How to Sell Smart on Facebook: Insights from Impulse Buying

What’s the most important thing to know about selling on Facebook?  Ask Facebook commerce specialists such as Dean Alms of Milyoni and Jeff Sable of Moontoast and it won’t be long before the word IMPULSE comes into the conversation.  The one thing that f-commerce detractors and promoters agree on right now is that people rarely go to Facebook specifically to shop (yet), so when they buy something it’s an unplanned purchase, i.e. it’s an impulse purchase.

Dean Alms compares Facebook commerce to going to a baseball game. “You are there to enjoy a ballgame, but during the game you are likely to buy some food, beverage and maybe even a ball cap or T-shirt. You never went there to ‘shop’. Those that appreciate this role of Facebook will do better in the future than those that see Facebook as just another E-commerce channel.”

Now the really good news is that we can use this insight – that f-commerce is about impulse buying – to build a Facebook store designed to sell.  How?  By building off six decades of research into the what, why, who and how of impulse purchasing (for useful overviews of this research see here, here, here, and here).

The ideal f-commerce consumer

If f-commerce is largely driven by impulse purchases, then success in selling on Facebook will be contingent on attracting impulse buyers.  People who buy on impulse are people who make unplanned, spontaneous and often emotionally-driven purchases in response to retail stimuli, often with a disregard for future consequences.

Whilst most people make impulsive purchases from time to time, certain groups are more prone to buying on impulse;

  • women
  • under 40’s
  • affluent
  • disposable income
  • enjoy shopping
  • already shop online,
  • individualistic
  • materialistic
  • looking for self-betterment

If some of these variables describe your target market, then selling with Facebook may be more likely to work for you. Moreover, impulsivity is a personality trait, and impulsive people – spontaneous thrill seekers who sometimes show a lack of self-control – tend to buy impulsively. Check the scale below to find out if you’re an impulsive buyer…

Are you an f-commerce consumer? Get a score of 36 or more on the Impulse Buying Scale (Rook & Fisher 1995), and you’re an impulse buyer – and suited to f-commerce.

To what degree do you agree or disagree with the following statements? (give yourself 5 points when you strongly agree, 1 when you strongly disagree – and intermediate scores for anything in between).

      1. I often buy things spontaneously.
      2. “Just do it” describes the way I buy things.
      3. I often buy things without thinking.
      4. “I see it, I buy it” describes me.
      5. “Buy now, think about it later” describes me.
      6. Sometimes I feel like buying things on the spur of the moment.
      7. I buy things according to how I feel at the moment.
      8. I carefully plan most of my purchases. (nb reverse scale!)
      9. Sometimes I am a bit reckless about what I buy.

The ideal f-commerce product

If f-commerce is largely driven by impulse purchases, then you will also want to be selling products most likely to be bought on impulse.  Virtually all products, presented in the right way to the right people, can be bought on impulse – indeed impulse buying accounts for 30-50% of all consumer purchases .  Nevertheless there are certain types of product most suited to impulse purchases.

First, the obvious; cheaper ‘hedonic’ products – inexpensive products that are fun and enjoyable (as opposed to functional/utilitarian) are most likely to be bought on impulse, and therefore on Facebook. So if you offer self-gratifying fun products that won’t put a hole in the pocket, then selling on Facebook could work for you.

Secondly, and perhaps more interestingly is the fact that impulse purchases are typically symbolic products – products we use to construct and maintain our identity and image – such as badge brands – particularly fashion, luxury and beauty, sports and club merchandise, music and other media.  If your target consumers define themselves – at least in part – by owning what you sell (something psychologists call ‘bricolage identity construction’), then it could be worth considering f-commerce.

Finally, the other big finding from research into products bought on impulse is the importance of instant gratification – products that can be enjoyed immediately are often bought on impulse. For selling on Facebook, this means downloadable digital products make for ideal f-commerce products.  Where this is not possible, because the goods must be delivered, fast shipping and an offer of an accompanying immediate digital download would help.

The ideal f-commerce store

Finally, if f-commerce is largely driven by impulse purchases, then you will want to be selling products in a way that facilitates buying on impulse.  This is where shoppers should stop reading, as by understanding how impulse selling works, you help inoculate yourself from it.

As you might intuitively expect, impulse purchases are far more likely with promotional incentives – principally in terms of limited or exclusive price discounts, volume offers or special editions. The words “limited” and “exclusive” are powerful purchase cues, as is the word “free” – whether it’s free stuff, free shipping or free returns. Other variables favoring impulsive buying include simple, fast checkout (stored payment details), free returns and guarantees, atmospherics (attractive store design and product presentation), emotional appeals in sales copy (such as the “loss” the consumer would feel if they missed out), vendor donations linked to purchase, purchase suggestions or recommendations – including bestseller lists – and store design that favors browsing.  Interestingly, research shows that putting the consumers mind at ease, by saying it’s okay – indeed the right thing to do – to buy on impulse also increases impulse purchasing.  On the other hand, to the degree that comparison and review technology appeals to more elaborated cognitive processing and decision-making, such features may hinder Facebook sales.

In contrast, selling the same things at the same price as available elsewhere is unlikely to be a recipe for f-commerce success.  Which is why we’re not particularly bullish about simply replicating your full e-commerce store in Facebook; could JC Penney, ASOS, Express and GameStop perhaps benefit from adopting an impulse buy strategy for Facebook?

Written by
Paul Marsden

Chartered psychologist specialising in consumer behaviour, wellbeing and technology. Certified CX professional experienced in Design Thinking. A researcher, writer and speaker, Paul is head of Digital Insight at SYZYGY.

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  • @dotbox we agree 100% with these findings, and from our experience with retail clients we can concur – impulse is key. However, there is also another aspect which is overlooked in this piece. And that is, the use of the social graph, and social context to aid the shopping experience. FB stores that just replicate the typical online store are missing a trick. The most important element is build in offers, navigation and personalization that is only available on Facebook. This will increase the engagement rate, and purchase rate exponentially. We are testing a number of these ideas now with our retail clients, and look forward to sharing the resulting analysis soon. Feel free to keep up with our developments at

  • We have recognized the potential for brands to implement commerce on Facebook and enable their fans to transact there. Lots of important considerations shared in this article – thanks! I have not heard the relationship expressed in the way that people do not go to Facebook to buy something so if they do its impulsive. With 1 out of 4 people on Facebook buying items, thats a lot of impulsive activity going on and a great opportunity. Retailers need to do more than just upload their product pics to a Shopping tab. Here is an example of how Nutrimetrics engages with fans and promotes their products:

  • The mentioned findings were really true, and i believed in it,.
    I own a shop here in Philippines and its really doing well, most of my clients age 40 and below. Most of them are high wage earners, working moms and Overseas Filipino Workers.
    Selling on facebook is really fun, easy and convenient.
    However the number of scammers are increasing, because anyone can just set up a store, copy pictures, fake the identity, fake all the informations and can leave no trace of their true identity.
    This is the issue that facebook should consider looking into. This is just getting absurd.
    Heres my shop by the way…

  • […] The more Facebook commerce progresses and gets popular with consumers, the more we’re learning about how to utilize it. It’s fairly obvious that f-commerce is an impulse buying system for the most part. People don’t come to Facebook directly to shop yet. So what exactly defines impulse buyer and who are they? Social Commerce Today recently published an article defining Facebook shoppers. […]

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Written by Paul Marsden