Currently, it is estimated that one quarter of all global emissions stem from the manufacture and consumption of retail goods such as fashion products, electronics and other consumables [1
]. Although consumers are increasingly well educated regarding the damaging impact of a number of consumption behaviours, overconsumption is still common within certain product markets [2
]. The current culture of retail consumption seen in affluent, Western economies continues to threaten both the environment and the societies within which goods are produced [3
]. In order to address this significant sustainability issue, it is essential that overconsumption is specifically addressed within industrialised nations [4
]. Overconsumption has detrimental consequences for individual wellbeing and sustainability of the environment [5
], and exemplifies the tension between mutually beneficial, voluntary exchange, and the damaging effects of excess waste [6
]. This study addresses the problem within one group of overconsumers, young adult females, by examining their online impulse buying behaviour, and the systems that promote excess consumption in the online retail setting.
1.1. Impulse Buying and Overconsumption in Online Retailing
Impulse buying is considered a departure from regular shopping practice, yet it is said to account for between 30% and 50% of self-reported purchases [7
], and 40% of all online expenditure [8
]. It is estimated that, in Western households, consumers spend approximately USD 5400 per year on impulse purchases of retail items including fashion, food and household products [10
]. Despite this, consumers themselves are thought to severely underestimate their actual impulse purchasing [11
]. This non-acknowledgement of the extent of their unplanned shopping is likely due to the negative social implications of such behaviour [7
], with this lack of mindfulness of the part of a consumer, in regard to their personal shopping habits, contributing to the extent of the problem [4
In sustainability terms, one of the most significant issues in addressing overconsumption is the attitude–behaviour gap evident amongst modern consumers, who are well educated regarding sustainability principles [2
]. Consumers who profess motivation toward more conscious consumption choices often behave entirely differently at the point of purchase, with drivers such as lifestyle or demographics promoting behavioural intention discrepancies [13
]. Studies of sustainable consumption have tended to focus on what promotes or constrains sustainability intention [14
], or on motivators toward low consumption [16
]. Fewer studies have examined singular aspects of the purchase decision process and how this interacts with individual consumption psychology, such as the role of consumption enabling tools in promoting overconsumption.
Consumption is an accepted fundamental part of life, where basic needs initiate the acquisition of products such as clothing and food. However, socially driven consumption behaviours, supported by materialistic social values, have led to overconsumption in almost all retail categories [17
]. A drive toward materialism, when combined with a lack of consumption self-control, thus increases the likelihood of overconsumption in any category a consumer engages with [4
]. When seeking to understand the links between impulse purchasing and overconsumption, the literature highlights a disconnect between psychology theory, which posits that impulsiveness is primarily driven by internal prompts [18
] and marketing theory which focuses on external drivers of such behaviour, particularly where the online environment is concerned [22
]. This tension underscores the current gap in existing knowledge regarding consumer impulsivity in the online setting, where a consumer’s natural impulsiveness in material acquisition must be considered separate from their response to various market stimulation tools.
The online retail environment has not only changed dramatically in the past decade, but also expanded, as users are able to access the internet through an increasing number of devices [23
]. With increased ownership, usage and portability of devices [25
], people are spending more of their time online, and this is reflected in the proliferation of e-commerce and mobile-commerce retail platforms available to consumers [26
]. Online shopping has become increasingly normalised in most markets [27
], and, as a consequence, retail websites are perceived by consumers as increasingly reliable and trustworthy [28
]. More resources than ever have been directed toward making online retail channels evermore functional to compete with, complement, or at times replace entirely the physical store [29
]. In this new and rapidly evolving consumer context, the speed, 24/7 accessibility and comparative ease of browsing items makes online retail channels particularly conducive to impulse buying [22
Impulse buying, as defined by Rook [12
], describes an instance of immediate purchase whereby “a consumer experiences a sudden, often powerful and persistent urge to buy” (p. 191). Tendency toward impulse buying is therefore a measure of the degree to which any individual might make “unintended, immediate or spontaneous and unreflective purchases” [30
], p. 506. Extant theory regards impulse buying tendency (IBT) as made up of a two-part interaction of state (situational) and trait (individual) behavioural moderators, suggesting a decision-processing aspect that balances pleasure seeking and self-regulation [31
]. On this basis, individuals with higher IBT are more likely to make an impulsive purchase, and so are more likely to be susceptible to external market stimuli.
Impulsive consumption behaviour has received considerable attention in retailing research. Understanding the intersection between internal psychological factors unique to the individual with market facing external stimuli has formed a significant portion of this body of work [34
]. The overarching viewpoint of scholars of impulsive buying theory is that impulsivity in the retail consumption setting can be triggered and influenced [35
]. Where a consumer may have particular individual traits that categorise them as highly impulsive in their consumption decision-making, studies have confirmed the importance of situation-specific resource availability (e.g., time and money) for this impulsivity to be enacted in the retail setting [36
]. More recent research has thus been focused on understanding how impulse buying trait determinants interact with purchase motivation, resources and marketing stimuli [34
1.2. Purchase Stimuli and Overconsumption in the Online Retail Setting
Conversion tools are marketing stimuli that specifically aim to convert browsing visitors into purchasing customers [38
]. While there has been considerable study of website attributes (e.g., colour, layout, font, sound) and how these impact consumer behaviour in the online setting [39
], few studies have specifically examined conversion-type tools within a website that alter the conditions of a regular online sale. These tools include price promotions, but are also extended to value added offers of free shipping or free returns. As well as value enhancing offers, websites are more and more often employing instant decision-making facilitators such as low stock indicators, or targeted customer “chat” functions. Online marketing stimuli such as this is said to allow buyers to be less risk averse, and more likely to buy impulsively [40
]. The very nature of these conversion tools, specific to the online environment, can reasonably be assumed to enhance or encourage impulse buying behaviour, as they directly mimic many of the environmental factors that are known to be persuasive in physical in-store shopping, such as perceived time pressure [41
], instant price promotions [42
], or reminders of past behaviour [43
Impulse buying has been identified as a hedonic behaviour, driven by feelings of pleasure and excitement [37
]. Verplanken and Herabadi [20
] identified that this tendency is grounded in both cognitive and affective elements (cognitive being concerned with the processing and evaluation of circumstances, and affective being concerned with the emotional responses implicated in the process). Coley and Burgess [44
] make this distinction, breaking cognitive elements into separate traits of unplanned buying and short-cognitive deliberation, and affective elements into the irresistible urge to buy, positive buying emotion, and mood management. Each of these elements are consistent with original definitions of impulse buying by Rook and Fisher [45
], and Beatty and Ferrell [41
], and exemplify the importance of both the cognitive and affective pathways in understanding impulsive purchasing.
The online setting supports the hedonic experience of consumption by removing some of the usual in-store behavioural restraint signals (such as the absence of high spending cues) [46
]. It is suggested that over 60% of purchases are made impulsively, and that online buyers are more impulsive than those in-store [47
]. It is known that website experience, convenience and “web atmospherics” (including graphics, search engine and one-click purchasing) are likely to promote impulse purchasing beyond that normally seen in a bricks-and-mortar retail setting [9
]. What is less certain is how the impulse favourable environment of the online store is enhanced through the use of targeted marketing stimuli that push already sensitive consumers toward an immediate purchase, and recent studies have called for more investigation of individual marketing stimuli in this context [34
]. Therefore, to examine this aspect of online purchasing, it is hypothesised that a consumer’s tendency toward impulsivity will correlate to their sensitivity to such marketing stimuli:
Hypothesis 1 (H1).
Impulse buying tendency (IBT) will significantly predict conversion tool sensitivity in the online setting.
Alongside of marketing stimuli found in the online stetting, the growth of consumer use of credit cards and digital currency forms has promoted online purchasing [49
]. The use of a credit card is said to lower perceived cost of purchases, thus accelerating impulsive decision making in the retail environment [50
]. Access to credit has been previously shown to make people buy more, with the greater the number of credit cards owned, the higher purchase frequency observed [51
], and the greater the overall purchase spend [52
]. This effect is most prominently seen within apparel purchase (one of the highest volume categories of online retail sales), where credit card use is strongly associated with consumer impulse buying [53
]. Where we know that credit card use results in impulse purchasing online [42
], and that credit-based buying facilitates the instant gratification a consumer is seeking via such purchases [54
], the impact of the newest generation of retail consumer credit products is still unknown.
The current “generation of borrowers” are exposed to increasing waves of aggressive financial product marketing, revolving credit and increased access to unsecured finance [55
]. Buy-now-pay-later (BNPL) programmes come as a more recent addition to the consumer retail environment, directly competing with more traditional lending propositions [56
]. A key difference between BNPL platforms and bank credit is that banks are charged with a social responsibility to only offer what a borrower can repay. BNPL platforms do not share this obligation [57
], as they are often unregulated or ungoverned by traditional lending criteria. What results is an increased availability of funds to consumers who willingly enter financial agreements with few criteria and fewer safeguards, but may be perceived as less binding due to their separation from traditional credit companies. BNPL schemes share features of both traditional lay-by, credit cards and overdraft credit, requiring payment in regular instalments, and allowing consumers immediate access to goods. However, BNPL programmes could be assumed to be more attractive to consumers as they are sold as interest-free and fee-free, with goods not costing the consumer more than the original purchase price (if all instalments are paid on time). In this fashion, BNPL products can be theorised to promote impulse buying, both at the cognitive and affective levels:
Hypothesis 2 (H2).
Use of BNPL platforms will significantly positively predict impulse buying tendency in the online setting;
Hypothesis 2a (H2a).
BNPL users will be significantly more cognitively impulsive than non-users;
Hypothesis 2b (H2b).
BNPL users will be significantly more affectively impulsive than non-users;
Hypothesis 3 (H3).
Prior BNPL use will positively predict future intention to use BNPL in the online setting.