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Shopping’s siren call

Sat., Nov. 26, 2011

While impulse buying is widespread, WSU study shows it can be controlled

Kathi Nygaard left her home in Potlatch, Idaho, with a carefully scripted Christmas shopping list: Pots, pans and a Magic Bullet blender for her 20-year-old son, who’s getting ready to leave home. Boots, slippers and shirts for her daughter. Barbie dolls for her two great-nieces …

But during 12 hours of marathon shopping on Friday, including stops in Pullman and Coeur d’Alene, Nygaard also threw a few extra items into her cart. She bought a $248 laptop computer at Wal-Mart and an electric roaster at Shopko, which she thinks cost about $40.

“It said ‘Sale,’ so I went ahead and bought it,” Nygaard said.

The siren call of Black Friday specials proved irresistible to many shoppers, who left the malls with extra shopping bags and additional credit card charges.

Impulse buying – the sudden, powerful urge to purchase an item immediately – accounts for more than $4 billion in retail purchases annually, according to consumer research. Given the struggle that many people have resisting slick marketing pitches, researchers have long sought to understand how consumers can suppress the urge that leads to spontaneous purchases.

A new study from Washington State University’s College of Business suggests that simple mental and physical exercises can help. In as little as two weeks, WSU students who performed regular mental or physical tasks were less tempted to engage in impulse buying.

The study indicates that people can strengthen their self-control through regular exercise. “It’s like a muscle,” Jeff Joireman, one of the study’s authors, said of self-discipline.

During the study, some students were asked to do daily exercises to improve their posture through sitting up straight and walking erectly. Others engaged in mental acuity exercises. Control groups didn’t do any behavior modification.

The study asked students to rate how likely they were to purchase a shirt on special at the mall with a credit card. In the fictitious scenario, the students’ bank balance had dropped to $40 – just enough to buy a pair of shoes they needed.

Two weeks of either mental or physical exercise strengthened the students’ will power, yielding similar gains in their ability to resist impulse buys. That means either regular pilates workouts or daily crossword puzzles could benefit susceptible consumers, Joireman said.

For retailers, impulse purchases are a strategic way to boost profits. Department store entrances are jammed with enticing bargains this time of year: costume jewelry, leather gloves, luggage, coffee makers, cordless drills and cashmere sweaters. “Morning Special!” and “Buy two, get third 50 percent off” ads can be hard to resist.

Spontaneous purchases aren’t all bad, said Joireman, who differentiates impulse buys from compulsive shopping, which is a disorder. For the consumer, impulse purchases provide immediate gratification.

“I can think of a number of things that I bought on impulse that were fun,” Joireman said. “But if those impulse buys stretch consumers beyond what they can actually afford, that creates a cascading downward effect. The regret comes later when they get their credit card bill.”

Nygaard and her husband had previously discussed buying a laptop, so Friday’s sale purchase wasn’t entirely an impulse buy, she said. She also thinks that she’ll get good use out of the electric roaster, which is large enough to cook a turkey.

At the Spokane Valley Mall, Dottie Gallaway also made an unplanned purchase on Friday – a diamond ring and necklace set at J.C. Penney’s for her daughter’s upcoming birthday. Her daughter, who was with her, liked the setting, and by acting immediately, Gallaway said she got a bargain.

After a series of markdowns and Black Friday discounts, she paid about 15 percent of the original price.

People’s aptitude for exercising self-control in various settings has long intrigued Joireman, a social psychologist and assistant professor in WSU’s marketing department.

“High levels of self-control predict a lot of really good outcomes in people’s lives,” including the ability to stay out of debt, sustain long-term relationships and stay healthy through regular exercise and good eating habits, he said.

Some personality types are more inclined to impulsive actions.

But even the most self-disciplined among us occasionally leaves a store with a spur-of-the-moment purchase, whether it’s a bag of pita chips from Albertsons or a $159 leaf blower from Home Depot.

Whatever an individual’s innate level of self-control, mental or physical exercise can strengthen it, Joireman said.

He encourages people not to wait until New Year’s to set fitness and financial goals. Heading to the gym early in the shopping season could yield payoffs in both areas.

“One of the really interesting implications is that by Jan. 1, it may be too late,” Joireman said. “Maybe the best time to exercise and build up your control is before Black Friday.”

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