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Do You Really Love It or Is It Just on Sale? Actually, You’re Motivated!

Do You Really Love It or Is It Just on Sale? Actually, You’re Motivated!

Riley T. Krotz and Farnoush Reshadi

Why do consumers make unplanned (e.g., impulse) purchases, and what can retailers do about it? In their recent publication, Jacob Suher and Wayne D. Hoyer (2020) sought to address this very question. In an average shopping trip, consumers make many unplanned purchases, but the reason behind these purchases was unknown. In fact, most retailers thought that the motivation behind all unplanned purchases was the same and treated them as such. – Spoiler alert: that’s a marketing mistake! Through a combination of two field studies and five online experiments, the authors distinguish the different motivations for unplanned purchasing and provide multiple strategies for retailers to increase these unplanned purchases.

The key is understanding consumer motivation.

Unplanned purchases can result from internal (e.g., “experience the difference” or “try something new”) or external (e.g., “low price” or “forgotten need”) purchase motivations. Not only are there different types of motivations, but motivations are dynamic. As a result, within a single shopping trip a consumer’s internal versus external motivations for making unplanned purchases can change, and these motivations can be influenced by in-store marketing.

Specifically, the authors discovered that a consumer’s personality trait of impulsivity can predict whether she focuses on internal motivations (“I love it!”) or external motivations (“It is on sale!”). This is great news for retailers. Based on these findings, retailers can increase the impact of their in-store marketing tactics by creating entrance and exit displays that appeal to both the internal and external motivations for unplanned purchases. These findings provide actionable insights to retailers who can increase unplanned purchases by matching their in-store marketing tactics to different consumer motivations.

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Highlights from the Article

  • Consumers have various motivations for unplanned purchasing. Internal motivations are those that are based on hedonic desire, curiosity, or spontaneity. External motivations for unplanned purchasing include motivations for receiving economic rewards, satisfying a forgotten need, normative influence, and functionality.

  • Consumer motivation for unplanned purchasing can change within a single shopping trip.

  • Retailers can use non-price tactics to increase spending on unplanned purchases.

  • A dynamic retail communication strategy should aim to achieve message diversity across a consumer’s shopping trip.

  • Dynamic targeting with digital displays can increase the relevance of point-of-purchase messages by changing from internal to external or from external to internal motivational appeals.


Generating the Research Question

            As is the case with many of the most exciting research questions, the impetus for this work arose from a conversation between the two authors. During a discussion of past shopping trips, the authors realized that each had made multiple unplanned purchases in a single visit, though for different reasons. Based on their discussion of their own unique (and different) experiences, the authors generated the idea that there may be heterogeneous in-store shopping motivations, and then they sought to discover how these unplanned purchases might change within a shopping trip. They were curious—do consumers engage in unplanned purchases, and, if so, are they for different reasons?

Research Methodology

Through the journey to answer their research question, the authors utilized a mixed-method approach combining both field and experimental studies. According to the authors, the advantage of using a mixed method approach is that researchers can address questions of external and internal validity. After observing the phenomenon in the real world using descriptive analysis, two in-store studies were conducted: an in-store intercept study and a video-tracking study. According to the authors, the in-store video tracking study was quite fun and shoppers also enjoyed participating in the study; however, the coding process of the video data was very time-consuming. Ultimately, it was time well-spent as these two studies generated rich behavioral data in a real-world consumer setting and also provided evidence for the external validity of their findings.

In addition to the field studies, several online controlled experiments were conducted to test the proposed psychological process of motivation and explore the potential managerial implications of their framework. These online studies allowed the experiment to overcome the limitations of a physical store by randomly ordering product categories and allowing for the manipulation of their moderating variables, such as trip budget and in-store signage.

What Does this Mean for Retail Managers?

It is critical for retail managers to understand that consumers have heterogeneous motivations for in-store unplanned purchasing, and consumer motivations change during the shopping trip as they try to balance both their internal and external motivations. When a consumer makes a purchase due to internal motivations, she will then be more likely to make another purchase due to an external motive and vice versa. The order with which internal and external motivations are activated depends on the consumer’s impulsivity. Highly impulsive consumers are more likely to make an unplanned purchase with an internally focused motive at the beginning of their shopping trip. Conversely, low impulsivity consumers are more likely to start shopping with an externally focused motive. As a result, retailers must adjust their point-of-purchase messages based on these novel insights.

The dynamic pattern of motivation balancing is also likely to be observed in online retail purchasing. With the abundance of rich data that online retailers collect from consumers and the dynamic design of web applications, online retailers can dynamically display products and messages that correspond to an individual consumer’s shopping motivation. For example, the online grocery shopping studies in this research provide evidence that successfully appealing to consumers’ changing in-store motivations can increase unplanned purchases.

What Does this Mean for Academic Researchers?

Not only does this work provide actionable strategies for marketing and retail managers but it also provides insights for the academic community. Specifically, the authors establish a conceptual framework that addresses how the motivations that underlie unplanned purchases may vary during a single shopping trip. Scholars focusing on retail strategy, consumer motivation, or shopper marketing can all find this work useful in their own research. Additionally, this work also establishes managerially-relevant boundary conditions that scholars can consider in their own work, such as dynamic motivation patterns and a budgetary focus. For those scholars considering the use of video tracking or in-store intercept studies in their own work, the present research provides a healthy reference for operationalizing and implementing these strategies.

Future Work in Retailing

The authors also provided their insights on possibilities for future work in the area of retailing. Additional research can consider how shopping motivations can change across the different phases of a complete consumer journey, from need recognition to purchase and post-purchase behaviors. In addition, consumers’ motivations for unplanned purchases can be studied beyond the brick-and-mortar or walls of a retail store. There is an unprecedented opportunity to discover motivations for unplanned purchases in non-traditional digital retail settings such as commerce on social media and with voice-activated digital assistants. From a consumer welfare perspective, future work can explore strategies that consumers can employ to help them manage their own motivations and help them avoid unwanted impulse purchases. Similarly, a potentially fruitful avenue is an exploration of whether reconciling opposing motivations during a shopping trip can enhance the overall retail experience.

In the end, regardless of whether consumers actually love a product or if it’s just on sale, it all boils down to motivation.

Read the full article:

Jacob Suher and Wayne D. Hoyer(2020), “The Moderating Effect of Buying Impulsivity on the Dynamics of Unplanned Purchasing Motivations,” Journal of Marketing Research, 57 (3), 548–64. 

Riley T. Krotz is a doctoral candidate in marketing, Yates Fellow, and AACSRE Emerging Research Fellow, University of Tennessee

Farnoush Reshadi is a doctoral candidate in marketing, West Virginia University