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Spring 2008
I’ll Take That, Too: Increasing Impulse Buys

Strategic Placement

Step into In-Courage in San Antonio, and you’ll see three items near the point of sale: a basket of chocolate-covered sunflower seeds, a drawer display of Lady Primrose lip balm, and a seasonal item such as a talking gnome or a singing mariachi bear (which owner Patti Harbin has found is extremely popular during the city’s Fiesta celebration). What do these three things have in common? They’re all strategically placed to generate impulse buys.

A chunk of the spending pie

The most comprehensive study of impulse purchases was performed in 2002. According to the study, conducted by Leo J. Shapiro and Associates for Marketing Support Inc. of Chicago, almost one-third of all consumers make a sizable impulse purchase every week. The median purchase was reported to be $30. Of specific interest to gift-store retailers, the study found that about 25 percent of impulse purchases are made in specialty stores.

What makes a good impulse product?

Susan Noyes, manager of retail operations at the Shops at South Shore Hospital, in South Weymouth, MA, says instant gratification plays an important role in impulse buying.

So what factors constitute a good impulse product?

It should attract attention. Color plays a big role, says Noyes. Products that are noisy, sparkly, jiggly, furry, fuzzy or soft also work. The ability for a customer to interact with a product—touch it, smell it, taste it, even push a button and listen to it—helps increase impulse buys. “Get them to touch it,” says Noyes, “once they touch it, they have to have it most of the time.” This is when color, texture and purpose of an impulse item come into play. A fuzzy bear, a sparkly lip balm and an item that makes noise are all options for point-of-sale impulse buys, because they motivate customers to pick them up.

It has to be uncomplicated. Harbin says that impulse products shouldn’t require explanation or demonstration. Harbin says the key to an impulse purchase is to not have the emotional impulse interrupted. “If they have to ask you for information, it creates that little bit of time for them to think on it, and it will kill the impulse,” she says. If the item’s use is apparent, like lip balm or jewelry, customers are more likely to make an impulse buy. “If you want the customer to pick it up and buy it, especially while they are waiting to check out, then it has to be evident as to what it is,” says Sylvia Killion, owner of Sylvia’s By The Sea and The Runway at Sylvia’s in Scituate Harbor, MA.

Another important contributor to successful impulse items is the ability for the customer to have a personal connection to a product. Custom jewelry and personalized items, such as mugs and key chains, work for this reason. Doug Fleener, retail consultant and owner of Dynamic Experiences Group, in Lexington, MA, says products that “tell a bit of a story” work well for specialty retailers.

A good impulse item is small and can be picked up easily, especially while purchases are being rung up.

Location, location, location

While the point of sale is a common location, it isn’t the only place in the store that can be used to promote impulse buying. Retail consultant Lynn Switanowski, owner of Boston-based Creative Business Consulting group, a retail consulting firm, says related impulse items can be grouped around a prominent seller. For example, you can place items that might belong in a handbag—lip gloss, eyeglass holders and pens—around a display of handbags.

Using this principle, Harbin has strategically placed a WellSpring Flip Note display in her stationery area, and has found that location has worked extremely well for impulse buys. “It is just so hot,” says Harbin. “You have that display sitting right there, and it’s not in your face, it goes along with the stationery.”

Harbin has also found that frequency or repetition throughout a store helps to encourage impulse purchases. For example, a collection of candles can be displayed in the candle area of a store, with the bath-and-body display, in the dinnerware area and in a birthday area and integrated into the display. It works so well that Harbin has developed a store slogan she shares with her staff: “Repetition makes the purchases grow larger.”

Of course, the point of sale is one of the best places to encourage impulse shopping because customers are already in a purchasing frame of mind while they are there. Killion says she often thought impulse buying was driven by price, but has seen that location is important too. Her store has done best with products in the front of the store, near the checkout.

Fleener cautions against placing too many products at the point of sale. “Unfortunately, what a lot of retailers do is just try to cram as much into that space as possible, so you can’t even put your product down that you’re buying,” says Fleener. The key is prominence and customers’ ability to interact with the product. If items are stacked, they won’t stand out, and a customer won’t touch or interact with the items.

How can I increase impulse shopping in my store?

One of the most important ways to encourage an impulse purchase is to create the right display. Make your displays eye-catching and prominent. Colorful displays (especially when color is grouped dramatically for effect) are a tremendous way to attract attention. When items compete for attention, they can be overlooked. Have your displays focus on one main impulse item positioned near the front of the store, or to the right, as customers walk in, so it is the first thing they see.

Keeping impulse items fresh is important. If a customer visits your store monthly and sees the same impulse items at the counter, they will lose their impact. How often you change your display depends upon how frequently an average customer visits your store, advises Fleener. Changing every month or two is generally advised. However, Fleener also stresses that choosing unique and interesting impulse items is more important than switching items frequently.

Customer interaction is the other critical aspect of an impulse purchase. Often it only takes a sales associate or a cashier to point out the product, and a customer will add it to their sale. Here are some good examples of staff-initiated customer interactions:

  • “Have you seen these new bracelets?”
  • “I can’t believe we placed these lip balms out yesterday and they’re already almost gone.”
  • “We have this new pen in, did you see it? It writes [when held] upside-down.”

Opportunity also plays a role in the occasional impulse buy. Each holiday presents an opportunity to showcase an impulse item. Capitalize on Valentine’s Day by setting out stuffed animals and candy, and take advantage of Christmas by placing ornaments. Retailers who set out umbrella displays on rainy days are capitalizing on opportunity.

Impulse buys can add a significant amount to retailers’ bottom lines each year. Learning to merchandise impulse items to catch customers’ eyes, making the items accessible to customers, taking advantage of opportunities to sell and simply pointing impulse items out to customers can have a dramatic effect on impulse sales.


Annette Elton

Based in Boulder, CO, Annette Elton covers business and marketing topics and has ghostwritten several books including an Amazon bestseller. She can be reached at annette@amb-creative.com.

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