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Is TikTok reading my mind? Why it's so hard to avoid impulse purchases on social media

Lauren Brown hates the mall, but that doesn’t mean she’s not an avid shopper.

Brown, a 32-year-old data scientist, has been introduced to hundreds of products through influencers on Facebook and Instagram. If an item grabs her attention, it will usually wind up in her Amazon cart within minutes.

Brown, who lives in the Washington metro area, estimates she spends about $500 shopping online each month. Most of the purchases are Amazon products recommended by influencers like Caitlin Covington and Brittney Fusilier.

There’s the detergent dispenser hanging in her laundry room. The automatic pet feeder for her Havanese-bichon mix. The $20 sundresses. The patio set from Walmart.

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Lauren Brown purchased this $800 patio set from Walmart shortly after seeing it promoted by an Instagram influencer.
Lauren Brown purchased this $800 patio set from Walmart shortly after seeing it promoted by an Instagram influencer.

“Jesus Christ, I buy so much,” she said, laughing, as she pulled up her Amazon account. “But I mean, what’s wrong with making your home neater, cleaner? Having cute little knickknacks around the house?”

Market research firm eMarketer forecasts U.S social-media shopping will jump 25%, to $45.7 billion this year, with more than half of the country’s adults making a purchase directly on platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. Other research from customer intelligence consultancy Material shows that many of those purchases are made impulsively, driven by influencers and algorithms.

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“Social media platforms are so smart,” said Kelli Burns, an associate professor at the University of South Florida’s school of advertising and mass communications, who researches social media influencers. “The more you show what you like, the better the algorithm gets (and) the more likely you are to purchase something on an impulse.”

'As seen on TikTok'

Nearly half of Instagram's users use features like product tags and the Shop tab to shop weekly, according to a 2020 survey of 4,500 adults from market research firm Ipsos.

Another study from Material published this year found more than one-third of TikTok users buy something they see from the platform, and 37% buy a product “immediately” after discovering it on the app.

The term “immediately” was left up to the interpretation of the survey respondent, but Material’s vice president of account management, Brandon Grabowski, said it’s likely the purchases took place a day or two after the user first discovered the item.

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He credits the authenticity of the platform, which has "regular people" sharing product reviews.

“It’s real people in their real lives,”Grabowski said. “That just makes you believe the product reviews more.”

The platforms also make it easy to buy directly on your phone.

Brown, the data scientist from the D.C. metro area, said she usually makes a purchase shortly after finding a product she likes online.

“The link is already attached on Instagram, so you just go," she said, "It links you to Amazon and you can just buy now."

Impulse shopping was a problem before social media, but online platforms have "definitely made it worse," said Michal Strahilevitz, a marketing professor and the director of the Elfenworks Center for Responsible Business at Saint Mary's College of California.

Lauren Brown's laundry detergent dispenser, which she bought off of Amazon for about $21 after discovering it on social media.
Lauren Brown's laundry detergent dispenser, which she bought off of Amazon for about $21 after discovering it on social media.

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A 2022 survey of 2,000 people by marketing research company OnePoll found the average U.S. adult spends $314 per month on impulse purchases, up 14% from 2021. More than half did their impulse shopping exclusively online.

“You can just buy while you're browsing and hardly even pause – it's just a short detour and then you’re back to browsing,” said Burns, the expert on social media influencers at the University of South Florida.

Kelli Burns, an associate professor at the University of South Florida’s school of advertising and mass communications.
Kelli Burns, an associate professor at the University of South Florida’s school of advertising and mass communications.

But social media posts translate into real-world purchases, too. Material’s report points out that stores have started labeling items “As Seen on TikTok,” an updated version of the “As Seen on TV” trope. Other items are known to sell out in stores after going viral.

Laurie Lam, chief brand officer at cosmetics brand e.l.f. Beauty, said certain products will go out of stock quickly if they get enough eyeballs on apps like TikTok.

“We see our community buzzing about where to find (certain products) – creating a viral scavenger hunt,” Lam said via email. “Our fans will go to great lengths to find that last bottle of concealer or lipstick in stores and online.”

What are the risks? 

With credit card debt increasing steadily amid record-high inflation, frequent online shopping could pose a financial risk, according to Strahilevitz, the Saint Mary's College professor who researches consumer psychology and behavioral economics.

"There's nothing wrong with treating yourself, but the problem with impulse purchases is we end up treating ourselves too often," Strahilevitz said. "That is going to increase your debt or decrease your savings or both."

She added that too much impulse shopping can also have negative side effects on the environment and shoppers' emotional wellbeing.

But for most people, online shopping won't break the bank, according to Daniel Houser, chair of the economics department at George Mason University.

"Impulse purchases are often very low-cost items," he said. "These are not items that are typically going to put a person in financial difficulty."

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Algorithms 'in your brain'

Unlike retail stores, social media platforms can utilize data to introduce shoppers to items they're more likely to be interested in.

“You tend to get hammered if you start expressing interest with beauty products or fashion or food,” Burns said. “There's a really good chance that you're going to like what they put in front of you."

Riece Hamilton, a 32-year-old health educator in Kentucky, said she was shocked to learn just how spot-on TikTok’s algorithm is when she joined the platform a year ago.

“It’s like in your brain,” she said. “Not even just learning the things that you want to see, but how you want to see them.”

Hamilton said she’s been able to avoid most impulse buys so far, save for a Revlon One-Step hair dryer brush. It took just a couple of videos of other Black women using the hair-drying tool before she made the purchase on her phone.

She said the video ads and promotions on TikTok are more convincing than still photos on other platforms.

“You’re seeing other people use them and how it works on them,” she said. “It feels more real. It’s like you’re talking to a friend.”

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You can follow USA TODAY reporter Bailey Schulz on Twitter @bailey_schulz and subscribe to our free Daily Money newsletter here for personal finance tips and business news every Monday through Friday.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Instagram and TikTok get 'in your brain' to spur impulse buys