Few marketing devices trigger consumers’ impulse buys more effectively than an ice-cream van jingle on a hot summer’s day. 

Responding – by buying an ice cream – is one of those moments when a shopper’s decision is driven by a sudden immediate need: “I’m hungry, I’m thirsty, I want a treat, I’m in a hurry.” But just as often, shopper purchasing behaviour is rooted in a rational planning-led approach. The classic supermarket weekly shop, for example, is about prioritising time and cost efficiencies, whether it’s buying in bulk or doing a big shop in one place.

Andrew Dunbar, GM EMEA, Appnovation
By Andrew Dunbar, General Manager EMEA, Appnovation

On the surface, these two modes of consumer behaviour are at loggerheads – the Impulse Loop (below) portrays this tension really well:

Savvy marketers have always known that the intersection between delayed and immediate gratification represents an interesting sales opportunity: how can you encourage consumers to make a delayed gratification purchase during an impulse buy and how can you get them to make an impulse buy when they are on a planned shopping trip where they are “buying for later”?

Buy one, get one free is a way to inject an element of delayed gratification into an impulse purchase. Conversely, checkout treats are a tried and tested way of introducing a few impulse purchases into the most meticulously-planned big shop.

While most of us recognise this dual approach to purchasing in our own shopping journeys, ecommerce is leading to a reduction in impulse buying – and with it, retailers’ ability to solve consumers’ immediate needs. An increase in home deliveries means fewer people are physically going to stores, thus bypassing spur of the moment choices. At the same time, they are opting for planned lists or pre-prepared shopping baskets that avoid last minute additions.

The rise of the ethical consumer further tips the scales against impulse buys. A growing number of people will resist the urge to buy until they have assessed the ethics around purchasing the product in question. Those raspberries may look good, but if they’ve travelled 3000 miles and are wrapped in plastic, they won’t necessarily get bought.

The impact of the current Covid-19 pandemic has been to accelerate all these trends: Lockdown has driven an increase in online shopping, while a slower pace of life, a greater focus on caring for one another and for the environment has arguably increased the importance of values-driven decision making.

So how should brands respond to these shifts in consumer behaviour? Our view at Appnovation is that it’s much harder to create new patterns of behaviour than to tap into and build on existing consumer behaviour and concerns.

Here are six content-led approaches which we have divided into tactical and strategic.

The tactical approach

Retailers can do a lot to encourage impulse purchases by improving the existing online experience they offer to customers. This includes:

1. Make it personal

One way retailers attempt to drive online impulse purchasing is pop-up windows in the run up to payment. A common problem is that consumers are offered things they don’t want or that will cost them more money. So invitations to impulse purchase can be a source of irritation. The solution is to make sure any offers are relevant to the consumer’s lifestyle, for example offering travel insurance to people buying airline tickets or side orders/drinks when they are ordering pizza. But understanding a consumer’s behaviour allows a more personalised approach. For example, if you know they are a regular gym visitor, ask if they are stocked up on protein shakes or suggest healthy meals that can speed up post workout recovery.

2. Ensure UX is seamless and supportive

Any hassle involved in the online transactional process can be enough to kill the impulse to buy. Every obstacle between selecting an item and paying is another opportunity for buyers to change their mind. Likewise, knowing that an item won’t arrive for a few days is often enough to make a purchaser reconsider their initial impulse. All of this puts the onus on retailers and brands to second guess the impulse killers that result in abandoned online shopping carts. Discounts at point of purchase are a way to help get some customers over the line, while others are reassured by extra information or the option of talking to an advisor. With so many people trying out ecommerce during Covid-19, now is a great time to find out what digital tools can help sustain the desire to impulse buy.

The strategic approach

While tactical approaches can improve impulse buys in the short term, the profound shifts we are seeing in consumer behaviour mean brands also need to take a more strategic approach to engaging with consumers. This includes:

3. Follow and join consumer conversations

One of the best ways of staying relevant and engaging with consumers is to follow what they are saying and doing on social media, blogs and product reviews, and to create opportunities for impulse purchases that tap into these. Lockdown for example has seen a rise in gardening. Whatsapp, Twitter and Instagram are busier than usual with images of home-grown vegetables.

Brands are well placed to tap into these conversations, initiate conversations of their own and support consumers, for example a DIY store could create content to help solve customers’ gardening challenges and at the same time show them how to use their products in the most effective way.

4. Deploy user generated content to connect with consumer values

Consumer motivation and brand affiliation is increasingly linked to such values as sustainability and environmental concerns. This emphasis is something that brands can tap into to drive impulse purchasing – as long as they do it in the right way. It isn’t enough, for example, to just pump out positioning statements that are designed to resonate with a target audience. One key to this is to take advantage of the explosion in user generated content. By understanding that audiences put more credence, and engage more deeply with content from other users, brands can connect their own identity to ideas that are resonating in the wider digital arena. None of the above is to suggest that brands and retailers can’t start a values-based conversation – however their connection with the issue needs to be authentic. Ben & Jerry’s is often held up as a benchmark in this respect.

5. Create imaginative partnerships

Partnerships can also be used to solve challenges that might present obstacles to the buying process. In retail, immediacy – reflecting the impulse part of the impulse loop – is a strong motivator in purchase decisions. Ordering your groceries online typically comes with the expectation that it will arrive the next day. That still leaves a place for “popping down the shops” to grab something needed more urgently.

Retailers are now trying to fill this gap with partnerships such as Sainsburys Chop Chop delivery service – with Stuart the courier firm, and Aldi with Deliveroo. If brands can eradicate delays, they can leverage behavioural tactics associated with immediate as well as planned gratification.

6. Embrace localism

One interesting aspect of the COVID lockdown is that many consumers found that their “traditional” means of making planned large scale purchases – such as the weekly shop – were oversubscribed.

This has helped drive a rapid shift back to more local options.  Local convenience stores, farms and specialist shops – butchers, bakers – have experienced a resurgence in popularity.

This trend towards localism is also reflected in a renewed sense of community as consumers have banded together at a local level to support each other in a time of need.

This very human desire to interact and share, presents a timely opportunity for brands to be part of this “be more local” trend by facilitating and actively engaging conversations as we emerge from lockdown into the new normal.

Andrew Dunbar is speaking at AdWeek’s live Spotlight event “The Future of Content in an Omnichannel World” – in conjunction with Contentful next Wednesday from 7pm BST. To register click here.

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