook 1988; Rook 1987; Wansink 1994).

Finally, from the descriptions provided by Rook, and others, a critical outcome of the impulsive buying episode appears to be a strong bond which is effected between the individual and the product. Yet, Rook stops short of elaborating on exactly how this bond develops or why it is experienced so strongly. This paper attempts to address these gaps, offering a reconceptualization of the impulsive buying experience.


This paper suggests that one way in which impulse buying can be explained is by conceiving of it as a cognitive process consisting of two componentsCholistic processing and self-object meaning-matchingCwhereby the symbolic meanings of objects are holistically matched to salient images of the self. When such a match is effected, the result is a consumer who becomes instantly and powerfully aroused with a desire to possess the object; perhaps to the detriment of any more thorough consideration of the purchase ramifications. It was Thompson et al. (1990) who first proposed combining the perspectives of holistic information processing and self-object meaning-matching into a unified account of impulsive buying. Unfortunately, these researchers only suggested this possibility as an ancillary point in their discussion. A specific consideration of the potential of a holistic self-object meaning-matching account of impulsive buying is for the first time developed here.

Developing this account of impulsive buying presents somewhat of a challenge in that the topics of holistic information processing and of symbolic self-object meaning-matching are actually drawn from two rather different research traditions and, thus, can be most clearly addressed independently. Yet, effecting this separation is not straightforward because comprehending the fundamental role of either topic in this process requires at least a basic grasp of the role of the other topic. In an attempt to get around this dilemma, a brief sketch of the basic tenets of each axiom is offered immediately, after which a more developed discussion of each of these topics, especially as they relate to impulsive buying, is then pursued independently.

Holistic Meaning Matching: Conceptual Overview

It would appear that individuals have at their disposal two general strategies for processing information (Hutchinson and Alba 1991). Of these, the defining feature of holistic information processing is that incoming stimuli are processed as gestalt wholes where the individual determinants of a particular stimulus are collapsed into an overall representation of the object (Foard and Kemler Nelson 1984; Pomerantz 1981). In contrast, in analytic information processing, the processor attends to each individual stimulus characteristic in order to build-up a comprehensive understanding of the object (cf. Bettman 1979; Hutchinson and Alba 1991). Because the stimulus characteristics need not be individually attended to in holistic information processing, it offers the advantages of speed, and reduced cognitive effort (automaticity)(for a review see Kemler 1983; Smith and Kemler Nelson 1988). Holistic processing, characterized by this very undifferentiated style, similarly appears well suited to dealing with very abstract types of information such as object concepts and symbolic meanings of objects (Holbrook and Moore 1981). Conversely, the very deliberate nature of analytic strategies helps to insure comprehension accuracy though this typically comes in lieu of processing speed (Hutchinson and Alba 1991). While consumers' use of holistic information processing strategies has been widely discussed in consumer research (cf. Alba and Hutchinson 1987; Cohen and Basu 1987; Holbrook and Moore 1981; Hutchinson and Alba 1991; MacInnis, Moorman, and Jaworski 1991; MacInnis and Price 1987), it remains the more obscure of the two information processing styles.

Extending the discussion into self-object meaning-matching, the self appears to represent an integral part of information processing regardless of processing strategy used. Combs and Snygg (1959) summed it up nicely: "As the central point of the perceptual field, the phenomenal self is the point of orientation for the individual's every behavior. It is the frame of reference in terms of which all other perceptions gain their meaning." The self then, represents a semantic filter through which information from the social environment is perceived.

Similarly, the capacity for products to become infused with symbolic meanings, and thus, represent important extensions of the self, has been widely discussed within consumer research (cf. Belk 1988; Mick 1986; Solomon 1983). McCracken (1986) offers that such deep symbolic meanings become embedded in products through a society's institutions, such as fashion and advertising. The individual, in turn, may interpret these meanings as self-relevant, and adopt these products as their own. Though the mechanism McCracken provides to effect this transferCritualCis deliberate in nature, considerable evidence suggests that such transfers may also occur holistically (Markus 1977; Markus and Sentis 1982; Sentis and Burnstein 1979).

Whether deliberately or holistically arrived at, when there is a perceived congruence between the symbolic meanings of an object encountered in the environment and one's self-concept, the orientation of the individual towards this object will be intense (Belk 1988; Markus and Sentis 1982). Preliminarily then, the speed of holistic processing, combined with the strength of symbolic self-object meaning-matching appears to provide the explanation missing from Rook's (1987) discussion. To more fully substantiate this conclusion, we now consider each topic more extensively, especially as they tie back to previous understanding of impulsive buying.

Holistic Information Processing: Extended Review

Kemler Nelson (1993) suggests that most individuals appear capable of employing both analytic and holistic styles of processing. So why or when would a holistic information processing strategy be favored (or vice versa)? Based on the literature there appear to be three factors which largely determine the style of processing which will be employed: task characteristics, stimulus characteristics, and individual consumer characteristics.

Task Characteristics. As mentioned, in addition to being much faster, holistic processing is also considered to be less cognitively taxing than analytic processing. Thus, this style of processing will tend to be favored in situations where either the time available to process is quite short, or the amount of information to be processed is quite large (Foard and Kemler Nelson 1984; Kemler Nelson 1984; Ward et al. 1986). In line with this reasoning, Ward et al. (1986) suggest that, because the amount of information incidental in the environment is voluminous, processing commences holistically and then shifts to being more analytic as certain information is judged to merit further consideration. Some, however, have taken issue with making such a blanket statement (Smith and Kemler Nelson 1984).

Stimulus Characteristics. Certain types of stimuli also seem to lend themselves to being processed holistically, despite task characteristics. In general, the more complex the characteristics of the stimulus become the more likely the stimulus is to be processed holistically (Foard and Kemler Nelson 1984; Kemler Nelson 1993, Ward et al. 1986). This complexity may occur due to either the sheer number of characteristics associated with the stimulus or the abstractness of the characteristics associated with this stimulus. When the stimulus is characterized by a large number of tangible attributes, a holistic style of processing creates the potential for errors because important information may not be given adequate attention, or, conversely, irrelevant information may be given too much weight (Hutchinson and Alba 1991; Smith and Kemler Nelson 1984).

Individual Characteristics. Consumer characteristics also appear to play an important role in the processing strategy evoked. It is important to distinguish here, between processing styles and processing abilities. Processing style simply refers to one's preference for processing in a particular way; though, as mentioned, most adults are capable of switching between styles given sufficient reason (Kemler Nelson 1993; Smith and Baron 1981; see also Childers et al. 1985). Conversely, processing ability, which refers to the competence with which an individual selects and executes a processing strategy given a particular situation (Smith and Baron 1981). Though one's preferred processing style seems to be strictly a matter of individual taste, processing ability appears to be related to intelligence. A study by Smith and Baron (1981) found that less intelligent individuals were generally less capable of recognizing when to switch processing styles and consequently persisted in processing in an inappropriate style given the task and stimulus. Consequently, if the individuals preferred processing style happened to be a holistic one, and the task is better approached analytically, such individuals tended to be more error prone (Smith and Baron 1981).

Holistic Processing: Informing Impulsive Buying

Considering these characteristics of holistic processing, it appears that a case can be made for its role in impulsive purchasing. This section will lay out the basic tenets of this view by considering three central points: (1) holistic processing's role in the antecedents and characteristics of the impulsive buying episode; (2) holistic processing's role in the outcomes of the impulsive buying episode; and finally (3) a special consideration of how holistic processing might provide insight into the individual differences found in people's proclivity to impulsively purchase.

First, consider the antecedents and characteristics of the impulsive buying urge. Recall that the impulsive buying episode appears to be set in motion by information which was initially only incidental in the environment but was also immediately understood as highly self-relevant (Hoch and Loewenstein 1991; Rook 1987). Not only is holistic processing often used to process initially incidental information in the environment, but it also appears particularly adept at handling the highly abstract types of information associated with self-relevant symbolic product meanings. Next, the fact that the impulse buying urge appears to arise spontaneously or automatically further implicates a holistic processing style. It would appear more than chance that this low level of cognitive effort associated with the impulsive buying experience exactly maps to research suggesting that holistic information processing is also characterized by a low level of cognitive effort. Finally, the speed with which the impulse buying urge takes place offers the most compelling evidence that a holistic processing style is operational.

Second, consider the possible outcomes of the impulsive buying urge. The individual may resist the urge to purchase. Perhaps, this type of person is better able to shift processing styles in the manner suggested by Ward et al. (1986) and Smith and Baron (1981); and now more analytically considers the possible consequences of their decision. With this shift they better recognize the merits of deferring purchase and do so. Conversely, Holbrook and Hirschman (1982) and MacInnis and Price (1987) both note that highly self-relevant information will encourage elaborated aspects of fantasy, and possible imagery. Perhaps the salience of this meaning-match has encouraged the individual to become even more steeped in a holistic processing style. This momentary imbalance inhibits any more analytic assessment of the purchase situation and it is only later, when the balance is restored, that the consequences having made the purchase become fully apparent; hence regret.

Third, there is evidence that suggests a correspondence between general processing styles and vulnerability to impulsive buying. Developmental psychologists have found that children, who are notoriously impulsive, also appear largely incapable of processing information analytically (Smith and Kemler Nelson 1988; Zelniker and Jeffrey 1976). More strikingly, this impulsivity-holistic processing link has been similarly found in studies of adults (Smith and Baron 1981; Smith and Kemler Nelson 1984; Ward 1983). Though the amount of empirical evidence is limited, the general conclusion of these researchers seems to be that a holistic processor is predisposed to act only on their initial, gestalt perception, of a purchase situation because this is their principle way of comprehending new information.

Conversely, more analytic processors are more likely to attempt to consider all of the details of a particular situation. Such individuals appear to rotate the situation in mental space in order to try and understand it from numerous angles. By being more reflexive in their assessments, such individuals are more likely to recognize critical, but negative, information in a (purchase) decision (Smith and Kemler Nelson 1984). This finding is consonant with the initial discussion of individual processing styles, from which it can be inferred that, individuals who persisted in processing holistically, tended to set themselves up to making the types of errors typified in an impulsive purchase.

To this point, our extended discussion has considered how holistic processing might provide the mechanism by which impulsive buying is enabled. Yet, in opposition to the character of impulsive buying, it is perfectly plausible for stimuli to be processed holistically and yet not elicit any type of strong response from the individual. Thus, the second half of the equation, self-object meaning-matching, is needed to give impetus to the explanation of impulse buying.

Self-Object Meaning-Matching: Extended Review and Integration

A key part of explaining impulsive purchasing as a holistic matching process involves understanding how symbolic object meanings can become aligned with conceptualizations of the self. To this end, a discussion of self, and then of object meanings is developed and integrated.

The concept of the "self" is perhaps the defining topic of social psychology. Between 1987 and 1993 over 5000 articles on this topic specifically were published (Banaji and Prentice 1994). Basically, the concept of the self refers to the process of reflexivity whereby we are capable of being simultaneously both the subject and the object of our thinking (Gecas and Burke 1995). This reflexivity includes understandings of our attitudes, beliefs, values, identities, and affective states (Gecas and Burke 1995). In effect, our self-concept is who we perceive ourselves to be.

The self-concept is developed through the individual's interaction with the social and physical environments. Over time an understanding of the individual's position within this system becomes internalized as a cognitive schema of the self (Markus 1977; Markus and Sentis 1982). This self-schema or self-concept is believed to provide the fundamental basis against which all future interactions with the environment are evaluated (Markus and Wurf 1987). Moreover, once formed, the core self is believed to be stable but not static (Markus and Wurf 1987). As the individual interacts with the environment, there is an opportunity to refine this self-concept, moving it toward an ideal state. Markus and Nurius (1986) refer to this as the ideal self. It follows that as the self continues to evolve, individuals will seek out objects or relationships which symbolize or reinforce important notions of the self (or ideal self), while avoiding interactions which have equally opposing negative consequences (Markus and Nurius 1986; Sirgy 1982). When such a congruence of meanings is perceived between "the other" and the self, the individual's affinity towards that person or object will, not surprisingly, tend to be intense (Belk 1988; Markus and Sentis 1982; Sirgy 1982).

Approaching the topic from the opposite side of the dyad, a considerable body of literature within consumer research documents the potential of objects to carry symbolic meanings. By meanings, we refer to both the communicative and confirmatory properties of objects to either assert one's individuality within a society or, conversely, to help solidify important social bonds (i.e. symbolize the collective whole) (Solomon 1983). McCracken (1986) suggests that the process by which these symbolic meanings are initially embedded into objects occurs through such social institutions as fashion and advertising. Objects become tools of individual and social definition. As individuals, in turn, interact with their environment they come to understand the social and personal significance of these various object meanings. When these meanings are seen as congruent with important conceptions of the self (or ideal-self), the individual may be motivated to subsequently acquire and incorporate these objects (and their correspondent symbolic meanings) as an important part of his or her self-concept (Belk 1988, McCracken 1986; Mick 1986; Solomon 1983; Rook 1985).

Returning now to a consideration of impulsive buying, it can be suggested that this self-object meaning-matching provides a highly plausible explanation of why the impulsive buying experience is experienced as so compelling. Recall that individuals reported being momentarily driven to possess the object. For instance, these individuals characterized the impulse buying experience, in such ways as "the object came alive," or the "object felt meant for me." These feelings of an intimate bond with the object appear to describe exactly what the individual experiences in self-object meaning-matching. Both are characterized by a strong orientation by the individual towards the object. As a caveat, however, Rook (1985) provides evidence that this self-object meaning-matching process can occur quite deliberately through ritual forms of behavior. Thus, any empirical evidence that self-object meaning-matching also occurs holistically would do much to distinguish this account from Rook's (1985) and strengthen its plausibility as an explanation of impulsive buying instead.

There is a preponderance of evidence to suggest that this self-object meaning-matching process does occur holistically (at least part of the time). Research by Bargh (1984) found that people automatically process self-relevant information; experiencing events with themselves as the central focus. Similarly, work by Markus (1977) found that information which was self-descriptive tended to be processed in greater depth and faster than information which was only incidental. Markus suggested that this was possible because one's self schema is kept immediately accessible for information processing while other knowledge schemas must first be activated (this is also known as "top-down" processing; see Smith and Park 1989). Sentis and Burnstein (1979) replicated Markus's findings, and further suggested that such speed and depth was possible because stimuli were chunked or combined into larger, self-relevant units, and so could be processed holistically. Markus and Sentis (1982) concur, adding that such chunking obviates the need to attend to smaller details, thereby increasing processing efficiency and freeing up cognitive resources for other processes such as elaboration or inferencing (or perhaps fantasies?). As a caveat, of course, such depth of processing occurs with respect to the self, and as such, there is no guarantee that all important stimulus information will be considered. As an additional point, the evidence suggests that individuals are capable of assessing the self-relevance of even fairly novel stimuli through a kind of holistic inferencing; whereby understanding is derived from other similar and known stimuli (Markus and Sentis 1982). This suggests that even though the individual may never have seen the object in question (i.e. to be impulsively purchased), he/she is capable of discerning its symbolic meanings by referencing the symbolic meanings of other similar objects.

Summary of the Perspective Offered

To review, I have proposed that consumer research needs a more finely-tuned cognitive account of the impulsive buying phenomenon. Toward this possibility, this paper highlights two gaps in the domain where a cognitive perspective might potentially provide insight. The field has lacked an explanation as to why the impulsive buying urge is experienced with such speed and why it is experienced as so compelling. Toward an explanation, this paper suggests that conceptualizing the cognitive portion of the impulse buying episode in terms of holistic processing, whereby symbolic object meanings are mapped onto important conceptions of the self, provides a plausible explanation for both of these questions. From this discussion it appears reasonable that the strength of self-object meaning-matching and the speed of holistic information processing quite likely represent opposite sides of the same impulsive buying coin. Indeed, to conclude that a holistic self-object meaning-matching process provides a plausible account of the cognitive portion of the impulsive buying experience appears a sage one.


To date, a comprehensive empirical study of the cognitive aspects of the impulsive buying experience has not been undertaken. Yet, given that up to 40% of all department store purchases are made impulsively (Bellinger et al. 1978), it is perhaps time to give this issue more empirical attention. However, as with any investigation into cognition, undertaking such a study is complicated by the fact that it is not possible to directly access what is going on in people's minds. Add to this the fact that impulsivity is by nature unpredictable and probably extremely difficult to invoke under laboratory conditions and then the task of empirical investigation becomes even more onerous.

These concerns not withstanding, I would like to speculate (albeit quite tentatively) as to how one might undertake such an investigation. Given the highly complex nature of this topic I suggest a combination of qualitative and quantitative approaches. Basically three issues would need to be addressed. First, determining the nature of a purchase (planned versus impulsive) is needed. Since a laboratory setting does not readily lend itself investigating such a question, perhaps some form of more naturalistic inquiry (such as a mall intercept) could be used; whereby people would be confronted in the mall and, if willing, relate whether a particular purchase had been planned or not (malls are often replete with marketing research facilities so, providing arrangements could be made, this type of approach would seem to have merit). Having determined the nature of the purchase one could also try and determine if indeed the purchase reflected elements of product symbolism and self-meaning (the second issue which would need to be addressed). Methods of phenomenological interviewing would seem an appropriate technique to shed light on both of these issues. The Thompson et al. (1990) piece is an exemplary use of this type of technique in consumer research.

Finally, one would need to assess, to the extent possible, whether the person had likely utilized holistic information processing at the time of assessing their purchase. Since, in the approach suggested here, each individual is intercepted only after a purchase has been made, the window of opportunity to directly assess this type of information will have passed. Still, one might be able to get information which would serve as a proxy to suggest that, indeed, holistic information processing played a role in impulsive purchasing. Kagen's (1965) Matching Familiar Figures Test (MFFT), is designed to assess levels of impulsivity as well as levels of holistic processing in individuals. If individuals who scored high on the MFFT also reported in their pheonmenological interview making purchases impulsively, this would seem to support the holistic processing-impulsive buying link; rounding out support for a triadic relationship between impulsive purchasing, holistic processing, and self-object meaning-matching. Again, the proposed approach must, at this point, be considered very preliminary.

In providing a comprehensive perspective of impulsive buying, much theoretical work also remains to be done. For instance, a merger of both the cognitive and emotive aspects of impulsive buying likely needs to occur if we are to even hope to approach a full understanding of the complex phenomenon of impulsive buying. Unfortunately, we have barely scratched the surface of the link between cognition and emotion (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982; Isen 1984). Also, as previously noted, Piron (1991) argues that impulsive buying need not occur as the highly compelling experience assumed here; Rook (1987) also describes incidents when the impulsive need to purchase seems to arise spontaneously and is not directed at any particular object. Perhaps it is the act of buying itself which provides such self meaning for these consumers, but this is only speculative. In closing, impulsive buying appears to represent an interesting, multi-dimensional phenomenon which is likely to provide a fertile ground for future research.


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James E. Burroughs, University of Wisconsin-Madison


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23 | 1996

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