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Online Trends

Published September 25th 2017

Can Social Intelligence Help Save the Impulse Purchase?

A decline in cash registers and the rise of e-commerce is bringing down impulsive purchases like candy and gum. Can social intelligence help save the day?

As retail space melts steadily but surely into cyberspace, the age of the cash register is wearing thin.

While the cynic bemoans digital transformation for eliminating every remaining vestige of human connection from everyday life, contemporary parents may never experience the vengeful stare of a toddler pointing threateningly towards the shining row of candy bars beside the cash register. Maybe that’s some consolation.

That is of course if the controversial company Bodega, that could delay online shopping’s apparently inevitable monopoly, doesn’t judge candy bars as a prime item in your local area, placing them even closer to childrens’ line of sight.

Back to the problem of the cash register. The rise of the self-checkout and, more importantly, e-commerce, present real issues for companies that depend on last-minute impulse purchases. Where consumers might be tempted by a candy bar or a pack of gum in a momentary lapse of diet discipline while waiting in line or browsing the aisles, re-creating these unplanned purchases in online environments is proving challenging.

This is all very bad timing for a gum industry already suffering from a decline in smoking and an apparent increase in Millennial snubbing. (That’s another thing to add to the list of things Millennials are killing).

Time to get creative

Frank Jimenez of The Hershey Company discussed the problem surrounding self-checkouts distracting consumers from impulse purchase opportunities in 2014: “It’s a huge loss…We’ve done a number of studies. It’s billions of dollars since self-checkout started in 1992.” Three years later it’s still a problem, and the candy giant is looking for alternative possibilities. Brian Kavanagh, senior director of retail evolution for the company, and his team are experimenting with VR that could see Hershey’s products appear in people’s living rooms.

One of the biggest issues for candy and gum companies with buying groceries online is search – it seems that without the glimmering distractions of supermarket aisles we’re more likely to make healthy, planned decisions as we browse for items online. The Hershey Company team hatched a plan, collaborating with a grocery to create an online “seasonal aisle”:

Instead of searching for products on the chain’s website, visitors could browse an online aisle that was organized by theme, such as Easter, and because there were no physical limitations, refrigerated and shelf-stable items could sit side by side. The result was that shoppers discovered items they wouldn’t have necessarily searched for and basket size was three times higher than usual, translating to more sales


While doing your grocery shopping while wearing a VR headset might be a way off, these trials on different levels of futuristic-ness are necessary for a company looking to compete in the changing times ahead.

Deferred vs. Instant gratification

A revolving clock-like gif containing the words "tick" and "tock"The problem with online purchases is that, until we have super speedy drones ready to deliver candy to the door or window of the person afflicted with “sweet tooth”, cravings that can be satisfied with a dollar or less still require the user to leave the house to get their quick fix.

It’s a hard life.

The definition of an impulse purchase is buying something you didn’t plan to before as the result of whim or impulse. Craving sugar or being hungry might be one of those impulses, but equally seeing an offer so good one can’t refuse is another.

Combining these using the digital miracles of the day could see candy brands’ impulse purchases rise again.

Can social data help save the impulse purchase?

Candy companies know that as humans we are weak and when we see candy bars in the store we tend to be more inclined towards buying candy bars. This is why VR or AR could be a great way to get candy bars front of mind – but maybe they don’t need to go so far.

Previously, getting candy bars in front of us hashad its limits – either in store, on TV ads, on billboards or in the newspaper. Social media gives so many more opportunities, particularly with food.

Not only can ads be targeted at massive audiences, marketers can be smart about the timing and placement.

For example, earlier this year we found out when New Yorkers were most in need of pizza. Ads with special pizza offers between 4pm and 10pm ET are probably going to do better than ones at 6am.

A bar chart showing the times of day New Yorkers want talk about wanting pizza most. 6pm and 10pm are the most popular times.

Why not find out when people are most vocal about their candy cravings – or better yet send offers directly to the people complaining about candy cravings at the exact point they’re craving them.

Bulky bars

An ad at the time of the candy craving could boost the chance of a sale, but doubling it up with a great deal could be even better. An experiment promoting larger volumes of candy sale could make for interesting results.

The gratification is still deferred, but candy craving won’t be a problem for another few months! Interest in bulk buying appears to have grown in recent years and could be particularly interesting to student or family households with multiple occupants to share the candy with.

Also, an outrageous bulk buy is definitely share-worthy and once the candy fan opens their box full of treats and snaps a picture you can track the exposure using Image Insights.

Extra sweet ideas: Add-ons

Getting candy fast without leaving the house is no easy feat. A single candy bar delivery service probably isn’t something the likes of Deliveroo and Uber Eats are going to take up any time soon (at least without one heavy price tag). Instead, adding candy bars as add-ons to larger purchases like call-out food or alcohol deliveries could be a way to boost sales from those looking for a cheap dessert or hangover cure. This might require deals with particular chains, but if you’re feeling hungry and ordering junk food online you’re probably more likely to be inclined to add a Mars Bar than if you were ordering any other item.

Sending sweet treats as an add-on could give candy companies another impulsive boost. Balloon and flower services often offer the sender the option to send their recipient a little bag of candy. If the same kind of offer could be extended to image postcard sending services like Touch Note (in which you create a postcard from a photo on your phone), candy could be flying all over the place (postal fees allowing).

The future could be candy coated

There’s no candy coating the current situation with reduced opportunities for impulse purchases in store, but with some extra creativity there’s room to recreate them online.

Are you a journalist looking to cover our data? Email [email protected] if you’ve got any further questions/requests. 

And don’t forget to follow us @BW_React for our latest research!

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