Impulse Selling on the Web

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Everyone views the Web as a great opportunity for impulse selling. People are roaming all over the place, with their minds and pocketbooks open. They are ready and willing to be influenced. All you need to do is create the equivalent of the candy counter at checkout and you can stimulate all kinds of impulse purchases.

If only it were so easy.

Many noble experiments in impulse selling have been tried, such as matching cookie-based interest profiles with targeted offers in banner ads. Didn't work. In fact, the entire value proposition of identifying purchase interest by recording a surfer's site-visit history is still unproven. Just because the person went to a series of sites recently does not seem to indicate much about anything.

And some ideas are still in the fantasy stage -- like context-based selling, where a keyword or phrase in a content site is hot-linked to a related product offer for purchase on the spot. Read about it in editorial copy, and click to buy then and there. We can only hope this technology will become available so we can test the concept.

Part of the problem is that impulse selling (or buying) has a variety of definitions. So let's sweep them into several buckets so we know what we are talking about.

• Unplanned purchases. These are the Snickers bars at checkout, or the tasty-looking coffeecakes placed conveniently next to the milk. Anything the merchant can do to make you buy something that is not on your shopping list.

• Gotta-have-it, emotional buys. These are items that grab you -- ones that you have to buy as soon as you hear about them. The newest compact disc from your favorite band. The chic new suit you saw in the window.

• Cross-sells and upsells. Merchants that try to stimulate additional purchases or larger orders are trading on consumers' impulsiveness. Once a customer has made the buying decision, it is often a small matter to get him to shell out a few more bucks for "fries with that."

• First-time trials. This might be a stretch, but some merchants consider impulse sales to be from new buyers, versus customers who are replenishing their stocks of favorite products. Get them to try it once on impulse, and then move them to regular purchase.

So, what do we do about it? There are several steps Web marketers can take to stimulate impulse purchases:

• Design the site for fast, convenient sales. Do nothing that gets in the way of the buy. Reduce the number of clicks required. Streamline the order page. Rework the page content to eliminate scrolling.

• Take away any doubts. Place guarantee statements in highly visible spots, like the home page and at the shopping cart. Use the familiar curlicue border around your guarantee to convey a sense of comfort and security. Write a reassuringly airtight privacy statement. State shipping charges early in the buying process to avoid the unpleasant surprises that cause shopping cart abandonment.

• Merchandise your navigation. Examine the site's log files to understand how people are moving around, what are the most popular pages and what are the least. Rearrange the navigation to move people quickly toward the sale.

• Test new offers. Put a daily special on the home page. Try "Put Back In" discounts with people who remove items from shopping carts. Create a customized checkout counter, serving up relevant product offerings based on the contents of the cart or, better yet, the customer's prior purchase history. Promote a good deal on a related product next to high-margin merchandise. Use the site to distribute product samples.

• Become the impulse on someone else's Web site. Set up partnerships with Web sites that cater to an audience similar to yours. Place some of your most popular products there and pay the partner a fee for each sale.

• Explore the new technologies. Try collaborative filtering, which allows you to make targeted recommendations based on the purchase history of buyers with similar interests. Build data-mining systems to predict likely purchase interest of your registered customers. Use drop-down, daughter-window technology that enables instant purchasing. Or try the new context-selling services on the market.

• Harness e-mail for impulse selling. What better way to put a variety of products in front of your customers' noses? E-mail allows you to take the product off the virtual shelf and offer it in another context. And if you use the transaction-enabled e-mail technology now available, you can close the sale from within the e-mail.

• Create occasions. A time-honored merchandising technique (we all know where Secretaries Day came from). Reminders to your customers about a family birthday, with a couple well-chosen gift ideas, can work wonders.

• Ruth P. Stevens consults with companies on customer acquisition and retention and teaches at New York University's graduate program in direct marketing. Reach her at

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