7 Tips to Prevent Impulse Buys

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Fall is almost here. Before we know it, the trees will be decorated with orange leaves – and Sam’s Club will be decked out with pink merchandise.

Late September starts the fall season for most of us, but for the wholesale club, it starts the women’s health season. Retailers like Sam’s Club “celebrate” 13 to 20 seasons a year, according to The Wall Street Journal. The extra seasons are designed to get shoppers to spend extra money…

People are usually willing to spend more during special seasons, retailers and manufacturers say. … To slice the calendar into as many seasons as possible, retailers create sub-seasons.

But retailers don’t just want shoppers to spend more. They want them to spend more impulsively…

The true art of the seasonal display is to trick out products that don’t seem like obvious impulse buys – like vacuum cleaners or tissue boxes – in a way that makes shoppers grab first and think later.

Consumers generally don’t buy tissues as much during the summer, for example. So to get tissues onto summer displays, Kleenex produced ice cream-themed boxes, and Kimberly-Clark produced boxes shaped like watermelon and other fruits.

Kimberly-Clark’s director of design told The Wall Street Journal that after researching “what summer means to people,” the company figured shoppers would associate watermelon with summertime activities like picnics and family gatherings.

Grocery chain Supervalu even operates a lab store. It’s closed to the public and is used to test out different display options.

You don’t have to buy (into) it

Stores will go to great and creative lengths for a buck in order to survive and thrive amidst their competition. But that doesn’t mean you’re doomed to fall for their tricks. These are my tips for warding off impulse buys…

  1. Make a shopping list, take it with you, and stick to it. In academic research, impulse buys are sometimes called “unplanned purchases” – and that’s exactly what they are. One of the best ways to prevent them is to plan your shopping trip.
  2. Beware of the “endcaps,” which are the shelves at the end of many aisles. They’re a key location for products that stores want you to buy impulsively. Supervalu’s director of sales also told The Wall Street Journal that placing an item on an endcap can increase its sales threefold. So the next time you find yourself drawn to endcap merchandise, stop and think twice: Do you really need it, or are you about to buy into a marketing ploy?
  3. Learn the difference between good and bad impulse buys. Just like there are good carbs and good fats, I believe there are good impulse buys. The last time I walked into Target, I left with several bottles of shampoo that I wasn’t intending to buy. I wasn’t out of shampoo, but the kind I use was on sale at a price I seldom see, so I grabbed a bunch and stored it under the sink. It’s the impulse buys that you don’t need or can’t afford that you have to watch out for.
  4. Eat beforehand. An empty stomach can doom the best intentions of the most prepared shopper, especially at the grocery store.
  5. Shop alone: Bringing children or spouses who act like children is a sure way to fill your cart with impulse buys.
  6. Sleep on it. If you’re struggling to curb impulsive spending, establish a policy. Whether it’s 24 hours or one week, pick a length of time for which all new purchases must sit untouched. Find a dedicated spot for them that’s out of eyeshot if you have to. If you still believe a purchase was smart or necessary after the cooling-off period, open it and use it at that point. If not, take it back.
  7. Remember how retailers think. Analyze the displays at your local store. Once you see how they’re designed to encourage additional spending, you’ll be less susceptible. Below are lists of some of the retail seasons from The Wall Street Journal. The next time you’re at one of these stores, try to spot the corresponding displays.

Many seasons, one reason

Here’s a handy list you can refer to throughout the year…

Sam’s Club

  • Health and wellness (January) features merchandise tied to shoppers’ New Year’s resolutions like weight loss
  • Big Game (late January) features Super Bowl party products
  • Spring (March to May) includes Easter, Graduation Day, Mother’s Day, and spring gardening
  • Back to school/college (July and August)
  • Pink/women’s health (October) includes displays of pink products and stores offer women’s health screenings
  • Fall gatherings (late September through November)
  • DATE (November), or the Day-After-Thanksgiving Event, a.k.a. Black Friday, includes gifts and splurge items
  • Holiday entertaining and gifting (begins the day after DATE)


  • Post-New Year’s (January/February)
  • Super Bowl (January/February)
  • Allergy season (March/April)
  • Back to school/college (September/October)
  • Cough, cold, and flu season (September/October)
  • Baking season (November/December)


  • Organization and storage (January)
  • Back to school/college (July/August)


  • Super Bowl, New Year’s resolutions, or other themes (January)
  • Lawn and garden or related theme (April)
  • Back to school/college (July through August)
  • Gifts for children; early entertaining decor (October, November)
  • Last-minute gifts, stocking stuffers, food/entertaining (December)

Karla Bowsher runs the Deals page; writes “Daily Deals: posts every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday; and shares consumer wisdom every Thursday. If you have a comment, suggestion, or question, leave a comment or contact her at [email protected].