And I am a weapon of massive consumption
And it’s not my fault it’s how I’m programmed to function
Lily Allen, The Fear, 2009
The financial crisis that hit us in 2008 has been analysed in great detail by economists and journalists. A good deal of comment, including mine, has focused on the behaviour of bankers and traders. However this was also a crisis that was fueled by a bubble of debt fueled consumption. Perhaps we should be paying more attention to the psychology of consumer spending.
I want to delve into the emotional underpinnings of conspicuous consumption. Before you read what I have to say you could do worse than click on the link and listen to Lily Allen’s song The Fear; much of what I write below is illustrated more poetically in the song. At first, she appears to be singing a paean to conspicuous consumption and the relentless pursuit of a celebrity lifestyle, but as the chorus kicks in ‘I’ve been taken over by the fear'; it become clear that this is a tale of the fear and emptiness that lies behind this impulsive consumption. This too is the story revealed by our research.
Retailers, marketing agencies and even academic researchers in the retail marketing field tend to consider impulsive buying behaviour as either harmless fun or a positive social good; certainly as something which retailers should exploit and obtain financial benefit from. For example:
“Marketers need to understand such consumer behavior in order to formulate appropriate marketing strategy, allocate marketing budget below-the-line and design effective marketing tactics…… In such instances the acts may be normatively positive and leave the shopper feeling good”
“…the profiles of high impulsives…may be identified, so that promotions and events can be targeted at those individuals”
Myself and Adrian Furnham collaborated with the BBC to launch The Big Money Test, which was launched on the BBC flagship consumer affairs television programme Watchdog. Around 110,000 people responded to the survey which looked at their emotional and psychological relationships with money.
We found that people who were high on impulsive buying behaviour tended to be people who had poor strategies for managing their emotions and were more sensitive to the highs and lows of positive and negative emotion. In other words it seems likely that for many people impulsive shopping acts as a substitute for more effective ways of managing their emotions.
If impulsive shopping helps people feel good, does that mean it is a problem? Surely, as many retailers would argue, this ‘feel good factor’ we get from shopping is a positive part of the ‘retail experience’.
The story is not that positive. We also looked at the relationship of impulsive shopping to financial outcomes. Those high on impulsive buying behaviour were much more likely to find it difficult to make ends meet and much more likely to suffer adverse financial events. The problem with the way that retailers target impulsive spenders is that they often have most success with those who are more likely to be financially vulnerable.
Are you or is someone you know an impulsive spender?
Do you think that there is too much pressure on people to spend, spend, spend; or is shopping just an enjoyable part of a modern lifestyle?
I would love to get your comments below.
You can read more about our study in this report on the outcomes of the BBC Big Money Test and in this report we produced for the Friends Provident Foundation who kindly funded some of the analysis. There is also a BBC news magazine article. Those with an appetite for more academic discourse can find the research paper here.