Image: Liberty by Marshall Segal.
*appears from nowhere*
Now, where were we?
Impulse purchases don’t have a particularly good image. They’re generally associated with a moment of weakness, a lapse of self-control, overly spontaneous judgement, and a certain degree of irresponsibility or recklessness. But it’s not always like that, right? There are those unplanned purchases that actually turn out to be good choices – they fill a gap, they fulfill a need, they’re useful or constructive even though their arrival in your life was never intended.
It’s just a matter of semantics. If you make a spontaneous purchase that was grounded in an emotional response to an item and the item doesn’t necessarily fulfill a clear need – sure, that’s an impulse buy. However, if you make a spontaneous purchase that was grounded in a rational realisation that a particular item suits your needs, it doesn’t need to have negative connotations associated with it just because the decision was made in a short time period. It’s not an impulse purchase – it’s an opportunistic purchase.
I just thought people might like to add that term to their lexicons. It’s useful, pertinent, and also doesn’t automatically lead to the feeling of needing to provide justification for a purchase – no more “It was an impulse buy, but it’s ok because…”. Just say it was an opportunistic purchase.
I learned the term from a paper (Massara et al. 2013), which reports a study looking at how the two types of unplanned purchases – opportunistic puchases and impulse purchases – occur throughout the time-course of a shopping experience. Basically the findings were that impulse purchases become more likely towards the end of a shopping excursion, possibly because you’ve worn down your inhibitory control processes that guided your shopping behaviour towards the start. You start off trying to plan what to buy and remember what you need (and to assess possible opportunistic purchases) but that is cognitively demanding and therefore might wear down your mental resources that you use to control your thoughts and choices and not be too impulsive. So the lesson is: use a shopping list so you know what you need, then get the hell out of the shop before your cognitive control is so depleted that you end up making terrible impulse purchases.
As an aside, I actually participated in a vaguely related study when I was an undergraduate student. The idea in that study was that if I performed poorly on some task and felt bad about it, my self-control would be depleted and I’d give up more easily – and the researcher thought that would be applied to the context of shopping, in which you would go around shops trying to find an item you wanted to buy, but if you couldn’t find it after much searching (i.e. you performed poorly), you’d be cognitively worn out and you’d kind of just give up, at which moment you might make a stupid, poorly considered purchase. To test that they made participants do a commonly used, cognitively demanding task called the Stroop test (you can kind of have a go at it yourself here), and then gave the participants feedback about their performance on that test. Participants’ actual performance didn’t matter – a randomly chosen half of them were told their performance was well above average, and the other half were told their performance was below average. They were then asked to solve a maze puzzle, the trick being that the maze could not actually be solved – there simply was no solution. The hypothesis was that the participants who were told they were crap at the Stroop task would feel bad and useless, and would give up on the maze puzzle sooner. The problem with me as a participant was that I had actually done the Stroop test plenty of times and I knew how well I could do it – but I was assigned to the “you did well below average” group, so when I was given that feedback, I was pretty suspicious (even though of course I did not know that was part of the experimental manipulation until later). When I did the maze puzzle, I guessed it was insoluble, so I gave up pretty quickly. I guess the researchers should’ve screened participants to make sure they hadn’t done the Stroop test a million times before and would therefore be suspicious if given unexpected feedback. Eh.
(A second aside: thanks to people who apparently haven’t taken me off their RSS readers or their Bloglovin or whatever, whether via concerted decision or mere inaction. I was doing things like running a huge study and getting awarded my PhD – celebration time!)