Maximising ‘Impulse’ Purchases

The Garden & Outdoor category provides plenty of intuitive opportunities for impulse purchases. However, as JOHN POWER explains, it pays to inject a little science into the process.

Intuition and common sense dictate most retailers’ habits when it comes to ranging products for impulse purchases, particularly in the highly diverse Garden & Outdoor category. The traditional methods employed by retailers to identify, position and price products designed to appeal to ‘impulse’ buyers are notoriously unscientific: choose products that are eye-catching, preferably seasonally relevant, small, and easy to display at or near the checkout. A good countertop display rack or cardboard stand usually seals the selection process.

But surely there are more sophisticated criteria for impulse sales success. What can retailers do to make sure they are tapping into customers’ discretionary expenditure as effectively as possible?

Impulse indices

The first step towards stronger impulse purchase results is to accept that high visibility is the secret to sales success – but it’s only the start of the journey. The best retailers understand that good product visibility alone will not ensure strong sales; a whole range of issues comes into play, involving both the product and the nature of its presentation. An appreciation of different selection parameters allows for some atypical, unconventional impulse purchase opportunities.

When assessing which products might be worth ranging for unplanned or impulse purchase, it is worth considering a small checklist of product characteristics, or indices, to gauge suitability. As shown in Table 1, these indices include price points, product characteristics, product independence, size, as well as display options. Each of these factors will contribute to the success or failure of the impulse purchase venture.


Higher price points

Many retailers assume customers will only make impulse purchases of small, low-cost items at checkout. I.e. an easy-to-pick-up item placed alongside the cash register, perhaps representing just 10%–20% of a typical overall spend, will hopefully be too great a temptation for customers to resist.

Think of pocket flashlights, small shovel and fork sets, basic barbecue utensil kits, battery packs, mini watering cans, budget sprinklers, and the like. While such products may certainly generate turnover, small margins mean retailers are really putting a little icing on the sales cake, nothing more. The real challenge is to achieve good impulse purchase turnover of higher-priced, higher-margin products.

As a starting point, let’s allow for much greater flexibility regarding impulse purchase price points and a broader spread of impulsive purchasing behaviour throughout an entire store. In fact, savvy garden and outdoor specialists realise that the vast majority of in-store products are, to some extent, aimed at impulse buyers.

Evidence for this generalisation exists in the wild fluctuations of turnover across all ranges and price points depending on weather conditions. On rainy weekends, for instance, all sales tend to decline in the Garden and Outdoor category, from higher price point items like garden furniture, prefabricated ponds and pumps, right down to more basic product ranges like green-life and pots. Every purchase is susceptible to the power of impulse. Once this truism has been accepted, the next strategy is to work out how to sell more higher-value items, which means looking carefully at the actual characteristics of the product, identifying how and where to set up displays throughout the store (not just at the checkout) and inventing creative ways of whetting customers’ appetites. While higher price point items might appear to be harder to sell to impulse buyers than low-cost items, there are ways of minimising the difficulties, starting with an honest appraisal of the product.

Product characteristics

If a retailer wants to maximise impulse purchases of a high-value product, first target items that belong to a familiar set of simple generic products – garden implements and tools, gloves, outdoor pots, for example. If items are more complex, meaning they would benefit from some form of explanation, then stick to goods that have excellent packaging, superb pictorial support material, and/or associated active presentations. Examples of items requiring additional explanatory material might include watering timer switches, anything requiring tool assembly, or water features. Such items should not be precluded from targeted impulse purchase; but they should be backed up with realistic, solid support material.

Some types of products will automatically cause problems, notably items that are innately prone to breakages, are likely to release toxic chemicals if mishandled, or which have an unusual or ungainly shape. Hanging baskets, for instance, are difficult to present in special high-visibility displays (‘too hard’ baskets?), whereas flat-base or square-box items such as packaged solar garden lights might be far more secure in an island display.

Stand-alone product

The next aspect to consider is product ‘independence’. Is the product a stand-alone item or does it belong to a wider system of products?

A stand-alone product might be an axe, ladder or shovel. An interdependent product might be a battery-powered light designed for attachment to the underside of a garden umbrella. Obviously, the interdependent product would be harder to sell to impulse buyers because (a) on its own (without an accompanying umbrella display) it might not be clear what the light is or does; and (b) its appeal is dependent on the purchaser already owning (or planning to buy) an umbrella.

Once again, if a retailer is hoping to appeal to impulse purchasers, stand-alone products are easier. Interdependent products are certainly viable, but ideally displays should demonstrate the product alongside other partner products, in this case an umbrella or unambiguous pictorial representation of one. More on display options later.

Size doesn’t matter

Impulse purchases don’t have to be dominated by diminutive, portable trinkets that can be thrown casually into a panier. Ranges of larger products, from heavy powered equipment to oversized pots and suites of garden furniture, are harder to market as ‘afterthought’ purchases, but they are still viable as impulse purchases, provided the retailer preempts the associated negative logistical issues in the mind of the customer. Signage indicating that a staff member can carry an item to a car, or advising that free delivery can be arranged, or offering complimentary accessories, or joking that a child could assemble the components of a flat pack, might tip the scales in favour of a ‘Why not?’ acquisition. Similarly, placement at or near a pick-up bay might also enhance the instant appeal of a large product.

Simple additional messages like ‘Uses Regular Unleaded Fuel – See Cans in Aisle 3’ could also serve to reduce a perceived difficulty while leading to an add-on sale.

Display ideas

Impulse purchases work best when the customer is able to not only see the product, but alsounderstand readily what it is and does. Special displays of items that are ‘a mystery’ to the average shopper will have little success unless presented with accompanying explanatory material.

As mentioned above, items that require ‘as assembled’ display, or presentation alongside other interdependent products – such as the aforementioned light under the umbrella – should be exhibited to suggest a finished application or installation. Let shoppers see what they could have once interdependent banks of products have been placed together.

It is a great shame that garden furniture, for instance, is seldom displayed with appropriate accompanying items, such as esky, barbecue utensils, thermos, lantern, citronella candles, hammock, etc., all of which could work in tandem to evoke stronger emotions and more impulse sales. Whether caused by overprotective companies not wishing to associate themselves with other suppliers’ wares, or lack of creativity on the part of store managers, retailers are mostly missing out on opportunities to maximise impulse buys through ‘full scene’, multi-product displays.

For tips about how to present arrays of linked products in situ, visit any camping/sporting store: some elaborate displays actually resemble still-life scenes from a campground.

Good displays might also be hamstrung by poor placement. How many times have you seen a sausage sizzle at the front entrance of a store – and bags of fertilizer lined up next to the marquis? Surely the aroma of the local scouting group’s snags could be harnessed to promote more impulse sales of barbecues and related outdoor dining equipment!


Impulse purchases in Garden & Outdoor departments are all about instant recognition and appeal, allowing the customer to visualise how a product might enhance the form or function of their own property. Product price points and sizes are less important than the product’s innate characteristics and ease of display.

Most importantly, success will be enhanced through emotive ‘full scene’ displays showcasing interdependent products. It’s amazing how a plain sandwich can become more tempting when it’s part of a picnic!