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Food Tops List of Impulse Purchases

These unplanned buys cut across generations

Americans can't control themselves around food—or so it would appear based on two new reports on US consumption habits.

A January 2018 survey of US adults by OnePoll for Slickdeals delved into impulse shopping behavior and found food and groceries are the most popular unplanned products that make their way into shopping carts, cited by 71% of respondents. Clothing was second, at 53%, followed by household goods (33%). Takeout food, which was placed in a separate category, also made the top five.

The same survey found that 33% of respondents were spurred by an email promotion, while 21% tended to buy impulsively while online. 

A separate survey of US consumers by Brandtrust found that despite elders shaming millennials for wasting their nest eggs on avocado toast, the leading budget-busting category for all generations is food. Some 40% of respondents in the youngest age group (20 to 29) overspent on food and nonalcoholic beverages, while roughly one-third of those 60 and older did so as well.

The generations differed on secondary categories. Those ages 20 to 29—presumably in prime dating years—overspent nearly equally on clothing and beauty products (16.1%) and entertainment (16.4%), while all three middle segments (30 to 59) spent impulsively on children's items. The oldest group had more unexpected emergency expenses (22.4%).

Brandtrust suggested millennials differ from other generations because they tend to save in order to live comfortably throughout their lives instead of saving for retirement. This is one reason why younger consumers might be more inclined to spend on what might seem like luxuries or unnecessary conveniences to others. All age groups are susceptible to spending more on food than intended, but younger consumers are more likely to use things like meal kits, food delivery apps and digital takeout.  

Subscribing to meal kits is niche behavior among all US consumers, but according to Brandtrust, respondents ages 20 to 29 were nearly 2.5 times more likely to use them than those ages 30 to 39 (3.1% vs. 1.3%). The survey also showed that no respondent over age 50 used them. And an October 2017 survey of US internet users by Raymond James found that respondents ages 18 to 34 were nearly 5 times more likely to already use a food delivery app compared with those ages 50 and older (24% vs. 5%). 

This preference for immediacy may be a matter of life stage and comfort with tech, so as millennials age they could give up convenience for financial conservatism.