Use of Hawkins Stern’s impulse buying theory (1962) in online shopping

By Priya Chetty on September 10, 2019

The widespread popularity of online shopping in current times has undoubtedly enhanced the efficiency of the entire buying process. It has also posed to digital marketers the threat of losing to the competition. This is why marketers keep on trying novel tactics to fascinate new customers as well as retain existing ones. One of the many tactics includes encouraging customers to buy impulsively (Foroughi et al., 2013). This phenomenon can be better explained through Hawkins Stern’s impulse buying theory (1962). This theory offers valuable insight into different circumstances under which consumers are likely to indulge in impulse buying.

Hawkins Stern’s impulsive buying theory

Hawkins Stern's impulse buying theory
Figure 1: Hawkins Stern’s impulse buying theory

The theory got its name from the proposer, Hawkins Stern who had put this forward in 1962. The theory offered a fresh perspective on consumers’ buying behaviour as most of the contemporary consumer behaviour theories like Maslow’s Need Hierarchy Theory of Motivation (1943) and Engel, Kollat and Blackwell (1968) which believed that consumers always make rational and well-planned buying decisions (Dutta and Mandal, 2018). Stern argued such a perspective and proclaimed that consumers indulge in impulsive buying behaviours under the influence of external forces. The theory argued that marketers can convince consumers to buy more than what they had actually planned (Dutta and Mandal, 2018). The same has been confirmed in a recent survey conducted in the context of American consumers claiming that 80% of respondents buy on spur-of-the-moment while shopping online (Johnson, 2018). Digital marketers are skillfully blending technology with their marketing goals to encourage impulse buying by the target audience (Carter, 2018).


The world’s leading retailer recently introduced virtual dash buttons to facilitate impulse buying in online shopping. Based on the history of a customer’s purchases, these dash buttons act as a reminder for Amazon’s patrons. This ensures the buyer that they are not missing to buy something from their usual buying list. By providing enhanced ease in buying, the company has well-targeted impulse buyers through these dash buttons.

Richman, 2017

An important contribution of Hawkins Stern’s model is the categorization of impulse buying behaviour (Shapiro, 2015). The model suggests four kinds of impulse buying.

Pure impulse buying

This includes buying purely on the basis of impulse hence usually the customers end up buying something which is not a routine item on their shopping list. It is also known as ‘escape purchase’. It breaks the normal pattern of purchasing. Visuals play an integral role in pure impulse buying (Dutta and Mandal, 2018). It highly appeals to the emotion of the buyer of novelty products. Such purchases generally include items which are new for the customer and attract him visually. While consumers end up overspending but the marketers earn higher revenues.


Buying a new dress or kids’ toy while shopping for diapers at because of the unique design that attracted the attention of the buyer.

Reminder impulse buying

Such kind of impulse buying happens in cases where a buyer has prior knowledge or experience of the product but had no intention to buy it (Piron, 1991). It highly appeals to the buyers of fashion merchandise.


Buying a packet of breakfast cereal or hand sanitiser on Walmart’s site when it was not on the shopping list but because of a promotional offer.

The products that go with the consumer’s primary shopping items also fall under this category like purchasing nail paint or earrings while buying a dress from an e-retailer.

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Suggested impulse buying

Suggested impulse buying occurs in the case of products usually being seen by the customer for the first time and developing an impulse to buy them (Stern, 1962; Dutta and Mandal, 2018).


A buyer of baby bottle cleaning liquid on is suggested against a regular detergent on the portal depending on historical purchase of baby products.

While in brick-and-mortar, such kind of buying generally happens through the endeavours of a salesperson.

Planned impulse buying

This kind of impulse buying occurs when the customer has the need for a product but is not sure about its specifications. Generally, a lower price or other kinds of sales promotion techniques lead to planned impulse buying (Stern, 1962).


When offered “one plus one free” on certain grocery items, the customers are likely to buy impulsively more than they actually need. So, the customer did have a need but he ended up buying more than needed because of the offer.

Price as a factor that triggers impulse buying behaviour

Marketers make use of several strategies in order to trigger impulse buying behaviour among consumers. The pricing decision, according to Stern, is the most important trigger of an impulse buying decision. This is because it makes the consumer spend more than they originally planned. However, it may not be applicable to expensive items such as automobiles. It is most common in products which have a low shelf life, marginal need for the consumer, smaller size and ease of storage.


For example, discounts on food can trigger impulse purchases among students and low-income group individuals.

Duarte, Raposo and Ferraz, 2013

Marginal need for an item with short shelf life triggers impulse buying

Items that perish quickly or have a short shelf life need to be purchased frequently by consumers. Since consumers have to purchase them repeatedly, they spend less time planning to buy them and hence purchase them when they encounter them (Stern, 1962). This refers to the degree of need for an item. Many convenience goods such as daily staples, milk, bread and sugar for which regular purchases are made. However, some items are non-convenience goods and hence there is a marginal need for them. The consumer postpones purchasing these items until there is a greater degree of need for it, hence these purchases are likely to be less planned and more impulsive (Chhabra, 2010).

Mass distribution and self-service

The more places a product is available, the more chances the customer will buy it. Since impulse buying is not planned, marketers make the product available at multiple locations so that there are more chances of a customer buying it (Stern, 1962).

The self-service option gives the customer the opportunity to freely explore their options and buy more quickly. Since there are many products readily available to consumers, they are more likely to buy products impulsively. Hence marketers prefer to make their products available more at self-service locations (Iyer and Ahlawat, 1987).

Prominent store displays and advertisements trigger impulse buying

As impulse buying decisions are not planned, increased visibility of items increases their sale impulsively. This positioning includes shelf location, distinctive packaging and in-store promotions (Mohan, Sivakumaran and Sharma, 2013).

Impulse buying behaviour types such as planned and reminder buying are highly dependent on the level of consumer knowledge. This knowledge comes from either prior experience with the product or advertising. Hence, marketers often indulge in mass advertising to give repeated reminders to customers and trigger impulse buying decisions (Hulte and Vanyushyn, 2011).

Ease of storage

Items which can be stored easily without any special requirements are more likely to be purchased impulsively. The size and weight of a product have a deep impact on a consumer’s decision to purchase an item impulsively. The problem of heavyweight or big size requires a buyer to make special arrangements such as transportation. This can result in reducing the chances of buying it impulsively(Stern, 1962).

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Relevancy of Stern’s dimensions in online shopping

At the time Stern proposed these factors, online shopping was not as popular as it is today. Most of these factors identified by Stern were in the context of brick-and-mortar stores. Stern asserts that ease of buying, i.e. product availability will likely increase the chances of impulsive buying decisions and is very relevant in online shopping.

However, consumer characteristics have undergone a revolutionary change over the years. This includes changes in demographics, spending patterns, purchasing capacity, a shift from lifestyles-based to experience-based consumption, and an increase in their overall participation in buying decisions. Therefore, several new dimensions have emerged in Stern’s initial model. This includes website quality (security, navigability, visual appeal), payment options, virtual atmosphere, product variety, network availability, browsing behaviour, and online reviews, among others (Octavia, 2015; Zou, 2016; Kem et al., 2018).

In present times, most digital marketers are targetting consumers to rely not always on their intellect but also on their impulses. Among the four categories of impulse buying behaviours listed out by Stern, a blend of all can be planned while designing a marketing strategy.


  • Carter, S. (2018) 80% of younger shoppers make impulse purchases online—here’s how sites trick you into spending, CNBC Make It.
  • Chhabra, D. (2010) Sustainable Marketing of Cultural and Heritage Tourism. New York: Routledge.
  • Duarte, P., Raposo, M. and Ferraz, M. (2013) ‘Drivers of snack foods impulse buying behavior among young consumers’, British Food Journal, 115(9), pp. 1233–1254.
  • Dutta, T. and Mandal, M. (2018) Neuromarketing in India: Understanding the Indian Consumer. 1st edn. Edited by T. Dutta and M. Mandal. Routledge.
  • Foroughi, A. et al. (2013) ‘Impulse Buying Behaviour and Moderating Role of Gender among Iranian Shoppers’, J. Basic. Appl. Sci. Res, 3(4), pp. 760–769.
  • Hulte, V. and Vanyushyn, V. (2011) ‘Impulse purchases of groceries in French and Sweden’, Journal of Consumer Marketing, 29(5), pp. 376–384.
  • Iyer, E. and Ahlawat, S. (1987) ‘Deviations From a Shopping Plan: When and Why Do Consumers Not Buy Items As Planned’, Advances in Consumer Research, 14, pp. 246–250.
  • Johnson, A. (2018) Online shopping poll: Most consumers can’t resist unplanned buys,
  • Kem, Z. et al. (2018) ‘Online reviews and impulse buying behavior: the role of browsing and impulsiveness’, Internet Research, 28(3), pp. 522–543.
  • Mohan, G., Sivakumaran, B. and Sharma, P. (2013) ‘Impact of store environment on impulse buying behavior’, European Journal of Marketing, 47(10), pp. 1711–1732.
  • Octavia, D. (2015) ‘The Differences of Online and In-store Impulse Buying Behavior using Stimulus and Response Model.’, in 3rd International Seminar and Conference on Learning Organization. Bandung.
  • Piron, F. (1991) ‘Defining Impulse Purchasing’, Association for Consumer Research, NA-18, pp. 509–514.
  • Richman, D. (2017) Amazon launches virtual Dash buttons to encourage impulse buying on website and mobile apps, GeekWire.
  • Shapiro, J. M. (2015) ‘Impulse Buying: A New Framework’, in Developments in Marketing Science: Proceedings of the Academy of Marketing Science. Springer, Cham, pp. 76–80. doi: 10.1007/978-3-319-13248-8_16.
  • Stern, H. (1962) ‘The Significance of Impulse Buying Today’, Journal of Marketing, 26(2), pp. 59–62. doi: 10.1177/002224296202600212.
  • Zou, T. (2016) ‘Online Impulse Buying Behavior amongst Undergraduate Students in Tianjin, The People’s Republic of China’, Global Journal of Emerging Trends in e-Business, Marketing and Consumer Psychology, 2(2), pp. 406–423.

Priya is the co-founder and Managing Partner of Project Guru, a research and analytics firm based in Gurgaon. She is responsible for the human resource planning and operations functions. Her expertise in analytics has been used in a number of service-based industries like education and financial services.

Her foundational educational is from St. Xaviers High School (Mumbai). She also holds MBA degree in Marketing and Finance from the Indian Institute of Planning and Management, Delhi (2008).

Some of the notable projects she has worked on include:

  • Using systems thinking to improve sustainability in operations: A study carried out in Malaysia in partnership with Universiti Kuala Lumpur.
  • Assessing customer satisfaction with in-house doctors of Jiva Ayurveda (a project executed for the company)
  • Predicting the potential impact of green hydrogen microgirds (A project executed for the Government of South Africa)

She is a key contributor to the in-house research platform Knowledge Tank.

She currently holds over 300 citations from her contributions to the platform.

She has also been a guest speaker at various institutes such as JIMS (Delhi), BPIT (Delhi), and SVU (Tirupati).



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