We are all guilty of making spur-of-the-moment purchases. Impulse buying yields instant gratification and is often triggered by emotion rather than an actual need. We know that it’s a bad habit, but we continue to give in to temptation anyway. Why? 

The easiest answer is that shopping is simply enjoyable—but there’s more to the story than that. In order to understand our impulse-buying instincts, we need to delve into sales and marketing tactics employed by stores and ecommerce websites. 


Retail stores adopted a psychological trick called the Gruen Effectnamed after the famous Austrian architect Victor GruenGruen revolutionized the shopping mall in America by designing intentionally confusing layouts and exciting, distracting displays that make shoppers more susceptible to impulse purchases. Though malls have been on the decline for years, general retail stores still make use of this tactic. The goal is to transform shopping from a means to an end into a savory, sensory-overload experience. This involves designing everything about stores, from the layout to the lighting choices, around making visitors forget about their original intentions and attract them to a variety of new products.  


Online retailers employ their own arsenal of strategies to increase impulse buying. According to a study detailed by Futurity, the most common online impulse-purchase items are clothing, household items, children’s items, beauty products, electronics, and shoes. In order to increase these purchases, ecommerce sites adopt “social influence” features, such as recommending products based on what other people bought. They can also offer conditional free shipping and run online-exclusive sales. Though websites cannot employ the Gruen Effect, studies have shown that great web design drives higher sales—further proof that aesthetics and emotion have a huge effect on how we spend our money. Lastly, it helps if sites are mobile optimized to reach shoppers from anywhere.

Psychology Drives All 

Some tactics are based on such deep-rooted psychological concepts that they are common to both physical stores and ecommerce 

For example, both take advantage of loss aversion. This psychological concept describes our innate worry about doing something that will make us regretful in the future based on the perception of losses outweighing gainsGiant, limited-time discount displays in stores play on our fear of missing out on something good. Online discounts with countdown clocks, “exclusive” offerings, and low stock warnings are even more effective at creating a sense of urgency around products that we may not really need. 

Heuristics is another concept that retailers take advantage of. We use mental shortcuts to make fast decisions, rather than consciously and critically weighing every single shopping choiceSo, by offering a product in bulk or claiming that a package includes a “free” additional item often tricks buyers into thinking they are receiving a good deal before they actually compare price points.  

Retailers benefit off recognizing all these underlying reasons why we impulse buy. Understanding the psychology behind impulse buying behavior can help consumers examine their purchasing habits as well as allow retailers to take advantage of those habits to increase sales.