Chance Encounters

Impulse buyers are a boon to business. Find out who they are and how to reel them in.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the February 2004 issue of Entrepreneurs StartUps Magazine. Subscribe »

The enlarged pupils, eager smile, hand practically thrusting cash into yours-if only it were this easy to spot impulsive buyers. Nothing's sweeter than watching potential customers make a beeline toward your display; it's even more heavenly when they quickly and almost effortlessly opt to buy. Kiosks, more than any other type of retail business, benefit from impulse shoppers. How can you attract them?

The first thing a start-up entrepreneur should know is what items make the best impulse buys. These are items "that people can see being usable in their lives," says Jeffrey Stamp, co-author of Meaningful Marketing (Brain Brew Books), and vice president of R&D at Eureka! Ranch, an innovation think tank in Cincinnati. For example, personalized items are typically a good choice as a last-minute impulse purchase in the mind of the consumer.

It's also important to understand the larger group from which impulse purchases originate: the unplanned purchase. There are three ways in which unplanned purchasers are lured into temptation, explains Ed Fox, assistant professor of marketing and director of the JCPenney Center for Retail Excellence at the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. First, something can act as a sudden reminder to the shopper. Whether the kiosk offers something that might be appropriate for an upcoming birthday or event, a visual cue triggers the memory. (Note: A smell or sound can be equally enticing.) These cues alert the consumer to a need that wasn't terribly pressing before but is now.

Second, using the same type of visual cue mentioned above, a kiosk can suggest the purchase of products that are complementary, implying to the consumer that he or she should buy and use one product with the other. "It's like selling soft drinks with popcorn," Fox explains.

Third, a visual cue can create an entirely new need for a product-a need that didn't exist before the visual cue. Says Fox, "The cue spontaneously generates a need for the product."

Though studies on a shopper's state of mind haven't been conclusive in determining whether or not a browser, as opposed to a goal-directed shopper, is more likely to make impulse purchases, Fox points out another psychological facet of shoppers' tendencies. The psychological construct called "need for cognition" is, for some, a desire to analyze. "Some people feel better if they think deeply about things," explains Fox, "while others are very comfortable being bold and making quicker, more impulsive decisions."

Fox speculates the purpose of a shopper's visit will likely affect how many impulse purchases that shopper makes, but he also believes that the more the consumer sees and passes by, the more items she'll consider buying. Says Fox, "What's critical for a kiosk vendor is where you're at in the mall. You've got to get them to consider you and consider your product. To do that, [shoppers] need to be aware of your kiosk and process [what you offer]."

Traffic volume is key-locations where people slow down and are receptive to visual stimulation are prime property for your business. "You're more likely to start that process of generating an impulse purchase," says Fox, "or reminding someone of a need."

Sending the Message
While it's fine to start a kiosk using impulse buys as a consideration, if you want something with a longer life, "then you must convert the initial impulse angle into a more meaningful one," says Stamp. To do so, set your product apart by highlighting the overt benefit and making a valid argument that it will make a real difference in the consumer's life.

So how do you proceed in marketing your wares? When it comes to signage at your kiosk, Stamp claims the cliché "A picture is worth a thousand words" is untrue. "If you really want to get an impulse buyer, you could have placards that just say, 'Need a last-minute gift?' Clear and simple words put everyone on the same page, and the leading question is a very good way to get people to stop and see."

However, if you believe pictures better portray what your item can offer to the shopper, Stamp recommends using one that clarifies the benefits of your product. "If you're selling sunglasses, don't just have pictures of sunglasses-have a picture of people wearing sunglasses out in the sun."

Also make sure any visuals are relevant to the target audience and the occasion. "It's not that consumers aren't smart," says Stamp. "Americans see more than 2,000 advertising messages [per] day. Our bandwidth is so clogged up, people see the [images], but they don't [always] register."

While mindless marketing-persuasive tactics like shouting and circus-like promoting-can be an easy option for kiosk owners, Stamp warns that a good customer experience can be thrown by the wayside when your sales staff has nothing meaningful to say. "You have to remember the definition of business: the exchange of value between two people," says Stamp. Understand the value behind the object or service you are providing, and explain it to the customer. "Convert the features of your products or services into true benefits that the customer needs, and you'll sell them every time," advises Stamp. Consider your encounter with a customer as an opportunity for a 20-second commercial. Inquire into what they need, and see if your offer fulfills that. Emphasize quickness and convenience to last-minute shoppers.

Salespeople are crucial in this aspect. Stamp sees one mistake made time and again at many kiosks: "The people who work at them look as if they don't care. We have learned in the sales process that there's nothing better than a smile to bridge a distance and get people to look at you." Proper training of your sales staff should emphasize friendly customer service as well as knowledge of the product. "We're consumers of products, but as humans, we all crave service," says Stamp. "So if you're going to run a kiosk, make it look as if you're there to serve someone's needs."

Don't get discouraged if you still see plenty of shoppers passing by your cart without that impulsive gleam in their eyes-you can hope you've left enough of a lasting impression on them that they'll buy something another day. "The data is very clear," says Stamp. "When you're trying to attract a new customer, it often takes up to three impressions before someone gets it." It doesn't matter so much if you don't sell the first time-it's more important that, at first glance, you make them see there's a need for what you have. Next time, they may make a beeline straight to your kiosk.

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