Understanding impulsive buying

Researchers have been trying for years to discover what makes consumers indulge in impulsive buying behavior.

Donovan, Rossiter, Marcoollyn & Nesdale (1994) linked impulsive purchases to the consumer’s mood or emotional state. For example, a positive mood “was more conducive to impulse buying than a negative mood.” It seems that when a consumer has a feeling of pleasure related to the shopping environment or process, those pleasurable feelings lead to increased spending.

Ditmar et al (1995) found there was a relationship to the consumer’s sense of self identity. Researchers have hypothesized that “impulse purchases were more likely to be items that symbolize the preferred or ideal self.”

Finally, Bellenger, Robertson, & Hirschmann (1978) discovered links to demographic factors, such as age. Research has shown that shoppers under 35 were more prone to impulsive buying behavior, a trait that drops off sharply after age 35.

However, the most interesting research on impulsive buying behavior has been Kacen & Lee’s (2002) work on comparing cultural dimensions to impulse buying, particularly Hofstede’s cultural dimensions of individualism and collectivism.

By way of background, individualism focuses on the individual’s sense of self, personal needs and desires, and individual pleasures; most westernized societies (US, Europe) are individualist cultures.  In contrast, collectivism focuses on interdependence with one’s family and social groups, emotional control, and moderation; most Asian societies are collectivist cultures.

Kacen et al. research showed, despite “a highly developed shopping culture in Asia”, Asian customers were far less apt to engage in impulsive buying. While it was found that many of these consumers shared the same level of impulsive traits as someone from an individualist culture (i.e. variety seeking, sensation seeking, and risk aversion), they are able to suppress this trait and “act in a manner consistent with their cultural norms”, i.e. show emotional control and moderation, in shopping situations.

Conversely, their research also showed that those impulsive traits described above resonated more deeply in individualist cultures, which translated into western consumers impulsively, almost rabidly, purchasing items that suited those traits.

From a marketer’s perspective, it proves once again that communication messages developed in the United States do not perform equally well in other cultures.


Kacen, J., Lee, J. (2002). “The influence of culture on consumer buying behavior.” Journal of Consumer Psychology. 12 (2), pp. 163-176.


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