The strange psychology of panic buying

Girl window shopping Sales can put pressure on shoppers because they are time-sensitive and usually have limited stock

At the eleventh hour Chelsea secured Spain star Fernando Torres for a staggering £50m. But why do people buy under pressure?

The deal, which came just as football's transfer window - a month-long opportunity to buy players - was about to end, has shattered the transfer record for a player moving between British clubs.

Although most people don't have these sums to spend, buying in a time crunch is something we can all relate to.

Whether it's buying Christmas presents on Christmas eve, eyeing the clock as the sales draw to a close, or picking a purchase a couple of minutes before your train departs, we've all felt rushed into making a decision.

So what happens when shoppers buy under pressure?

Consumers are more likely to do what the retailer wants. And they want you to spend more money, says retail psychologist Tim Denison.

"If you are under time pressure, you are basically looking for cues and shortcuts in the process," he says. "You'll be more likely to look at products that the retailer has positioned in places for you to pick out easily."

Start Quote

If you are going supermarket shopping, never go on an empty stomach”

End Quote Retail maxim

So when a shopper is looking for a can of beans at the supermarket, they are more likely to pick out the more recognisable brand, the can placed at eye level, or the one with a price promotion, he says.

Sales can also put undue pressure on buyers for two reasons, says Consumer.ology author Philip Graves. Sales usually last for a limited time and products on sale tend to have limited stock.

Most shoppers attach greater significance to potential loss - missing out on a bargain - than they do to a reward like having bought something that was needed. The purchaser thinks if they don't buy the item at that instant they might miss out entirely, Graves explains.

So when an item is discounted, consumers focus on the discount as opposed to the actual price of the good, even if the ticket price is still high, says Dr Denison.

"You're thinking 'this is a bargain' rather than 'this costs £100'."

Most shoppers have felt the effects of this stress on more than one occasion.

Confusing choices

But sometimes the pressure consumers feel can actually be a good thing, says Graves.

An abundance of choices can confuse shoppers because there is too much to consider. "We tell ourselves we like choices, but when we have more choices we get confused," he says.

So an outside factor, like a refrigerator breaking, that forces consumers to make a fast purchase can actually help them reach a decision quickly before they become overwhelmed by the options.

But if a shopper hasn't gone through a rational process because of time constraints or other elements of stress, they may feel guilt or anxiety, referred to as "buyer's remorse", explains Dr Denison.

And there is a difference in the way men and women rationalise their shopping behaviour.

Woman making a choice at the supermarket Too many choices can overwhelm shoppers

"Women look for the bargains and pick up something thinking it's scarce, come home, unpack it and frequently will accept that what they bought is a disappointment," he says. "For men, whether they feel remorse or not, they are unlikely to declare it."

So what can be done to avoid the pitfalls of buying under pressure?

The old adage "if you are going supermarket shopping, never go on an empty stomach" can apply to any sort of shopping.

Going with a plan or a list may help curb unplanned spending and reduce potential feelings of regret, says Dr Denison.

For example, if you go to WHSmith looking for a book 10 minutes before the train leaves, spend time browsing books rather than getting seduced by Maltesers, and the other impulse products, which are strategically placed to make you grab them on your way past.

These days many shoppers seem to understand this notion.

According to Planet Retail's research director Natalie Berg, consumers have been buying wisely during the recent austerity. To stretch their budget, shoppers have tightened their purse strings and are generally sticking to lists.

But this is bad news for retailers, as impulse buys are often more profitable, she explains.

Retailers are scrambling to figure out how to get consumers to spend more again - and not just on their shopping list, but also on unplanned purchases.

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