The Science Behind Impulse Buying

The old adage, “Don’t go grocery shopping on an empty stomach” has more validity than you may think. Researches have discovered at least some situations that trigger impulse buying — and not just at the grocery store. Since consumers are the virtual “dead animals on the street” to marketing vultures, it pays to be one step ahead of the game. The ScienceDaily article, “Aroma Of Chocolate Chip Cookies Prompts Splurging On Expensive Sweaters,” provides information that may keep you from the poor house.

At the National University of Singapore researcher Xiuping Li conducted two experiments, both aimed at learning about consumer behaviors. First, Li had participants of two groups decide what lottery they would like to participate in. One lottery paid more money than the other but the participants had to wait a longer time period before they received the money. In the second lottery, participants received a smaller amount of money immediately. Before choosing, participants were either: a) showed a picture of appetite stimulating pictures of food, b) pictures of nature, or c) no picture at all. A higher percentage of people who were shown the appetite stimulating pictures of food choose the lottery with the smaller, but immediate winnings.

In the second study, participants either shopped in a room with an unscented candle or in a room with a cookie-scented candle. The women exposed to the yummy smelling candle made more unplanned purchases than the other group. In fact 50% more women made purchases in the cookie room even though both groups were told that they had a tight budget.

Both studies reveal that stimulating the appetite causes people to crave immediate gratification, even if the actions aren’t in their best interest. Does this help explain why so many people overeat? Is the site and smell of the food enough to stir up an “impulse mindset?”

I’m not sure I want to imagine how marketers are going to use this information. In the future will furniture give off the aroma of warm bread? Will our TV’s come equipped with scent boxes so that the Home Shopping Network can blast some apple pie smells our way as they showcase the latest in porcelain clowns? And don’t forget the kids. Pretty soon toy stores may smell like big bags of cotton candy. And how about that Strawberry Shortcake Doll, was it really her cute red hair that made her popular? I don’t know the answers but you can bet that the results of this study will soon manifest themselves in a store near you.


Xiuping Li. The Effects of Appetitive Stimuli on Out-of-Domain Consumption Impatience. Journal of Consumer Research February 2008.

University of Chicago Press Journals. Aroma Of Chocolate Chip Cookies Prompts Splurging On Expensive Sweaters. ScienceDaily 12 January 2008.

J. R. White

J. R. White is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin. She has over five years of experience in education and pedagogy.
See All Posts By The Author