After an impulsive shopping session, one researcher wondered whether the primitive drive to get food turns otherwise sane people into crazy shop-a-holics. Photo: Getty Images)
If you’ve ever headed to the grocery store for milk and eggs and left lugging a half-dozen overfilled bags, you’re well acquainted with the dangers of shopping hungry. But it might not just be food we’re more likely to splurge on when feeling peckish, according to a new study published in PNAS, which finds that browsing for things like dresses and televisions on an empty stomach can increase purchases by 64 percent.
“We know that normally when you’re hungry, don’t go [grocery] shopping. That’s what conventional wisdom suggests,” says Alison Jing Xu of the University of Minnesota, who conceived of the study after her own puzzling mall spree in 2007. “When I finished shopping I felt very hungry and went to a restaurant. As I ate, I started thinking about my impulsive purchases and behavior: like I’d bought 10 pairs of tights instead of just the two that I needed. I was wondering, why half an hour ago was I really tempted to buy those?” Adds Xu, “I was curious whether the primitive drive to get food may also influence our subsequent behaviors when we purchase non-food products.”
And apparently, it does — regardless of how desirable the item itself might inherently be. In one of five segments of the research, participants were offered their choice of free binder clips. Those who felt famished requested 17 percent more clips than participants who had been fed a snack of cake. “It seems hunger puts a person in a mode of getting stuff in general, which goes beyond food,” explains Xu. Interestingly, though, “there’s no difference in terms of how much they liked those binder clips,” she says. “It’s just when they get a chance, [hungry participants] will take more of the stuff around them.
Xu and her colleagues Norbert Schwarz and Robert S. Wyer, Jr. also assembled a team that surveyed shoppers who were exiting a department store. The 81 participants were asked about their level of hunger and then their receipts were scanned. “After controlling for how much time they spent in a store, we found that the hungry group spent 64 percent more money than the less hungry group did,” says Xu. Among the most popular items: clothes, shoes and electronic products.
So what, exactly, is going on? “We think that when we are hungry, we are thinking about seeking, acquiring, consuming food, and those acquisition-related thoughts may ‘spill over’ and put consumers in a mode of getting more stuff in general.”
And while the researchers haven’t yet investigated the effects of hunger on online shopping, Xu doesn’t predict any significant difference between wanting to splurge at your local Target or at Target.com. “Nowadays technology really allows us to shop anywhere at any time, so it is important to make customers aware of the possibility that if they shop online when they’re hungry they may spend more money than otherwise.”
Some easy tips, however, can prevent an empty stomach from leading to an empty wallet. Eating at least 25 minutes before you head to the mall will allow your body sufficient time to register that you’re full. And if you’re prone to impromptu runs to Macy’s or Kohl’s, stock your purse or glove compartment with energy bars to prevent hunger-driven shoe splurges. “Nowadays I don’t think I would go shopping when I’m hungry. I always eat,” says Xu, adding, “If I’m hungry and I have to buy something, I think twice. Do I really want to get this? I try to make a more rational decision.”