Holiday Shoppers Plagued by Impulse Buys

Welcome to the desperate time of the impulse buy, readily apparent the last few days before Christmas when it dawns on many consumers that their shopping days are numbered. And for some last-minute buyers, this short period can be a dangerous time.

Confronted by long lines, time constraints and a sea of choices, they are often tempted to purchase on impulse and then sort out their finances later, consumer finance and marketing experts say.

Debbie Hunt planned to buy a hooded sweatshirt for her son. She got one — plus two shirts. And at the Poesis boutique in Richmond's Carytown shopping district, colorful purses drew Ryan Lancaster's eye. Without blinking, the 30-year-old salesman dropped $300 for his girlfriend.

"It's so easy to let your debt get out of control, especially around the holidays," said Michael McAuliffe, president of Family Credit Counseling Service (search) in Rockford, Ill. "The holiday spirit kind of takes on its own momentum, and you can be almost blinded by the holiday lights. You become overly generous."

McAuliffe believes impulse buying could become even more of a problem this season, if consumers are indeed postponing their purchases.

The National Retail Federation (search) estimates that consumers had yet to complete 18 percent of their holiday spending as of Dec. 19, based on a survey by BIGresearch (search), perhaps because the two extra days between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year encouraged more people to procrastinate.

For most of the year, people walk around with a mental budget, said Suzanne Shu, an assistant marketing professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. But during the holidays, they develop "self-control loopholes" that can expand when they shop without a firm list and at the very last minute.

One temptation is to buy luxury goods such as Burberry scarves and Fendi purses — items that shoppers might reconsider if they had more time to order gifts online or find a stylish sweater in the right color and size.

"Knowing that anything you buy will be fine because of the brand takes a lot of pressure off," Shu said.

Many buyers also reassure themselves that a few furry slippers, scented candles and stocking stuffers won't bust their budgets. But they forget that, by the time they finish buying the little stuff, they could have bought an expensive gift, said Cate Williams, vice president of financial literacy for Money Management International in Chicago.

"I just watched a lady at Pier 1 (Imports)," Williams said. "She bought martini glasses, then she bought charms that go on the bottom of them, and then she added a set of coasters," she said. "I was like, `Stop! Leave the store!'"

Consumer finance experts say, in most cases, impulse buying during the holidays won't put people into immediate financial trouble. But it means less money going into savings accounts, 401k plans and college funds, they say. Over time, finances can unravel, particularly if a consumer loses a job or has a medical crisis.

The average consumer who comes to Money Management earns between $35,000 and $40,000 per year and has about $18,000 in unsecured debt. But even well-heeled people, who tend to build their lifestyles up to their incomes, aren't immune to credit problems, Williams said.

"Almost all of their dollars are committed to Suzie's private school, the BMW lease, the Montero payment, the cleaning lady," she said. "And the high-end consumer isn't accustomed to saying, `I think I'm going to brown-bag it for a couple of weeks.'"

But such talk doesn't deter Pamela Kiecker, a marketing professor at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Even though her purchases in the week before Christmas might be perceived as an extravagance, she says it has evolved into an annual holiday tradition for her.

"This last-minute buying for me is so much fun," said Kiecker, who jokes about her buying habits because she studies consumer behavior. "I don't feel bad. ... This is who I am."

On a recent shopping trip, she bought a $100 body pillow at Brookstone for a friend, but then accessorized the gift with a box of notecards, maple syrup and a tree ornament.

"Oh, they add up big time," Kiecker said. "All of a sudden, I have spent $150 and it's a nice item and some junk. But the junk is going to be fun."