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You’re not a shopaholic — it’s just shopping momentum

Emily Crone

How often do you go shopping with the intent to purchase one item, but end up splurging on a shopping cart full of goods? Think it’s because you lack willpower or have a shopping addiction? Actually, Stanford researchers have a name for this phenomenon — shopping momentum — and it happens to the best of us.

Marketing researchers at the Stanford Graduate School of Business conducted a series of tests on purchasing behavior to discover why people always leave stores with much more than they came for. “They found that for most people buying that fateful first — and often innocent — item seems to open the purchasing floodgates,” a press release on the research says. “This realization…has important implications for how stores are laid out as well as for understanding individual behavior.”

The researchers contend that shopping consists of two stages.  First, shoppers deliberate about their first purchase. They weigh the costs and benefits and try to determine how much they need the item. Once that period of deliberation is over, successive buying takes over, and “a subtle psychological mechanism comes into play.” Uzma Khan, one of the researchers, says that’s when things get dangerous. “People in this transition go from thinking from their mind to thinking from their cart. The cart takes over. Once that happens, a roller coaster of shopping can begin.”

That initial purchase creates shopping momentum, though most people aren’t aware of this effect. How can you make it stop? One suggestion is to pay for things separately. Having to open a wallet a second time creates another deliberation point, which forces you to think twice about spending more dinero. The researchers also found that the more luxurious the first purchase, the more guilt shoppers feel, so the less likely they are to buy another item.

The study’s findings can help retailers learn how to reduce customer deliberation points, making you less likely to think and more likely to splurge. Placing “momentum starters,” or necessities such as newspapers and umbrellas, at the front of the store that don’t require much deliberation gets the shopping off to a quick and easy start. Placing luxurious and guilt-inducing items toward the back of the store also encourages more purchases, since shopping is often curbed when the luxurious items come first. If you are aware of these tactics, perhaps you can avoid being manipulated.

Other methods stores can use to reduce your shopping inhibitions are to have fewer checkout counters available and to consolidate the point of sale into one final register. For example, in department stores, people often check out separately in each area, which may help shoppers rein in the spending, since they have to deliberate about the purchase each time they open their wallets. If you have impulse shopping problems, you may want to stick with department stores. The researchers also suggest buying the more luxurious or indulgent item first. You are less likely to continue shopping after that.

So how does this relate to credit cards? Think about it. If you go shopping with a debit card or cash, you are limited in how much you can spend, thus minimizing the momentum. But if you go in with a credit card with a limit of $5,000, your shopping cart will pile up with greater ease. You have no set spending limit, so you deliberate much less for each purchase. If you often find yourself overspending and putting items on your credit card, you need to begin shopping with cash or a debit card only. You should also bring a shopping list and strictly adhere to it, putting your blinders on when you walk past things you aren’t there for.

My clever colleague, Julie Sherrier, just came up with an idea that I love: a debit card that allows you to set a temporary spending limit before you go shopping. If you need to buy one or two things from Target (my store of overspending sin), you would go online and set a temporary debit card limit of $50. When you went to shop, you couldn’t spend more than that amount, even if you tried to. Brilliant! Has anyone heard of anything like this? Because I think it should be invented, pronto.

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