College Connect: Smart shopping – beating back the lure of the impulse purchase

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The tomato basil potato chips are begging to be bought. In a colorful, crackly bag, sitting prominently beneath a sale sign, they scream “we’d be perfect for your party!”

I do my best not to listen. The dollars in my wallet need to stay right where they belong; too many of their brothers and sisters have disappeared already today. I use a tactic my dad taught me to defuse the temptation to buy small things on impulse: I look away and try to visualize all the similar things I’ve previously bought and still have.

The party is planned, and snacks for the party already include three kinds of chips, cookies, and drinks. Food is covered, and yet I wonder if buying another bag would be worth it… Oh dear. Dad would not be proud of the hole these few dollars are burning in my purse.

Of startling but somewhat assuring news – because at least I know others are in the same boat – is a statistic I recall author Paco Underhill citing in his 2000 book “Why We Buy: the Science of Shopping”: that 60 to 70 percent of things bought in supermarkets weren’t planned purchases. That percentage seems high until I think about the things filling my shopping basket today: toothpaste I hadn’t realized I was running out of until I saw it on the shelf, a favorite brand of baby carrots I only noticed on my way out of the produce section, leftover Easter candy that was too deeply marked down to pass up. In the midst of all this, a bag of tomato basil chips almost convinced me to add them – just because they were on the end cap of an aisle leading to the checkout.

It’s no wonder Dad used to hate taking me shopping with him. I don’t know how he kept abreast of the temptations to buy more than the necessary items himself. Something I’ve learned since I came to college: It’s one thing to gaze yearningly toward an expensive flavor of ice cream or even a sale bag of chips when a parent’s denial stands between the item and the cart; it’s quite another thing to go shopping by yourself and be able to purchase any and every item you get a hankering for.

Supermarkets are worse for me than the mall, actually. I started buying some of my own clothes as early as middle school and learned quickly to save money for the items I really wanted or would need. But Mom and Dad always took care of the groceries – plus, it’s a lot easier to spend $2.98 on chips that will eventually get eaten than it is to shell out $20 for a top that may or may not be machine washable.

Underhill says impulse buying is “triggered by something asking the question, ‘Don’t you need this? If not now, maybe in the near future?’” He’s not describing the lure that made me pick up the yummy-looking bag of baby carrots as I passed by; he’s describing the curse that keeps me standing in the main aisle of the supermarket for minutes on end, staring at a display of tomato basil chips, wondering if I ought to buy any. Sure, I have snacks already, but what if some of my guests prefer this kind the most? What if I don’t buy them, and some guests are disappointed?

Geez; I suppose I could have just decided to spend the $3 three minutes ago and saved myself the worry. Though if I’d done that, the next time a situation like this arose, I think I’d be more likely to give in and buy the unnecessary item again. I’m thinking that $2.98 isn’t much today, but if it becomes a habit, the money spent would add up. I decide to say goodbye to this bag of tomato basil chips, imagining my thrifty Dad’s smile of approval. My guests don’t need them, and neither does my budget.

My wallet waves a friendly farewell as I toss the bag back and walk away.

Victoria Ison is a Ball State University freshman majoring in magazine journalism and Spanish.

SABEW - Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication,
Arizona State University

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