My fidget spinner is a lifesaver. Years ago, when I spotted a bunch of them in a display as I was in line at my local CVS, I just had to get one. I needed to see what all of the buzz was about. I heard people talking about them, saw posts of them on social media, and had watched countless pedestrians walking the streets of my neighborhood, spinners whirring in their hands.
Ever since, the fidget spinner has been there to help me make it through long meetings, endure endless calls with family members, and has even helped me focus as I work through a challenging blog post headline. Something about its never-ending rotations just draws me into a Zen-like trance that staves off boredom and gets the creative juices flowing.
Now I’m holding it again, wondering what it is that makes an impulse item like the fidget spinner such a runaway success. During ECRM’s recent Impulse, Front-End & Checklane session, I posed that question to a dozen buyers from a variety of retail chains, catalogs, and e-commerce sites to come up with an answer.
It’s not easy. Knowing what will make a successful impulse product is a lot like knowing in advance what will make a No. 1 hit song. It’s one of those things that you don’t really know until you actually experience it.
“It’s the type of product that you didn’t know you needed, but as soon as you lay eyes on it, you just have to buy it,” says Mellodi Manke, Buyer–GM, Housewares, ASOTV for catalog retailer AmeriMark Direct, which dedicates two pages of every issue to impulse-type items, one for general merchandise products, and another to health and wellness-type items. “They often are products that make life easier or more enjoyable in some way.”
While impulse products may be a “nebulous concept,” as another buyer put it, there were some common thoughts among the buyers at the session about what elements contribute to their success.
Many successful impulse products address common problems of everyday living, albeit often in a unique way that has never been seen before. Click & Carry is a great example of this. The company’s eponymous product is a simple handle device that helps shoppers manage and carry multiple bags at once, either by hand or by shoulder support (click here to see our post about the company).
Consumers who routinely lug several grocery bags up flights of stairs typically grab these right away when they see them, which is why founder Kimberly Meckwood scored deals with two Shark Tank sharks and landed six retail deals from just one ECRM session.
Many As Seen on TV items also fit this role. Think of Flex Seal’s Phil Swift using the company’s products to make all kinds of emergency home repairs (or build a boat using Flex Seal tape).
New & Novel
My fidget spinner definitely falls under the category of novelty impulse items; these tend to be trendy, fun, and sometimes downright weird and serve mostly entertainment purposes. “Fun and innovative items tend to do well as impulse products,” says one buyer from a large convenience store chain. “For example, one time there was a lot of buzz around inspirational rocks, small rocks with quotes written on them. They sold very well at our stores.”
These types of products, however, tend to have a limited shelf life; they do well while there is a lot of buzz about them, but eventually fizzle out once the trend is over. So timing is important, and you need to catch the wave early and have them on the shelves before the hype dies out.
However, in some cases, these new impulse items eventually become regular parts of a store’s assortment, even destination items in some cases. Take CBD products for example. At the campus stores of the University of Colorado-Boulder, CBD products were impulse items by virtue of the fact that advertising for CBD products is prohibited. However, once enough students tried it and the word got out, they have become a destination item and sell well year-round when school is in session, according to Associate Director Cairon Moore.
TikTok Product Stars
Because of this, it’s no surprise that social media platform TikTok has been a source of insights into what impulse products may be ripe for sourcing at an ECRM session or on RangeMe. “TikTok is a great place for getting a sense of what types of impulse items will do well,” says Samantha Denaro, Assistant Buyer for Dunham’s Sports. “I’ll search for things like kids’ trends, fun gadgets and see what’s popular. By now the algorithm knows what I’m looking for, so I get lots of these things popping up in my feed.”
Samantha Denaro and Keith Podob of Dunham’s Sports.
I myself did a quick TikTok search for fun gadgets and almost fell into a rabbit hole of interesting items that were trending, including an airbag for a cellphone, banana slicer, a flying fidget spinner drone, and a handy gadget that turns a 2-liter bottle of soda into a standing soda dispenser, many of which had over 1 million likes each.
Packaging & Pricing
As the purpose of impulse products is to quickly convince a passing shopper to see, identify with, and purchase an item that they had no plans on purchasing in the first place, packaging has to be first rate. There needs to be a clear message as to what it is, what makes it unique, and what it costs.
Of course, you can have the coolest product in the world, but if it’s not priced to move, it won’t. “The product has to offer enough obvious value so that the customer has no hesitation in adding it to their cart,” says Jeff Mudd, Category Manager at Schnucks. “The price cannot be too much of a deterrent.”
Schnucks’ Jeff Mudd.
Retailers also must pay close attention to seasonality when it comes to impulse items—not just time of year, but also what happens to be going on in the local market. For example, while grilling items will do well in the summer, and snacks do well during football season, you also want to be able to bring out disposable ponchos if it’s going to be raining during the local little league playoffs. In many cases, timing is everything when it comes to impulse purchases —it’s why all of the street vendors suddenly start selling those cheap umbrellas during a storm here in NYC.
Keep an eye on local happenings, which will give you an idea of some products that can be merchandised quickly on shippers or dumped in a bin at the front end. It’s also important to leverage social media in these cases, as well. Going back to the poncho example, you can run a quick post advertising them in advance of the playoffs, so people know where they can find them in the event a downpour occurs.
Perhaps the biggest trend over the past few years, which was only accelerated by the pandemic, is wellness. Consumers are more educated than ever about the ingredients that go into their products, and are looking for healthier options and wellness-related products. This has not only changed the way in which they shop (they are more deliberate during the pandemic, which hurts impulse sales), but it also has changed the nature of what falls into the impulse product category.
“Obviously, at the beginning of the pandemic, items like masks and hand sanitizer were solid impulse products, as consumers could never have enough of them,“ says Sherry Frey, VP of Total Wellness for NielsenIQ, who presented data on the impact of wellness on impulse product sales during the session. “Now, consumers are taking a longer-term view of their health, and things like vitamins, functional beverages, immunity-boosting products and other self-care items have been front-of-mind. There are many opportunities within this segment to generate impulse purchases.” (See the full presentation in the video below and download the presentation slides here: ECRM -Wellness Impact on Impulse.pdf )
Time to be impulsive
One thing’s clear. With mask mandates lifting and people becoming increasingly comfortable spending more time in stores browsing, there will be more opportunities for retailers and brands to drive sales of impulse products across a variety of categories, whether they are novelty items, problem-solvers, the latest TikTok trend, or for outdoor summer activities.
Maybe I’ll even find a replacement for my fidget spinner. I did see a few possibilities at our session!
Click here to register for ECRM’s 2023 Impulse, Front-End & Checklane session!