Make Your List, Check It Twice, and Please Try to Stay Focused

We are almost a week past Black Friday, and, if you were one who ventured out to shop all the deals, I applaud you: you have more dedication and shopping fortitude than I, and I certainly do hope your bruises and scratches are healing nicely. It sounds like it was brutal out there. Black Friday is traditionally considered the start of the holiday shopping season here in the United States, where many of us begin the three to four week slog through the stores, catalogs and websites, buying up those perfect gifts for our friends and family, our poor credit cards creaking gamely under the weight of all that shopping.

I both love and hate this time of year. I truly love finding gifts for people and anticipating their reactions to them. Some people are easier to shop for than others, but, all in all, it’s usually a positive experience. The part I hate is how, no matter if I already have well-formed plans for what to buy, I almost always come away with more in my bags (and less in my bank account) than I’d intended. More maddeningly, often a good portion of the extra is stuff for me! Now how in the world does THAT happen?

Well, one explanation might be that the sales are just too darn good to pass up, but another might be that it’s just a bad case of “shopping momentum,” a phenomenon documented in a 2007 Stanford Graduate School of Business study. Marketing researchers Uzma Khan of Stanford, Ravi Dhar of Yale and Joel Huber of Duke observed that shopping often begets more shopping, and this consumerist snowball can be set off by just one seemingly innocuous purchase.

In a field test, the team offered student subjects the chance to purchase discounted items from the researchers in exchange for their participation. To vary how likely the students were to purchase the first item, some of them were offered a light bulb (useful and utilitarian, yes, but not necessarily compelling), and others got an educational CD (something more relevant to their needs). As you might expect, more students purchased the educational CD than did the light bulb. All then got the opportunity to buy a second item, in this case, a keychain. The researchers found that the students who had purchased the more relevant CD were also much more likely to buy the keychain. “That was the case even though the second item was completely unrelated to the first,” said Khan. “It’s not like we offered chips followed by soda, which would naturally go together.”

The research team contends that shopping is a two-stage process. The first stage is the deliberation we all make about purchases. We weigh the cost vs. benefit, the “need” vs. “want,” and probably mentally check the balance in our checking accounts, too. The second stage is the actual decision to buy. We grab the item, put it in our cart, head for the checkout lanes. And it’s at that point, the research team says, that a subtle psychological shift occurs. “People in this transition go from thinking from their mind to thinking from their cart. The cart takes over,” says Khan. “Once that happens, a roller coaster of shopping can begin.”

And, all of a sudden, we’re in the grip of “shopping momentum.”  *cue dramatic music*

There seems to be an environmental aspect to this phenomenon, too. We actually think fairly rationally when we’re not in the store, only losing our minds once we begin wending our way through the aisles. When the test subjects were given hypothetical situations where they had to determine when they’d be more likely to buy, they generally said they’d be likely to buy the keychain if they hadn’t made any purchases yet (e.g. the light bulb or educational CD). Once they were in the shopping mode, though, all bets were off. There’s even a momentum-encouraging component to the checkout process. Fewer checkout stands and more limited points of purchase actually help encourage these shopping binges, because they allow fewer deliberation points where you have to actually reach in and open up your wallet. It wasn’t clear from the research if our behavior while shopping online would be prone to the same suggestibility as shopping in physical stores, but that seems like a good follow-up study for the team, if they’re looking for some extra work.

So, are we doomed to these shopping frenzies every time we walk through the door of our favorite apparel, housewares, or sports shop? No, but you can bet the marketing teams for the stores are going to do what they can to make it harder for us to resist. The research showed the shopping momentum seemed to be halted by purchase deliberation points, such as having to make two separate purchases. The “luxury” quality of an item also affected the shopping momentum: if the first item purchased was perceived to be more of a splurge, the second purchase became less likely.

Knowing that, the smart marketers and merchandisers out there are going to put the necessity items like umbrellas, batteries, newspapers and travel coffee mugs toward the front of the store, in the hopes that picking one of those items up will send poor you and me into an unstoppable shopping frenzy. They’re likewise going to place the high-end luxury stuff in the back of the store, so you’ve had ample opportunity to get your shopping blood up and commit to several other purchases before you even get to that iPad, leather jacket or fancy watch.

So, what’s a shopper to do? If you’re concerned about falling prey to the bloodlust of consumerism while you stroll the department stores this holiday season, your favorite non-fat, no-whip Pumpkin Spice Latte in hand, there appear to be a few options:

  1. Buy all your expensive stuff first so you feel guiltier about subsequent purchases, and thus less likely to make them.
  2. Check out early, check out often so you give yourself more purchase deliberation points.
  3. Hire an old-guard elementary school teacher to come with you and rap your knuckles with her ruler every time you stray off-task (she might want a latte, too).
  4. Send people who loathe shopping (like my husband) to pick the items off your list.
  5. Or…sigh…just give in every once in a while. It’s kind of fun to get caught up in the holiday shopping frenzy. Austerity can wait until January.

Here’s wishing you a happy and safe holiday shopping season, with an appropriate amount of shopping momentum and as little pepper spray as possible.


  1. ResearchBlogging.orgDhar, R., Huber, J., & Khan, U. (2007). The Shopping Momentum Effect Journal of Marketing Research, 44 (3), 370-378 DOI: 10.1509/jmkr.44.3.370
The following two tabs change content below.

Caroline Sober

Caroline is a senior software developer at Promega. She’s not a scientist, so if you hear her talking about DNA purification or pipetting or current issues in bioprivacy, she’s totally faking it and you should tell her to hush. She is, however, passionate about building useful software, the interactions between people and technology in general, and how social media is changing the conversation between companies and customers. She lives in Madison with her husband, daughter, and 110-pound dog.


  1. Thanks for this Caroline. Now I know why I went into the store for a pair of socks and came out with a coffee-maker! I like your tips on how to avoid this in the future. I would like to try option 1, but I probably need option 3.

  2. Here is a sixth idea. Decide how much you are going to spend, then bring cash for only that amount (with maybe enough extra to buy yourself a latte). Personally I’ve never managed to do this. Maybe next year.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.