Updated on 09.06.11

Avoiding Impulse Buying Online

Trent Hamm

Time for a confession here.

The single biggest challenge I have when it comes to avoiding unnecessary purchases is avoiding them online.

I think there are a few reasons for this.

First, I don’t have a chance to talk myself out of a purchase. In a store, I typically have several minutes between when I pick up the item and when I’m actually at the checkout purchasing the item. I often use that time to try to talk myself out of the purchase.

At an online store, those several minutes are reduced to several seconds. The time from putting an item into your “cart” to actually buying the item is drastically reduced at any well-designed e-commerce site. That leaves you with less time to actually decide whether or not to go through with the purchase, and the inertia of actually having the item in the cart often carries through until the item is bought and paid for.

Second, the process of paying is typically more convenient. If you have, say, an amazon account, you likely have your credit card information stored there. You don’t have to get out your wallet. You barely have to move to pay for an item. You just click – and it’s there.

Third, the access to online information often encourages you to buy. You’re sitting there at a web browser with a wealth of information at your fingertips. You’re able to research the item. Typically, because you’ve already decided you’re at least highly interested in the item, the information you find mostly just serves to reinforce that idea, at least in the short term.

Those three things, added together, knock down most of the defenses I have against impulse buying in brick-and-mortar stores. Given that I’m also at home during the weekdays to receive packages and it’s easy to see why online ordering ends up being a weakness.

What can I do to defend against unnecessary online purchases? I have a few things that tend to work pretty well.

First, I don’t store my credit card information in online sites. For me to go ahead with a purchase, I have to actually dig out my credit card or other payment information and fill it in manually.

This tactic tends to buy me the “several minutes” that I need to talk myself out of an unnecessary purchase. I can use that time when I’m digging out my credit card, studying the card to figure out what the number is, typing in the number, typing in the security code, grumbling when I get an error message telling me that the number is invalid, typing the number in again because I realized I couldn’t tell the difference between the worn 6 and the worn 8, and finally getting through. During that process, I’m quite likely to convince myself that I don’t really need the item.

Second, I use the “wishlist” feature of sites heavily. Often, instead of putting an unnecessary item into my online “cart,” I’ll just add the item to my wishlist on that site. My wife knows where many of my online wishlists are, so she sometimes trawls them for gift ideas, knowing that they’re full of items I have an interest in but won’t spend the money on (which means it’s a good gift idea).

Not only that, it’s also a way for me to give a product purchase some additional thought. From time to time, I’ll clean out a wishlist on a particular site and if something still seems strongly compelling to me, I know then that it might be worthwhile. The surprising thing is that I don’t have that feeling for the vast majority of wishlisted items that I look at later on.

Finally, I get really into comparison shopping and price sniping. Instead of just buying an item I desire, I’ll wait until it shows up at a price I’m willing to pay for it. I’ll use tools like this feed filtering trick to find items at the right price for me.

Often, during this process, I’ll eventually realize that I don’t want the item. Even if I do still want the item, I’ll know that in the end I paid less for the item.

This happened recently when I purchased a GPS unit for my father as a gift. I wanted to get him one with certain features, but we also happen to have something of a gift-giving budget. Rather than just buying a low-end one or blowing my budget, I waited patiently using some automatic searching tools (like the one linked above) until the right item came up at the right price (it took about five months).

These three tactics together have gone a long way toward curbing my online spending on unnecessary things.

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  1. valleycat1 says:

    You have many wish lists? To me they aren’t much different from a shopping cart. I have one short one for ebooks, to shop from once I finish the ones I’ve already downloaded. At holiday/birthday time I might start one for family members to shop from, but it gets taken down once the buying season is over.

    One action I’ve taken that’s helped curb the urge is to unsubscribe from the retailers’ emailed ads I’d been getting, and I have weaned myself from entertaining myself by going to shopping sites and browsing. I rarely visit an online store unless I have identified a need for something specific.

  2. Gretchen says:

    Why are you even on these sites?

    It’s like the “don’t bring your wallet into the store” advice. No. Don’t go to the store in the first place.

  3. BJD says:

    interesting dichotomy that your wife uses your wish lists as starting points for good gift ideas for you, but you also say that when you go to clean up your wish list you find the vast majority of wishlisted items are no longer worthwhile to you.

  4. Johanna says:

    What I really like about this post is that Trent’s sharing what works for *him*, with nary a generalization that what works for him must therefore be the best strategy for everyone.

    Impulse shopping is a very personal thing. We all have our own weaknesses, and we all have our own ways of avoiding them (or not avoiding them).

  5. Adam P says:

    Amazon is like having a huge outlet mall that sells nearly EVERYTHING right at your fingertips. The part that saves me is that you can “impulse buy” BUT the items have to ship to you (and in Canada, that shipping cost alone can make it not worth buying). If technology/transportation ever gets to the point where you can point/click/purchase/receive near instantly online…we are in trouble.

    Oh I guess we are already there for tv/movies/music and computer games, but so many people pirate now a days that paying anything for it is a deterent to impulse purchases.

    I use wishlists or just keep things in my shopping cart until my next credit card cycle starts. Then I alot myself an amount from my monthly budget for books and spend just that amount until next month. I guess at this point of my PF working I’m not able to impulse shop my way into a budget mess.

  6. Dan W. says:

    I DO avoid Amazon’s Buy Now with 1-Click.

  7. Katie says:

    The not-saving-credit-card-numbers tip is key for me. That doesn’t stop me from saving my credit card on Amazon because it’s so convenient for buying Kindle books, but I definitely buy more books because of the one-click feature and I try not to save it elsewhere.

  8. Sonja says:

    Amazon’s Kindle Daily Deal is a lure to me. I don’t generally go for it, but I HAVE to look!

  9. krantcents says:

    When I shop online, I use shopping bots. It finds the lowest price for a particular item. If it is enough of a discount, I won’t buy it. Buying online usually means that you will have to wait. Either I am saving enough to warrant it or I won’t buy it.

  10. lanjha says:

    Or you can just stop going to online shopping websites.

  11. Kate says:

    I only use two of Trent’s suggestions: two sites I’ve used DO have my card info so I don’t have to enter it each time. These are sites I’ve purchased from before.

    However, I offset it with a couple more techniques, with the end result that I purchase VERY little on line, and none of it actually impulse.

    First, I will bookmark the actual page showing the item I’m thinking about buying, and store the bookmark in my Temp file. I clear that every week or so, but it makes it easier for me to get back to precisely what I was interested in.

    Then, the *biggest* deterrent I use against truly IMPULSE purchases is the same time lag Trent talks of using in the store. I usually have more than one tab open on my browser, and I know this is fairly common. I just go on reading other pages, following other links, while leaving the tab with the shopping cart open. Very often I will wind up closing the tab without returning to it, thus avoiding the impulse purchase.

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