Last-Minute Splurges: Why You Can't Resist

Such products "don't need a lot of explaining," said business consultant Switanowski. "It sells itself (because) you understand what it does."

Retailers have changed their impulse buy offerings to adapt to changing times. Switanowski said that panty hose once were a fixture near department store registers, but as more women said "no" to hose, they were moved out of impulse buy territory and into more far-flung parts of the stores.

Meanwhile, as hand sanitizer grew in popularity -- years before this year's swine flu pandemic -- bottles of the germ-killing concoctions began staking their own claims near grocery store check-out aisles.

Most recently, more retailers are stocking check-out lanes with inspirational items like bookmarks with uplifting sayings because recession-weary consumers are looking for products that will make them feel good "for more than just a minute," Switanowski said.

Where do consumers make the most impulse purchases? A 2005 study by Leo J. Shapiro & Associates and Marketing Support Inc. found discount retailers such as Wal-Mart to be most popular among impulse buyers, while home improvement stores were the least popular.

That could, however, be changing: Since about 2005, home improvement chain Home Depot, one of the nation's top retailers, has placed common impulse buy products like candy, snacks and drinks in its check-out aisles.

While they hope to sell such products to all customers, they're largely targeted at Home Depot's "pro customers" -- on-the-job contractors who come to the store to restock on supplies.

"They're in and out of store all day long and they don't have time to stop, so they're able to pick up things like a beef jerky and a soda," instead of taking an extra trip to a supermarket, said Jean Niemi, a spokeswoman for the chain.

The Thrill of the 'Treasure Hunt'

But Home Depot can't rely on jerky -- and other aisle-fillers -- alone.

Impulse buy sales at the chain haven't compensated for weakness in other departments, including lighting and appliances. For the first three months of 2009, total sales at Home Depot declined nearly 10 percent, compared with a year ago.

At warehouse club Costco, sales dropped 7 percent in May over last year. Here, too, impulse buys weren't enough to compensate for recession-related sales declines -- this, despite the fact that Costco's definition and prices for impulse-buy products are wider than those of most retailers.

Costco considers impulse purchases to be "treasure hunt" items, said Richard Galanti, Costco's chief financial officer. They're products that don't typically stock the stores' shelves but rather are offered to consumers only when Costco secures a good deal from manufacturers. Often, this can include high-end product like Prada handbags or TAG Heuer watches.

As a result, Costco's treasure hunt items can range in price from $20 to $2,000.

For Costco, the appeal of such sales isn't just in profits -- Galanti said that impulse buys make up roughly 5 to 6 percent of the retailer's sales volume -- but rather in what they add to the atmosphere within a store.

"It creates some of the excitement," he said. "People go into Costco to buy their essentials, walk out with something they didn't expect to buy and they're thrilled buy it."

No matter where you get your impulsive shopping thrills, Benson advises that you make sure that your wallet-sapping indulgences aren't signs of something more pathological -- an addiction to shopping.

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