Religious shoppers can be a frugal bunch. Put them behind a shopping cart in a grocery store, tempt them with their favorite magazine at checkout, and what happens?
They’re less likely to grab it than others.
Those were among the findings of an unusual study published in the Harvard Business Review last month. The study examined impulse purchases by shoppers in U.S. counties with the highest percent of religious adherents.
It found good news for the thrifty shoppers — and not-so-happy news for store owners.
“Overspending isn’t typically a welcome behavior at communities with strong religious ties,” concluded the researchers.
Consumer restraint “seems to be due to a common religious principle: one needs to be prudent with money,” they wrote.
The conclusion came as no surprise to Minnesotans such as Kristine Voyen, a mother and nurse from Golden Valley. She’s among thousands of Minnesotans who have signed up for finance and budgeting workshops at their churches.
“God calls us to be good stewards of money,” Voyen said.
Voyen said she and her husband are serious budgeters. They’ve even managed to pay off their college debts, contribute to their church and other causes. So ingrained is thrift, that even if an item is in the budget plan, she still “debates whether to buy it.”
“I don’t make any impulse purchases,” Voyen said.
Christians such as Voyen often refer to biblical passages that underscore their frugality, such as, “Whoever loves money never has enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income.” But the university researchers exploring the trend weren’t looking at biblical mandates, they were looking at the market results of such behavior.
They noted that even though the majority of Americans say they belong to a house of worship, little is known about how religion affects their “nonreligious routines.” So they focused on the most ordinary of routines — a trip to the supermarket.
The research was conducted by Didem Kurt of the School of Business at Boston University, J. Jeffrey Inman of the School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh, and Francesca Gino at Harvard Business School. They analyzed five studies and conducted laboratory tests with 800 participants.
In one lab experiment, participants were shown photos of grapes, milk, eggs and other food items, and when finished “shopping,” they watched a speaker talking about God’s omnipresence. They were then offered a special issue of their favorite magazine and given several price points to buy it. The religious people in the group were willing to spend 10 percent less than others.
Such research has implications for store promotions and strategies, the researchers reported. For shoppers whose frugality is tied to faith and values, retailers could offer deals that demonstrate a sensitivity to that — such as promising to donate a portion of sales to charitable cause.
Retailers could also be sensitive to the frugal buyers by offering discounts around the time of holidays and religious observances, they said.
It’s unclear whether bargains around Christmas or Easter would tempt Minnesotans such as Jordan Sundberg of Duluth. She and her husband budget so carefully that they use only cash and carry no debt. It allows them to focus on the important things in life, she said.
“We feel with the money we have, we are responsible to spend it well,” said Sundberg. “Part of that is being generous and giving it away. That’s how we spend.”
Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511