10 Ways Online Retailers Can Increase Impulse Buys

April 2021


What is impulse buying?

One of the earliest definitions of impulse buying is by consumer psychologist Rook, D.W. (1987), who explained in his book, "The Buying Impulse", that it occurs when a consumer experiences a sudden, often powerful and persistent urge to purchase something immediately. Impulse buying is hedonically complex and can stimulate emotional conflict.

What proportion of online shoppers makes impulse purchases?

Historically, brick-and-mortar has outperformed online shopping when it comes to driving impulse purchases. A Whistl study, for example, found that 59% of impulse buyers do so in the supermarket, whereas for online channels this figure was 54%. The same study found that Brits spend over £3 billion on impulse buys per month, over £47 per person. This survey of 1,106 members of the British public found that the majority of online impulse purchases take place on eBay and Amazon, the most popular reasons being that they were getting a good deal (46%), they were up late at night, tired, and browsing online (39%) and that they'd had a drink (24%).

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More recently, internet penetration and e-commerce adoption accelerated by 5 years in a matter of months, which means more of these impulse buyers are now shopping online, and with the decline in high-street retail, retailers must increasingly capitalise on consumers’ impulsive tendencies via their digital real estate. There are a wide variety of methods that can be learned from in-store retail and applied to the online shopping environment. There is also a multitude of eCommerce-only tactics that can be implemented to drive impulse purchases, and impulse adding to the basket, to existing orders that were going to happen regardless.

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In this article, we detail 10 different ways online retailers can tap into consumers’ hedonistic desires in a way that is genuinely valuable to them.

1. Conditional free upgrades

With 94% of consumers more likely to make a purchase due to free delivery, free upgrades can be a strong motivator to encourage impulse buys. For some retailers, this is not possible, but for the majority, this can be built into the product price. Calculating your current Average Order Value (AOV) and offering free shipping above a certain AOV (for example, 20% above your current AOV), can encourage consumers to increase their basket value.

Impulse buyers demand fast delivery whether they have to pay for it or not; the Whistl survey found Under 24s were most impatient, with only 16% saying they were happy to wait a week, compared to 38% of over 65s. Therefore, another tactic can be to offer free upgrades to premium delivery options at the point of checkout.

Consumers love surprises, especially impulse buyers, so during gifting seasons, consider offering free gift-wrapping and personalisation, and product samples, which can either be managed in-house or by an outsourced e-commerce fulfilment centre.

2. Encourage up-sell

Impulse buying doesn’t just have to be from new potential customers, it is also possible for your existing customers, and customers who were going to buy from you regardless, to also make impulse purchases to add to their existing order. You can encourage up-sell to existing orders by recommending relevant products, by carefully mapping out your product range to ensure relevant products are offered at checkout and during the buying journey, but ensure you don’t achieve the reverse and make them buy a cheaper or less profitable alternative.

Offering bulk buying discounts on individual, or groups of products, such as tiered volume-based pricing, and ‘3 for the price of 2’-type offers can also encourage consumers to buy complementary products that enhance their overall buying experience. For example, if they were already buying a parasol, make sure they don’t forget to buy a parasol base.

A final tactic to encourage up-sell is to recommend products that are ‘Frequently bought together’ to ensure consumers don’t experience ‘Fear of Missing Out’ (FOMO).

3. Train your live chat and phone staff to take payments and encourage up-sell

As detailed in the last section, online shoppers can buy impulsively in addition to their already-planned purchases. Many consumers will call your customer service team and so this is another opportunity to encourage up-sell. By equipping your live chat and inbound phone call handlers with better product knowledge, they will be able to educate your prospects and customers about products that will complement their existing orders. During spikes in demand driven by seasonal changes and campaigns, working with a specialist inbound call handling specialist can help ensure you can capitalise on web-to-phone consumer demand.

4. Social media product tagging

Social media platforms are powerful in their ability to drive impulse buys, word-of-mouth recommendations, and endorsements, and other than your own website, they give you the greatest amount of control by encouraging potential and existing customers to buy from you at the spur of the moment. Thanks to the recent launches of Instagram Shops and Facebook Product Tagging, it’s now easier than ever for your followers to buy your products without even leaving the social media platform.

5. Gamification

Humans are naturally competitive, and online retailers can tap into their powerful reward mechanism with an emerging method called gamification. Tactics such as prize giveaways, timers on offers, encouraging sharing of a product page to access a discount code and tiered rewards programmes are all ways online retailers can encourage consumers to make unplanned, emotionally charged purchases.

6. Limited-time offers

An opportunity to save money with sales promotions offers can be perceived as advantageous by the consumer, which enhances the chances of product purchase (Kchaou & Amara, 2014; Reid et al., 2015). By remarketing an offer to visitors who did not convert on the first visit, or encouraging converters to sign up to a loyalty programme, will ensure your brand remains at the back of their mind next time they have a hedonistic desire for a product just like yours.

7. Send and automate email campaigns

There are two distinct audiences you can engage with via your email marketing platform to encourage impulse purchases; your existing customer base and your email subscribers who aren’t yet customers.

While your customers may not make an impulse purchase on their first visit, you can still incentivise impulse purchases further down the line via email to customers who are waiting for a discount offer. According to research by invesp, more than 64% of online consumers wait to buy things until they go on sale, whereas more than 59% search for promotional codes before buying anything online. Around 30% of online consumers sign up for price tracking services to get an email when price drops for the item they want to buy, whereas 22% of consumers purchase products from their preferred brands only when on sale or with coupons.

Another recommended tactic is to set up triggers to email your customers when they abandon their cart or spend a certain amount of time on a particular product page. If they have already opted-in to your marketing funnel, these triggers can be powerful ways of driving conversions.

8. Offer prize giveaways with relevant partners

The vast majority of your potential customers will only land on your website because they are already in the buying cycle, which is great, but what about customers who aren’t currently in the buying cycle, but are likely to love your product? By partnering with a company that shares a similar target audience to you and running a prize giveaway combined with an offer, this is a clever way to generate impulse purchases while increasing your brand exposure and growing your opt-in database.

9. Enhance your CRO (Conversion Rate Optimisation)

Many impulse purchases are prevented by poorly optimised ‘buy it now’, ‘add to cart’ buttons, and checkouts. Making your online store interactive, attractive, and easy to navigate, will encourage customers to engage with your products. Videos, 3D photography, and social proof such as Trustpilot reviews can all help encourage your customers to buy on impulse, as can recommend related products, reminders of offers, and live sales notifications. Most importantly, for the sake of your users’ experiences and search engine optimisation, your online store needs to be as fast and responsive as your e-commerce platform allows.

At the point of checkout, it’s of critical importance that you are offering your customers sufficient and appropriate delivery options to match impulse buyers’ increased urgency and their demand for in-flight services.

10. Utilise social listening tools to find impulse buyers

Our final recommended tactic to encourage impulse buys is to use either a social listening tool or advanced search on platforms such as Twitter, to find potential customers who have unmet needs in real-time. For example, if there is a trending topic on Twitter that aligns with your product offering, this is where you and your brand can join the conversation to add value and connect with potential customers to encourage in-the-moment sales.

​​​​​​Final thoughts on maximising your impulse sales

As with all recommendations, it is important to test these changes before rolling them out across your entire digital real estate. Carrying out customer surveys to find out why they didn’t buy can help you understand what is stopping your store from generating impulse sales. Sometimes they are willing to make an impulse purchase, but your website lacks clarity. Sometimes your product could be out of stock. Your online store is unique so your circumstances could vary wildly from another e-commerce business. Above all else, ensure your digital assets are as attractive, informative, and user-friendly as possible to capitalise on consumers who are ready to buy right now.

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