How to encourage impulse buying online

Shutting doors in the run-up to Christmas is a retail nightmare for many stores, especially those that rely on chance purchases to boost revenue

Christmas, along with many other things, will look a little different this year. Families are considering resized turkeys for smaller gatherings, the result of coronavirus restrictions. And bricks-and-mortar retailers are wondering whether they’ll get a reprieve from lockdown, granting a small window of opportunity for Christmas shopping.

Impulse buying accounts for 16 per cent of overall retail sales, by one estimate, which means every day shops aren’t open in the run-up to Christmas is a lost opportunity. Families have their shopping lists, but once the main Christmas presents are bought, it’s often offhand purchases that make up most of consumers’ spending.

“I might have some vague ideas of the kind of shop I want to go to, but being in that environment and spotting something is useful,” says Graham Soult, a retail analyst. “I think that’s one of the joys of shopping in a bricks-and-mortar environment compared to online. The nature of online is you can’t find something random unless you search for it. It’s much harder to stumble across those things in an online world.”

Yet with high street shops shut, and the number of shopping days until Christmas rapidly ticking down towards zero, the retail sector is in a quandary. How can retailers encourage impulsive purchases when the shops themselves are closed and those that remain open are operating on the basis of getting people through as quickly and safely as possible?

Less time in stores means less time at the tills

“There is a strong correlation between shopper dwell time and retail sales,” explains retail analyst Natalie Berg. “The longer we spend in-store, the more we spend at the tills.” However, in a world where social distancing is paramount, the amount of time spent in stores is limited and layouts are strictly controlled to ensure the least possible danger, the opportunities to influence impulse buying are almost non-existent.

And online stores aren’t a real replacement for the opportunity of lazily browsing displays that help influence the buying decision of shoppers. “Online shopping will be a vital part of this Christmas,” according to the British Retail Consortium, the industry body. “As such, retailers will have to be more innovative than ever to encourage more customers to make impulse purchases online.”

But, says Berg, that goes against years of innovation. “If you take a step back and think about ecommerce generally, the retailers have been focused on taking out friction from the ecommerce experience,” she explains. Yet friction is what translates into impulse buys.

Using Zoom to shape buying behaviour

Some are trying to encourage impulse buying digitally. DRAKE The Bookshop in Stockton-on-Tees is proudly independent. Its customers come from far and wide to browse the shelves and pick the brains of owner Richard Drake and his staff. “When someone is in the shop, you can have that two-way conversation,” explains Drake, who recommends books based on customers’ past interests.

Amazon’s “people like you also purchased” algorithm, based on the collective shopping history of its millions of customers, goes some way towards doing that. But no one browses through Amazon in the same way as they meander through physical retail stores, says Berg. “Those impulse buys are harder to replicate in a digital setting,”
she says.

Drake has years of experience laying out his shop, placing items he knows make for good impulse purchases in strategic locations to pique shoppers’ interests. The ability to encourage impulsive purchases makes a meaningful difference to the bottom line of his business, which is why he’s decided to try and replicate some of that online.

He has offered shoppers the ability to peruse his products through Zoom. “We have one lady who has been shielding and reading a lot of Maigret,” he says. “I thought I could stand in front of the crime section and talk her through a few bits she knows and add them to her ‘to be read’ pile.”

Enabling online stores to influence impulse buying

It’s an example of the ability for smaller shops to react quicker to circumstances, something we’ve seen time and again throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. “Independents are probably nippier, generally,” says Soult. “We’re seeing the agility and creativity of independent retailers in using other ways to get their messages across.”

That’s not to say some larger brands aren’t also trying to replicate the offline experience online in the hope of stoking impulse buying behaviour.

“Consumer demands haven’t disappeared, they’ve just shifted or pivoted,” says Berg. “That’s where there’s an opportunity. How do you translate that beyond clicking on something and getting the ‘you may also like’ recommendation.”

Retailers such as Diesel and L’Oréal have taken advantage of virtual and augmented reality to launch virtual showrooms, where it’s possible to try on items virtually and test them on skin to see how they look: a digital representation of the physical world.

And while it may seem a strange situation to be in, the sector seems hardy enough to weather the storm. “It’s never good to have to close your doors in November in the run-up to Christmas and one of the peak trading periods, but I think I keep making the point that I’m heartened by the positivity and resilience a lot of businesses are showing,” says Soult. “That’s one of the good stories to come out of this. It reminds us quite how clever and creative a lot of retail businesses are out there.”