Retail Dogma

Unplanned Purchases

What Are Unplanned Purchases?

Unplanned purchases are purchases made at a retail or ecommerce store that the customer didn’t plan for before entering the store.

In order to understand why unplanned purchases happen, we first need to understand why & how people shop in the first place.

The Customer Shopping Journey

The typical customer shopping journey is planned in nature.

It starts with recognizing a certain need and then goes through different phases that precede and succeed the purchase itself.

The customer shopping journey phases are:

  1. Need Recognition
  2. Information Search
  3. Evaluation of Alternatives & Decision
  4. Purchase
  5. Pre-consumption
  6. Consumption
  7. Post Consumption & Evaluation

So before customers enter the retail or ecommerce store, they already know what they want and have a plan of the products they are going to buy from the store.

Now, depending on many factors that we will mention below, many times customers come out of the store with a list of items that they bought but were not in the initial plan

These are called “unplanned purchases”.


Types of Unplanned Purchases

Planned vs. unplanned purchases

Unplanned purchases can be further subdivided into two categories: Reminder and impulse.


Reminder purchases were not in the initial plan the customer had before entering the store, but upon seeing them he was reminded that he actually needs them.

This could be, for example, seeing a bottle of water and being reminded that you only have one left at home and will probably need to buy more anyways. So instead of making another trip to the store the next day, you simply pre-pone the transaction and make it now while you are there.

The main thing is: The need is there.

This results in adding those items to the shopping basket as an unplanned purchase.


Impulse purchases happen when the customer is subjected to certain stimuli at the store that result in him making the purchase without prior planning, and in most cases even without a real need for the product.

During impulse buying the customer doesn’t go through the cognitive process that we have described at the beginning, but rather makes a fast decision that is majorly emotionally driven.

Impulse buying doesn’t happen only occasionally. It actually contributes significantly to the total retail purchases.

1 in 3 purchases are made on impulse, including in-store purchases, during the holiday season.


Unplanned Buying Vs. Impulse Buying

All impulse buying can be categorized as unplanned buying, but not vice versa. The main distinction is whether or not there is a need for the product. Pure impulse buying is emotionally or sensually driven.

Impulse Buying Example

An example of impulse buying is when you walk through a grocery store and pass by the bakery section and the good smell of freshly baked goods acts as a stimulus to your senses and drives you to buy a cup cake or a cookie that you never planned to buy in the first place.

Another form of impulse buying is when someone goes for shopping, just because they are in a bad mood and want to uplift their mood by buying anything, a.k.a. retail therapy.

How to Increase Unplanned Purchases?

Retailers usually try to to maximize the amount the customers spend at the store, using many different tactics to improve their AOV and IPC.

Trying to increase unplanned purchases by reminding customers with the products they might need or highlighting the best deals for them on the products they usually buy can improve sales and customer loyalty at your store.

Note: It is important to note here that we don’t encourage or advocate for impulse buying or trying to make the customers buy just anything for the sake of increasing sales.

It is important for the retailer to think long term and establish a healthy relationship with his customers that is beneficial for both parties.

Remember: Our goals is always to maximize the customer lifetime value, and not just try to make a quick gain by tricking people into buying things they don’t need.

Having clarified this point, let’s see how you can increase unplanned purchases at your store

Store Layout

Your store layout can play a big role in increasing unplanned purchases.

Your goal is to make customers see almost everything you have to offer, so they can pick what they need and be reminded of anything they forgot to plan for.

A popular example for this is how IKEA uses the forced-path store layout to “force” customers to go through all the store departments before they leave.

Forced Path Store Layout

Since forced-path layout will not be suitable for all product categories, you can think about how to alter your adopted layout to give maximum visibility to most products you carry.

For example, grocery stores use the grid layout, but in order to maximize visibility of the different categories, they display the most important categories at the back of the store.

This way, customers have to go through different categories before they arrive to the staples and pick what they need along the way.

Store Display

Good visual merchandising display at your store can increase unplanned purchases.

For example, fashion retailers use outfits on mannequins to suggest matching products to the customer who picks one of the items displayed on the mannequin.

They also plan their display around the same concept by displaying related items together.

For example, you can display denim on the wall and use the adjacent table to display matching t-shirts that a customer would want to wear with the jeans.

Store Promotions

Highlighting store promotions prominently and at the right places will entice customers to stock up on the items they already need, in order to benefit from the promotion.

This way, they are benefiting from the promotion, by saving on what they would have bought otherwise later on, and you as a retailer will benefit from clearing your old merchandise… A win/win!

Using professionally designed and printed banners to communicate your latest promos and highlighting them will draw customers’ attention to them.

A good practice is to put them in a designated display and highlight them as “best buys“, “last pieces“, “limited offer“, or any similar communication.

We have seen it many times: A store will be having a discount on certain items to clear them, but only uses a was/now price tag to convey the message.

Of course, most of the time the message goes unnoticed and the store misses on all the unplanned purchases from customers visiting the store. The only ones who end up buying the discounted item are the ones who already came to buy it.

Selling Skills

Upgrading the selling skills of your team and giving them proper retail staff training from time to time will increase unplanned purchases.

Having a good sales team that knows how to do suggestive selling and uncover customers needs will always work in your advantage as a retail owner.

In addition to selling skills, product knowledge is another area you need to train every new joiner on.

When your team has a solid product knowledge of what your are offering, they will be able to suggest alternatives or matching products that will add to the transaction.

That’s why investing in a good training programs for your team will definitely pay off in the future.

Unplanned Purchases in Online Retail

The same concept of reminding customers of products that they need or showing them the most beneficial promotions you have applies also in ecommerce.

Since, there is typically no sales team to talk to the customers while shopping online, it is important to focus on online merchandising and connecting the different products together to maximize sales, using up-selling and cross selling techniques available for every ecommerce store owner.

Most ecommerce platforms now allow you to specify which products from the catalogue can be suggested with this product.

This is usually done at the product page, as well as at the checkout page.

Similar to the mannequins use at the store, ecommerce stores can use photography and model display to create outfits that customers can shop together and tag all the products with links in the picture of the outfit.

Finally; highlighting the latest deals on the home page and using a top bar to communicate any special coupons will also help drive unplanned purchases.


Access our members area and read our case study on how IKEA has mastered the online merchandising game.

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