Critique of “The buying impulse” by Rook (1987)

This is a critique of a qualitative empirical study by Rook (1987) that I wrote on 2017-10-18 for the class, EDF 7475: Qualitative Research in Education taught by David Boote, Ph.D. at University of Central Florida.

EDF 7475 Article Critique Two
Richard Thripp
University of Central Florida

Article Citation

Rook, D. W. (1987). The buying impulse. Journal of Consumer Research, 14, 189–199.


Rook (1987), working as a research associate for a large advertising agency, asked participants (n = 133; mainly college students) three retrospective, open-ended questions about the “sudden urge to buy something” (p. 192), which asked participants to articulate the origins of the impulses, recall in-the-moment feelings, and describe detrimental consequences of impulse shopping. Rook criticizes past literature for characterizing impulse shopping merely as “unplanned purchasing”; proposes a new definition recognizing the overwhelming urge to buy, hedonic complexity and “emotional conflict” (p. 191); and justifies this exploratory study as addressing a literature gap, a need for “thicker description” (Geertz, 1973 as cited by Rook, 1987), and as a counterpoint to “excessive reductivism in behavioral research” (p. 192). In analyzing responses, themes emerged such as the “BUY NOW!” urge (p. 193), excitement, feelings of synchronicity, hedonism and regret, and, notably, 80% of participants detailing some sort of negative consequences.

Contribution to the Field

This is a staple citation in literature reviews on purchasing decisions and consumer behavior, perhaps because it refined impulse buying, phenomenologically examined the nature of buying impulses, and argued, armed with thick descriptions, that such impulses are fundamentally different from other purchasing behaviors. In fact, Rook is audacious enough to impugn past research as having “suffered from a phenomenological failure to identify what a buying impulse actually is” (p. 196). Rook’s paper is part of the zeitgeist of the emerging prominence of behavioral economics as a field of inquiry, along with Prospect Theory (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979) and papers like Thaler and Shefrin’s (1981) “An economic theory of self-control.” However, its contribution is hindered by (a) lack of methodological innovation, with an emphasis on self-completed written questionnaires, and (b) reliance on retrospective self-report, which is in conflict with behavioral economics’ contention that people behave irrationally and may not be able to describe, reflect on, or even notice this irrationality. Nevertheless, it was a starting point for further research by Rook and others on impulse buying, and, with over 2000 citations (according to Google Scholar), also had a broader impact on consumer research.

Strengths and Weaknesses

This paper had several methodological strengths, such as using quota sampling to sample across genders and age groups evenly, a rigorous content-analysis procedure with thematic coding requiring 1862 separate judgements for 14 coding categories from two graduate-student judges, and a design that allowed the 133 participants to freely reflect on their impulse buying. Ideally, this design might have been augmented by following a small number of participants to a mall, in a protocol analysis where they verbalized their cognitive processes while shopping. With only reflective questionnaires, both response and memory biases may have affected results.

Rook notes that half of participants self-completed the instrument in writing while half were interviewed, but modality is not mentioned regarding quotes and inferences in the qualitative narrative. Quotes from participants and the surrounding narrative are vivid, riveting, and insightful. However, with only eight headings in this section, it is not clear what the 14 coding categories were. A table with categories and percentages would be helpful, both in this section and the negative consequences section, the latter also being hindered by its surprising brevity. How the included quotes were selected is also not clarified. Nonetheless, Rook’s discussion section is pointed, addressing memory bias, situational factors, and his study’s methodological limitations. Rook even suggests that credit cards and 24-hour retailing may enable impulse buying, foreshadowing the “dark nudges” Sunstein and Thaler would warn of two decades later in Nudge.

Contribution to My Understanding

The data analysis section of this article showed me that a priori coding categories can justifiably be used, and that if I had 133 responses to analyze with an average of 181 words, which is as long as a dissertation, I would want to use software such as NVivo 11 to manage and graphically guide the coding procedure. Nonetheless, two graduate assistants, with enough time, can do this without software. Rook (1987) prominently features quotes and terms used by respondents, which lets their experiences speak for themselves, but is guided by the overall narrative of impulse buying being intense but bittersweet. Overall, before reading this I had discounted the value of reflective free-response interviews and questionnaires, but I learned they can be used to frame a problem, guide future research, gain insights, and argue a point, as Rook (1987) did with impulse buying. Therefore, I will consider this method as an alternative or supplement to a protocol analysis of individuals interacting with mobile banking interfaces. After reading this article, I learned more about behavioral economics from reading encyclopedia entries, book descriptions, and other studies, which contributes to my understanding of the psychological and irrational elements of consumer spending and financial decision-making. Methodologically, respect for allowing participants to respond uninterrupted—and to record and incorporate their writings or utterances verbatim—was evident throughout this paper and is something I need to work on, as I have a sort of compulsion to copy-edit and otherwise “clean up” others’ writing and speech.

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