Going Shopping? Beware of Shopping Momentum

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John Gress / Reuters

The Christmas shopping season is upon us, and if you decide to indulge in the shopping frenzy, be careful. Not just of your health, but of your wallet. Buying at bargain prices is a worthy thing, but once you start shopping it can be tough to stop. This isn’t just an urban myth, either. Research from the Stanford Graduate School of Business suggests that shopping really can lead to more shopping.

Here’s a quote from the press release that announced their findings:

When such savvy marketing researchers as Uzma Khan of Stanford, Ravi Dhar of Yale, and Joel Huber of Duke noticed that shopping sometimes proceeded unchecked even in their own private domains, they decided to get to the bottom of things.

Setting up a series of tests of purchasing behavior, they found that for most people buying that fateful first — and often innocent — item seems to open the purchasing floodgates. This realization, they say, has important implications for how stores are laid out as well as for understanding individual behavior.

Apparently, shopping is a two-stage process. To begin, the shopper decides whether to purchase the first item. She takes time, weighing the pros and cons. But after this initial “deliberation phase” has ended, once the shopper has made the decision to buy, less effort is put into evaluating future purchases on the same trip.

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In other words, once a person decides to buy one thing, this creates “shopping momentum,” increasing the likelihood that that shopper will buy more stuff. If you pick up an impulse item (like a magazine or candy bar) as you enter a store, this can serve as a trigger to encourage you to buy more.

This is certainly true in my own life. If I’m in outdoor retailer REI trying to decide whether to buy a new backpack, it’s easy to leave with nothing if I steel my mind. But as soon as I give in and pick out a pack, it’s much easier to buy a sleeping bag. And trekking poles. And hiking boots. It’s almost as if my choice isn’t “should I buy this pack?” but “should I buy anything?” Once I decide “yes,” I’ve essentially given myself permission to buy as much as I want.

(RealSimple.comOne-Day Holiday and Christmas Shopping Plan)

So how can you prevent shopping momentum? The best way is to avoid temptation. If you can’t afford to spend (or don’t want to spend), then stay away from places that might lead you to spend. For me, that means no bookstores — and no REI. For you, that might mean no malls or no auto parts stores. To avoid shopping momentum, it’s best to avoid temptation completely.

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If you still want to go shopping this holiday season, minimize the risks of overspending by shopping with a list. Base your buying decisions on a plan, and don’t get swept up by the sales. This is the best way to approach all shopping, of course, but it’s even more important when you’re intentionally putting yourself into a shopping frenzy. At times like this, you really need to beware of shopping momentum.