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What is an Impulse Buy?

By Cassie L. Damewood
Updated: May 17, 2024

An impulse buy, also called an impulse purchase, is a spur-of-the-moment act of buying an item without considering need or logic. The purchase can be as small as a candy bar or as large as an automobile. An impulse buy may happen only occasionally or be a habitual practice.

The most common type of impulse purchase is usually perceived to be a small one made at checkout stands. Retailers normally stock these aisles with small, inexpensive items that shoppers tend to add to their chosen purchases while they are in line waiting to be helped. These items generally include small confections such as candy bars and gum as well as sundry items such as playing cards, disposable razors, writing pens and packaging tape. The goods merchants choose to place in these locations tend to be based on assumed needs of the general shopper population and low cost.

Another popular scenario that often prompts an impulse buy is a sale table or rack. Shoppers frequently spot a sign that advertises hugely discounted items and start loading their shopping carts with the bargains. There is normally no forethought given to the actual need for the products, as the decision is generally based solely on the cost savings involved.

Some consumers are excited by a certain symbol that they identify with, such as a logo, celebrity name or flag. A good example is the placement of a sports team logo on items that have nothing to do with the sport or the team. Many people are drawn to these items and will buy goods they have no use for based solely on the logo.

All these types of impulse buying normally cost the consumer, at worst, a little embarrassment or remorse once they get home with their purchases and consider their compulsive behavior. However, one type of impulse purchasing can be very expensive and may have long-term detrimental effects. This is the impulse buy that often occurs in an automobile dealership showroom. Even though the scenario is quite common and is frequently portrayed in television and film, consumers seem to fall for it every day. A potential car buyer browses the showroom offerings, generally determined to make no purchase and merely gather information. In a relatively short period of time, a persuasive salesperson can successfully excite the prospective buyer into making a purchase on the spot. The buyer frequently doubts the hasty decision in a short period of time.

Ongoing studies on impulse buying suggest various reasons for the phenomenon. Some experts point to the human need for instant gratification as the cause for the behavior. Others tend to believe the act is based on internal fears of running out of commodities such as food or drink. Another theory suggests shoppers need to make a purchase of an item not on their list to exercise their right to spontaneity.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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