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Impulse Buying Essay

ABSTRACT – Much of the work on impulse buying has been concerned with defining and measuring the concept. Less effort has been directed toward determining the factors that underlie the tendency to buy impulsively. This study looks at the relationship between impulse buying tendencies and three general personality traitsClack of control, stress reaction, and absorption.

Additionally, this study identifies several different types of internal states and environmental/ sensory stimuli that serve as cues for triggering impulse buying. Internal cues include respondents’ positive and negative feeling states. Environmental/sensory cues encompass atmospheric cues in retail settings, marketer-controlled cues, and marketing mix stimuli. Relationships between the three personality traits and specific impulse buying cues are also examined, along with differences among high and low impulse buyers in their sensitivity to various cues. [ to cite ]:

Seounmi Youn and Ronald J. Faber (2000) ,”Impulse Buying: Its Relation to Personality Traits and Cues”, in Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, eds. Stephen J. Hoch and Robert J. Meyer, Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27 : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 179-185.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 27, 2000 Pages 179-185
Seounmi Youn, University of Minnesota
Ronald J. Faber, University of Minnesota


Much of the work on impulse buying has been concerned with defining and measuring the concept. Less effort has been directed toward determining the factors that underlie the tendency to buy impulsively. This study looks at the relationship between impulse buying tendencies and three general personality traitsClack of control, stress reaction, and absorption. Additionally, this study identifies several different types of internal states and environmental/ sensory stimuli that serve as cues for triggering impulse buying. Internal cues include respondents’ positive and negative feeling states. Environmental/sensory cues encompass atmospheric cues in retail settings, marketer-controlled cues, and marketing mix stimuli. Relationships between the three personality traits and specific impulse buying cues are also examined, along with differences among high and low impulse buyers in their sensitivity to various cues.


Impulse buying has been considered a pervasive and distinctive phenomenon in the American lifestle and has been receiving increasing attention from consumer researchers and theorists (Rook 1987; Rook and Fisher 1995). Prior studies on impulse buying have frequently focused on the definitional elements distinguishing impulse from non-impulse buying (Cobb and Hoyer 1986; Piron 1991;Rook 1987), and providing a theoretical framework for examining impulse buying (Burroughs 1996; Hoch and Loewenstein 1991; Rook and Fisher 1995; Rook and Gardner 1993). Several recent studies have attempted to develop and validate scales to measure the impulse buying tendency (Rook and Fisher 1995; Weun, Jones, and Beatty 1997).

However, while research interest has been growing, we are still just beginning to learn about the factors that affect impulse buying. Impulse buying may be influenced by internal states or traits experienced by consumers, or by environmental factors. Researchers have attempted to determine if people who frequently engage in this behavior have some common personality traits. Other researchers have suggested that internal states and environmental cues can serve to trigger the impulse to purchase.

The purpose of this paper is to build on these prior studies by examining the relationship between impulse buying and some relevant personality traits, as well as to identify common internal and external cues that trigger impulse buying. Moreover, this study is also concerned about how personality traits are related to cues, and whether high and low impulse buyers would differ on the degree to which they are sensitive to various cues.


For over fifty years, consumer researchers have strived to form a better definition of impulse buying. Early studies on impulse buying stemmed from managerial and retailer interests. Research in this vein placed its emphasis on the taxonomic approach to classifying products into impulse and non-impulse items in order to facilitate marketing strategies such as point-of-purchase advertising, merchandising, or in-store promotions. This approach is limited by a definitional myopia, which simply equates impulse buying to unplanned purchasing (Bellenger, Robertson, and Hirschman 1978; Kollat and Willet 1967; Stern 1962). In response to this definitional problem, researchers began to focus on identifying the internal psychological states underlying consumers’ impulse buying episodes (e.g., Rook 1987; Rook and Gardner 1993; Rook and Hoch 1985). Impulse buying was redefined as occurring “when a consumer experiences a sudden, often powerful and persistent urge to buying something immediately. The impulse to buy is hedonically complex and may stimulate emotional conflict.

Also, impulse buying is prone to occur with diminished regard for its consequences” (Rook 1987, p. 191). In the same vein, Hoch and Loewenstein (1991) explained the impulse buying as a struggle between the psychological forces of desires and willpower. The shift in defining impulse buying has drawn particular attention to systematically investigating factors that may underlie or cause impulse buying. This work includes examinations of the mood-impulse buying relationship (Gardner and Rook 1988; Rook and Gardner 1993); the relationship between affective states, in-store browsing, and impulse buying (Jeon 1990); the holistic processing and self-object meaning-matching in impulsive buying (Burroughs 1996); and the normative influences on impulse buying (Rook and Fisher 1995).

Despite considerable efforts devoted to the theoretical framework, little success has been found in relating personality traits to impulse buying. Although several early investigators addressed the relations between personality traits and impulse buying, they failed to find significant results (Cobb and Hoyer 1986; d’Antoni and Shenson 1973; Kollat and Willet 1967). The lack of significant findings may have been due to the fact that these studies: 1) defined impulse buying as unplanned buying, 2) looked at the elationships of irrelevant personality traits, and/or 3) used inadequate measures for their constructs.

Personality Factors Potentially Related to Impulse Buying

Several measurement instruments and models of personality exist. One which may have particular value for studying impulse buying is the Multidimensional Personality Questionnaire (MPQ) developed by Tellegen (1982). This instrument was developed in an exploratory manner over a period of 10 years (Tellegen and Waller, in press). Items originally based on personality attributes identified in prior models were developed, tested, refined and revised by empirical testing. The final instrument identified 11 primary personality dimensions (Tellegen 1982). They are wellbeing, social potency, achievement, social closeness, stress reaction, alienation, aggression, control, harm avoidance, traditionalism, and absorption. Among these 11 dimensions are three that seem to have particular relevance for the study of impulse buying. These dimensions are: Lack of Control (or Impulsivity), Stress Reaction, and Absorption. A Lack of Control (or Impulsivity).

Control relates to the individual’s characteristic mode of monitoring impulse. When dimensionalized, the underlying continuum is conceived of as representing excessive containment of impulse and delay of gratification versus an insufficient modulation of impulse and an inability to delay gratification. Controllers are reflective, cautious, careful, rational, and sensible. They like to plan their activities (Tellegen 1982). On the contrary, impulse-ridden individuals are spontaneous, reckless, and careless; they prefer to “play things by ear.” Their decisions are made rapidly and their emotional fluctuations are readily visible. They tend toward immediate gratification of their desires even when such gratification is inconsistent with the reality of their situation or their own ultimate goal. Impulse buying may be one manifestation of this personality traitBrepresenting a lack of control. Preferring planned-out activities seem to be counter to prior definitions of impulse buying.

Control would also run counter to Hoch and Loewenstein’s conceptualization of impulse buying since it should provide people with the ability to maintain high levels of willpower. A generalized lack of control or impulsivity would therefore seem to be a potential contributor to impulse buying behaviors. Stress Reaction. Stress reaction represents systematic individual differences in the frequency and intensity of responding to situational cues with negative emotional states (i.e., anxiety, anger, distress, and guilt). This negative emotionality is experienced under daily hassles or everyday life conditions rather than intense pressures such as death or divorce (Bar-Tal, Cohen-Mansfield, and Golander 1998). Stress reaction is characterized by salient themes such as tension, jumpiness, and worry-proneness.

Highly stress-reactive people may view their own emotional responses as unwarranted overreactions or even as inexplicable. They acknowledge responding “catastrophically” to the minor mishaps and setbacks that have been referred to as “daily hassles.” They feel vulnerable and miserable without reason. They are nervous, sensitive, easily upset, irritable, and troubled by feelings of guilt (Tellegen 1982). This chronic negative emotionality may lead people to engage in behaviors that can provide some relief. At an extreme level, compulsive buying has been hypothesized as serving a mood management function relieving the painful feeling of people who are particularly prone to experiencing negative affective states (Faber and Christenson 1996). Prior research on impulse purchasing has found that a sizable majority of people report feeling “better” following an impulse purchase (Gardner and Rook 1988).

Therefore, highly stress-reactive people may be more likely o engage in impulse buying in order to escape from the negative emotional states they more frequently (or more intensely) experience. For highly stress-reactive people, it is speculated that the short-term gratification accompanying impulse buying would enhance their positive self-feelings and mood states. They may have greater difficulties with feeling deprived by not buying or by delay of gratification. For stress-reactive people, impulse buying can be viewed as a means of coping with stress. Thus, it is hypothesized that stress reaction would be positively associated with the likelihood of engaging in impulse buying. Absorption. Absorption is a tendency to become immersed in self-involving experiences triggered by engaging external and imaginal stimuli (Tellegen and Waller, in press).

Highly absorptive persons are more likely to have unusual and unconventional thinking and to be able to suspend disbelief. More specifically, they: 1) are emotionally responsive to engaging sights and sounds; 2) are readily captured by entrancing stimuli; 3) think in images and synaesthetic and other crossmodal experiences; 4) become absorbed in vivid and compelling recollections and imaginings; and 5) experience episodes of expanded awareness and altered states. Absorption is an interesting construct for consumer research because it can play a role in how people respond to environmental and sensory cues, including those that influence the purchase and consumption of products.

Marketer-created environmental and product factors including colors, smells, sounds, textures, and locations can increase the likelihood of engaging in impulse buying (Eroglu and Machleit 1993; Mitchell 1994). Work in absorption indicates that people may differ on the degree to which they are sensitive to these stimuli. Accordingly, we hypothesize that people with high absorption levels will more easily be caught up in external sensory stimulation, and thus, more likely to engage in impulse buying.

Cues That Trigger Impulse Buying

Many different factors have been suggested as triggering the impulse to purchase. By and large, triggers are divided into two typesBexternal cues and internal cues (Wansink 1994). External cues are specific triggers associated with buying or shopping. They involve marketer-controlled environmental and sensory factors. Internal cues refer to consumers’ self-feelings, moods, and emotional states. Recent studies have stated that atmospheric cues in the retail environment (i.e., sights, sounds, and smells) are important triggers that can influence a desire to purchase impulsively (Eroglu and Machleit 1993; Mitchell 1994). Also it has been suggested that marketing innovations such as credit cards, cash machines, instant credit, 24-hour retailing, and telemarketing make it easier than ever before for consumers to buy things on impulse (Rook 1987; Rook and Fisher 1995).

Additionally, marketing mix cues such as point-of-purchase, displays, promotions, and advertisements also can affect the desire to buy something on impulse. Consumers’ emotions or affective states have been regarded as potent internal triggers for impulse buying. It is speculated that impulsive buyers are more likely to be responsive (or sensitive) to their emotional conditions than non-impulsive buyers (Rook and Gardner 1993). For impulsive buyers, their affective state can stimulate pursuit of the immediate gratification that buying provides. In fact, recent work has proposed that buying impulses may be partially motivated by a desire to change or manage emotions or mood states (Gardner and Rook 1988; Rook 1987; Rook and Gardner 1993). Impulse buyers were found to be more likely to buy on impulse in both negative moods and positive moods than non-impulse buyers. The results suggest that impulse buyers are more prone to act when experiencing hedonically charged moods regardless of their direction. Thus, it is expected that both positive and negative affective states are closely ted to the tendency to engage in impulse buying.


Sample. Data were collected through a self-report survey conducted at a large Midwestern university during the fall of 1997. Undergraduate students were recruited from an introductory communication course. Students received extra credit in return for their participation. Overall, 135 students participated in this survey. The majority of respondents (82%) were between the ages of 18 and 25, and most were female (73%). Eighty-one percent reported their annual income as under $20,000. Measurements. The survey instrument consisted of items designed to measure: (1) three personality traitsBLack of Control, Stress Reaction, and Absorption; (2) impulse buying tendency; and (3) a variety of cues influencing the likelihood of engaging in impulse buying. The three personality traits examined here were measured using the appropriate sub-scales from the Multidimensional Personality Inventory (Tellegen 1982). Respondents are asked to indicate if each statement is a “true” or “false” description of themselves. The lack of control (or impulsivity) sub-scale was measured using 24 items (e.g., “People consider me a rather freewheeling and spontaneous person”).

Stress reaction was comprised of 26 items (e.g., “I often find myself worrying about something”), and 34 items were used to assess absorption (e.g., “Some music reminds me of pictures or changing color patterns”). To minimize response reactivity, statements reflecting any one trait were randomly interspersed with statements assessing other traits. A confirmatory factor analysis reproduced stable factor structure of three traits, and all three traits produced high internal consistency (a=.87 for lack of control, a=.90 for stress reaction, and a=.89 for absorption). The mean of lack of control=9.05, SD=5.8, the mean of stress reaction=12.52 and SD=6.7, and the mean of absorption=16.2 and SD=7.5. Scores of each trait were aggregated for subsequent analysis. The tendency to engage in impulse buying was assessed by the “buying impulsiveness scale” developed by Rook and Fisher (1995). This scale consists of nine items (e.g., “I often buy things spontaneously”). Respondents rated their level of agreement with each item along a 5-point continuum ranging from (1) “strongly disagree” to (5) “strongly agree.”

A confirmatory factor analysis supported a unidimensional conception of buying impulsiveness (Rook and Fisher 1995). This scale demonstrated high internal consistency with an alpha of .89 (mean=27.3, SD=7.9). Individual items of this scale were summed into a single scale for further analysis. Cues were examined by using a self-report checklist that included 207 different cues. Respondents were asked to circle any cue on the list that, if encountered or experienced, would increase their likelihood of making an impulse buy. Most cues were just a single word. Five different categories of cues were examined. They dealt with locations, objects, activities, circumstances, and feeling states. The first four categories typically referred to environmental (or external) factors such as sensory stimuli, marketing mix elements, retailing practices, or marketing innovations cues. Locations included places such as shopping malls and departments.

Activities involved behaviors such as traveling, collecting things, or making another purchase. Among objects, items such as food, beer, shoes, cosmetics, money, advertisements, and clothing were listed. Circumstances included being alone, being late, being busy, as well as events such as Christmas and birthdays. The last group of cues represented internal affective feelings such as emotional states or moods. Included here were items such as feeling happy, anxious, self-indulgent, stressed, hurt, and angry. Most of the items on the list were drawn from the exiting literature and from the authors’ experiences in researching this topic. Other items were borrowed from a checklist used to assess cues that trigger various pathological behaviors (Mackenzie, Ristvedt, Christenson, Lebow and Mitchell 1995).


Relationship of Impulse Buying Tendency to Personality Traits The first question posed was whether or not the personality traits were related to impulse buying tendencies. To explore this possibility, a correlation analysis was conducted. As expected, the tendency to engage in impulse buying was most highly correlated with a Lack of Control (or Impulsivity) (r=.46, p<.001). The impulse buying tendency was moderately associated with Stress Reaction and Absorption (r=.20, p<.05, in both traits). A multiple regression analysis found that only lack of control yielded significant beta (b=.44). Overall, the three personality variables accounted for a little over 20% of the variance in impulse buying tendencies.

Identification of Triggers for Impulse Buying

The second issue examined here was to identify common cues that trigger specific episodes of impulse buying. This part of the study provides essentially descriptive explanations for commonalties among these triggers. Of the 207 cues examined, the mean number of cues checked was 32.78. Twenty cues were endorsed by at least one-third of the sample and seven cues were mentioned by at least half of the respondents as being items that would increase the likelihood of making an impulse purchase (see Table 1). A large percent of respondents identified cues that were directly associated with shopping and buying. These include: having money (60.0%), receiving money (45.9%), money (40.0%), a favorite store (37.8%), credit cards (36.3%), and shopping malls (34.1%). Several other items reflect getting good deals on purchases. Included here were: items on sale (53.3%), low prices (48.1%), free samples (43.7%), free gifts (41.5%), coupons (36.3%), and a bargain (33.3%). Cues involving occasions or circumstances were also frequently mentioned.

These cues included events such as birthdays (53.3%), Christmas (50.4%), and holidays (34.8%), and circumstances such as having leisure time (45.9%), being on vacation (45.9%), and being with friends (44.4%). Finally, several cues representing feeling states were mentioned such as feeling happy (51.1%), wanting something (45.9%), feeling self-indulgent (40.0%), feeling good about yourself (37.0%), and feeling hungry (35.6%). Differences of Cue Sensitivity Between High vs. Low Impulse Buyers The next question we posed was to identify whether people who are more prone to engage in impulse buying would differ in the types of cues that triggered this behavior. Prior to investigating this question, it was first necessary to categorize cues through data reduction. To assure sufficient variance, cues that were mentioned by less than 10% of the respondents were eliminated. Then, an exploratory factor analysis was performed on the remaining items, with a Varimax rotation.

Factors with eigenvalues over 1.0 were retained. Reliability tests on each factor were then carried out, and factors with a Cronbach’s alpha of less than .60 were removed. To improve internal consistency, items that lowered alpha were also discarded. Exceptions to this rule were made only when inclusion of an item aided interpretability. After refinement of items, a factor analysis was conducted again over the remaining items, and finally yielded a 15-factor solution (see Table 2). This factor structure accounted for 65.4% of the total variance. Cronbach’s alphas for all factors were determned to be acceptable, ranging from .64 to .78. For each factor, the raw scores were aggregated for subsequent analysis. The basic dimensions of the cues that stimulate impulse purchasing were labeled: “positive feelings,” “advertisements,” “visual elements,” “feeling fat,” “clothing and looks,” “food,” “depressed feelings,” “price,” “promotional gifts,” “holidays,” “music,” “painful feelings,” “new products,” “alcohol,” and “gambling.”

These factors represent both environmental and sensory stimuli associated with buying or shopping cues, and respondents’ positive/negative feeling states. To examine differences in cues affecting high and low impulse buyers, we included data from just respondents who scored in either the upper or the lower 33% on the buying impulsiveness scale. People scoring in the middle third were eliminated to provide groups with a more clear-cut difference in their impulse buying tendency. Differences were analyzed using t-tests for each cue factor (see Table 3).

Higher means indicate higher endorsement for each factor. Respondents who scored high on the buying impulsiveness scale were more likely to be sensitive to “advertisements”(t=3.91, p<.001), “visual elements” (t=2.95, p<.01), “promotional gifts” (t=2.05, p<.05), “clothing and looks” (t=2.84, p<.01), and “feeling fat” (t=2.37, p<.01), than respondents scoring low on this scale. Differences in the impact of “positive feelings” and “depressed feelings” on the impulse buying of the two groups approached, but did not reach, significance (p<.10). In both cases, high impulse buyers were more likely to indicate that these cues effected them more than did low impulse buyers. TABLE 1

Relationship Between Personality Traits and Cues

The final research question was to determine if the three personality traits are related to different types of cues that trigger impulse purchases. For this, a correlation analysis was run. The stress reaction trait showed a positive correlation with negative feeling states such as “depressed feelings” (r=.37, p<.001), “feeling fat” (r=.25, p<.01), and “painful feelings” (r=.23, p<.01). Surprisingly, this trait was also moderately correlated with the “positive feelings” (r=.18, p<.05) factor. The findings imply that stress-reactive people are more responsive to their feeling states as triggers for impulse buying.

As might be expected, absorption was positively associated with “visual elements” (r=.30, p<.001), “music” (r=.22, p<.01), and “clothing and looks” (r=.18, p<.05). For highly absorptive people, environmental and sensory cues such as sounds, sights, and smells play an extensive role in influencing their impulse purchases. Interestingly, the lack of control (or impulsivity) dimension was linked only to one type of [email protected]” (r=-.20, p<.05). The negative association implies that it is people who have high levels of control who are the most likely to respond to sales or bargains.


This study has primarily been concerned with finding constructs that explain impulse buying behavior. The results provided substantial support for the significance of personality constructs (Bagozzi 1994; Moore 1995) and situational factors (Belk 1975) in understanding impulse buying. Three general personality factors, lack of control, stress reaction, and absorption, were found to related to impulse buying tendencies. The lack of control dimension demonstrates that a general characteristic of impulsivity may lead to acting impulsively in a specific consumption context. The association with stress reaction suggests that impulse buying may serve a mood regulating function for some people.

Finaly, the relationship between absorption and impulse buying suggests that some people may be particularly susceptible to environmental stimuli that can contribute to their impulsive behavior. The examination of cues that trigger impulse buying found fifteen factors underlying impulse buying. These can largely be divided into two
primary dimensions. One dimension reflects the environmental and sensory factors. These include atmospheric cues in retail setting, marketer-controlled cues, and marketing mix stimuli. Specifically, these cues include “advertisements,” “visual elements,” “clothing and looks,” “food,” “price,” “promotional gifts,” and “music,” that are related to buying or shopping. TABLE 2


The other dimension represents factors that relate to respondents’ feeling states. These include “positive feelings,” “depressed feelings,” “feeling fat,” and “painful feelings.” Both positive and negative affective states appear to be potential triggers for impulse buying. This supports Rook and Gardner’s (1993) claim that impulsive buyers are more prone to buy on impulse when experiencing mood states of either positive or negative hedonic tone. The relationship of personality traits to cues that trigger impulse buying provides heuristic value in understanding the roles personality traits can play in impulse buying. In fact, the data here suggest that there may be several different routes through which people become susceptible to impulse purchasing. Absorption was strongly correlated with external stimuli such as sensory cues (i.e., sights, sounds, and smells) and images (e.g., looking in a mirror). Thus, a general tendency to be influenced by sensory stimuli leads some people to be more aware of, and affected by, atmospheric factors in retail settings.

It is this heightened awareness or sensitivity to environmental stimuli that causes increased desire to overwhelm one’s willpower and leads these people to engage in impulse buying. Stress reaction also seems to underlie impulse buying, but through an entirely different route. Stress reaction was associated with internal triggers for impulse buying such as “feeling fat,” “depressed feelings,” “painful feelings,” and “positive feelings.” This relationship was particularly strong for negative affective states. This suggests that primary motivation for buying on impulse for the subset of consumers susceptible to stress is relief (or escape) from stress and anxiety. These people may also desire to prolong positive mood states as an escape from their problems. This may account for the relationship between stress reaction and the impact of positive cues.

Finally, a lack of control (or impulsivity) had a negative, moderate relationship with “price.” This may be interpreted as indicating that less impulsive people tend to be concerned with “smart buying” by utilizing good deals. Thus, those who demonstrate the greatest amount of control in their lives are susceptible to impulse buying for rational, rather than affective, reasons. They do so to get a good deal, rather than because of a great desire for the product or to influence their mood state. This may be manifested by a reduction in willpower since price is no longer as large a deterrent. This study identified differences in cue sensitivity among people scoring high versus low on the buying impulsiveness scale. Interestingly, high impulsive buyers were shown to be more reactive to factors reflecting external triggers, compared to low impulsive buyers. These triggers mainly involve environmental, sensory, and product stimuli controlled by the marketer (e.g., advertisements, promotional gifts, visual elements, and clothing and looks). As a result, retailers may be able to play a key role in determining the types of impulse purchases made by people who are prone to engage in impulse buying. Several important limitations must be kept in mind when considering the results of this study.

The use of a convenience sample of students is an obvious limitation here. It is necessary to replicate the findings using a mor general sample of consumers. Regarding methodology, we suggest employing experimental procedures when further examining internal feeling states and environmental cues that lead to impulse buying. Another limitation may arise from the theoretical perspective applied here. Bagozzi (1994), and Moore (1995), have indicated that the contribution of personality concepts lies not in their power as main effects, but rather in their role as moderator variables. Indeed, the link between two of the personality traits, absorption and stress reaction, with impulse buying was rather weak. Future support for the existence of these linkages is needed to increase our faith in them.

Additionally, there is a need to develop alternative theoretical frameworks that examines the moderating role of the personality trait in studying impulse buying. Overall, this study has attempted to further develop our understanding of the causes of impulse buying. This behavior may well stem from several different causes that include broad personality characteristics, as well as specific short-term states and environmental stimuli. The relationship of the underlying personality factors and the specific stimuli that trigger specific episodes of impulse buying seemed both logical and useful, and is deserving of further study.


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