How to Outsmart the Impulse Buy

Don't use a cart, shop with a partner, and—above all—make a beeline for what you really want.

A retail store is a sum of subtle, careful spatial decisions: Essentials such as toilet paper or milk are at the back of the store, where shoppers can’t access them without first encountering higher-margin products, such as clothing or toys. Stores are set up to be navigated clockwise, so right-handed shoppers can easily push a cart and grasp at shelved items with their dominant arm. Many stores are lightly perfumed, because pleasant scents have been shown to make people more impulsive.

But as people have started visiting stores with a more tightly-defined idea of what they want, retailers’ siren songs are falling on deaf ears. “Consumers are now conditioned to shop for specific items and it’s not just affecting online consumer psyche but offline consumer psyche as well,” one retail consultant told The Wall Street Journal. Because of how people are shopping online, they're buying only what they need, ignoring the rest, and then leaving. They’ve built up their own defenses against retailers' strategies.

But, practically speaking, how are they doing this without succumbing to tactics that have been successful for decades? For one thing, some consumers set up rules for themselves. The Wall Street Journal recently tailed some Wisconsinites in a grocery store, and observed their decisions. Some couples make a point of shopping together, so they can put checks on each other’s impulses. Others eschew shopping carts, because they’re wary of feeling the need to fill them up.

There are other, more abstract, tactics for remaining rational in the confines of a store. Many retailers depend on cultivating a sense of urgency in shoppers, which leads them to spend irrationally on a deal they believe could evaporate any minute. Cutting through that anxiety might be possible with a shift in mindset: A recent study suggests that when people reflect on a time when they felt grateful, they can become less intent on instant gratification. In fact, those who were merely happy or amused were willing to sacrifice $100 in a year for $18 immediately, but those who were primed to feel grateful were patient enough to draw the line at $30. Another study, to be published early next year, suggests that disciplined people aren’t actually less impulsive in the moment; they just choose to limit the number of tough decisions they have to make.

Retailers are becoming aware that their old tricks aren’t catching anymore. They’re installing cafes, coffee shops, Wi-Fi—anything that might get a shopper in the door. The arms race is never over: Consumers may be on the way to outsmarting old-school strategies, but rest assured that new ones are on the way.