Abstraction Lends Enchantment

Can marketing predispose customers to not only make planned purchases, but also unplanned purchases?

Published: Jun 7, 2011 06:05:03 AM IST
Updated: Jul 4, 2011 03:45:30 PM IST

By definition, unplanned purchase decisions are made on location, in the store; if the customer enters the store with the intention to buy, then the purchase isn’t unplanned.  The store is the locus of decision, and those mark eters interested in stimulating unplanned purchases understandably focus on in-store factors that influence shoppers’ purchase decisions and on creating an environment that encourages those purchases.  What happens prior to the customer’s entering the store has traditionally been deemed inconsequential.

But is it wise to ignore what happens outside the store? Can marketing predispose customers to not only make planned purchases, but also unplanned purchases? With fellow marketing professors David Bell (Wharton School, USA) and George Knox (Tilburg University, The Netherlands), I investigate this question. Using diary panel data from 441 households in a Western European country, we examined several out-of-store factors that influence unplanned purchases.

During a two-week period in June 2006, diary panelists from participating households recorded the reasons behind their shopping trips, ranging from very abstract (needing to do a major food shop for the week) to very concrete (shopping for a meal to be consumed that same day). We also asked participants to identify their reasons for choosing a particular store(s) (e.g., convenience of one-store shopping or avoidance of long queues at checkout). During the study, the panelists made more than 3,000 shopping trips and purchased more than 18,000 items in 58 categories, from 23 stores.

We hypothesized that the more abstract the shoppers’ reasons for the shopping trip, the more likely they were—all other factors being equal—to make unplanned purchases at the store. The data supports this: when shoppers’ goals were at their most abstract, unplanned purchases increased 60%, which represented a 10% increase in overall spending.  

Store characteristics likewise affected shoppers’ predisposition to make unplanned purchases.  When shoppers chose a store for its low prices or for its attractive promotions, their unplanned buying increased 12% and 13%, respectively. When a store was chosen for the convenience of one-stop shopping, unplanned purchases also increased 12%. When shoppers chose a store for its assortment or service, there was no effect on their unplanned purchases, and when shoppers chose a store as one in a series that they planned to visit, or because they wanted to avoid congestion, unplanned purchases decreased11% and 12%, respectively.

Furthermore, we found that a positive interaction between out-of-store marketing and in-store marketing boosts unplanned buying. Out-of-store marketing is known to encourage customer planning, whereas exposure to in-store marketing leads to unplanned buying, so the two marketing instruments have always been assumed to work in opposing directions.  But, in reality, this turns out not to be the case. “When it comes to unplanned buying, in-store and out-of-store marketing can be mutually reinforcing,” we note in a recently published article in the Journal of Marketing titled: “From Point of Purchase to Path to Purchase: How Preshopping Factors Drive Unplanned Buying, “In-store and out-of-store marketing stimuli interact; it is not simply the case that out-of-store facilitates planning and in-store stimulates opportunistic behavior.”

The fact that more-abstract shopping goals lead to more unplanned spending offers validation for marketing campaigns such as Wal-Mart’s “Save Money. Live Better,” which encourage customers with philosophical reasons for shopping.  Such campaigns can plant the seed of unplanned spending even before the customer sets foot in the store. The Dutch retailer C1000’s slogan “Always Surprising, Always Advantageous” has a similarly abstract appeal.

The store characteristics that promote unplanned purchases (low prices, attractive promotions, one-stop shopping convenience) seem to give an advantage to big-box discounters.  However, if the shopping goal is abstract, even visits to other smaller or more boutique stores can result in increased unplanned purchases. We found that Stores of all types benefit when the shopper enters with an abstract goal.  There is a positive interaction, for instance, between an abstract goal and shopping in the traditional full-service supermarket format that results in an additional lift, over and above that from the abstract goal alone. This translates into an additional €2.10 per trip for the traditional full service supermarket.

Rather than thinking in terms of store characteristics or customer characteristics, however, the marketers must think in terms of shopping trip characteristics. We uncovered that trip-level factors greatly improve our ability to understand unplanned buying. This is important because it suggests retailers can stimulate unplanned buying at the level of the individual shopper. Some customers will be more prone to unplanned buying than others, but all can be induced to plan less and spend more.

While shopping trips with an abstract goal result in the most unplanned spending, even trips with more concrete goals may yield more unplanned spending if retailers consider shoppers’ reasons for making the trip. For example, knowing that certain shoppers will be coming to the supermarket with the relatively concrete goal of buying items for the evening meal, the supermarket can design out-of-store marketing reminding shoppers of how the supermarket helps them satisfy certain needs. A key recommendation is that focusing shoppers on a holistic goal—buying ingredients to prepare a meal—is likely to work better than encouraging them to buy specific products, such as chicken for $3.99 a pound. And in the meantime, stores can work on understanding of what happens before shoppers set foot in the store and how it affects the amount of unplanned buying they do when they get there.

Future research will examine whether these results obtained in Western Europe are comparable to other parts of the world, where deep discounters may not yet be as well established and where daily and weekly shopping patterns and motivations may differ substantially from those observed in the United States or Western Europe. Cultural factors are expected to be especially important. As for future research, we have just collected data from China—a country widely accepted as having a predominantly ‘collectivist’ culture.  We expect the relationships between abstract shopping goals and unplanned purchasing to hold but overall we anticipate less unplanned buying (all else held constant) in China relative to the United States, which is largely an ‘individualistic’ culture. Our preliminary analysis suggests this is indeed the case. In Western Europe and the United States, it seems clear that abstract exhortations to “Live Better” and reminders that the shopping destination is “Always Surprising, Always Advantageous” result in more spontaneous purchases. It remains to be seen whether this “abstraction effect” will also hold in emerging markets with very different cultural and socio-demographic dynamics.


**This text is based on an article published at the Marketing Science Institute. Issue of the (Marketing Science Institute) MSI Insight and Author: MSI Insight Fall 2010; FRANCESCA FORREST
Name of MSI Report (published 2010) “Unplanned Buying on Shopping Trips” (MSI Report No. 10-109)
Name of Journal of Marketing Report: David R. Bell, Daniel Corsten, & George Knox
From Point of Purchase to Path to Purchase: How Preshopping Factors Drive Unplanned Buying, Journal of Marketing, Vol. 75 (31 January 2011), 31–45

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[This research paper has been reproduced with permission of the authors, professors of IE Business School, Spain http://www.ie.edu/]

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