Although the world has made strides in combatting COVID-19, the recent flurry of variants (e.g., delta [B.1.617.2], omicron [B.1.1.529]) has posed several uncertainties for the future. For instance, a resurgence of viral spread in the Spring of 2022 in China has resulted in Shanghai being placed under strict lockdown. In response to the pandemic and the administrative interventions that followed [23, 41], many consumers changed their behaviors, such as utilizing more online shopping mediums [46, 76] or compulsively buying products in panic [66, 84]. However, despite the attention given to compulsive buying , whether classic theories of the antecedents of impulse buying are translatable to online mediums amid the pandemic remains relatively understudied. Indeed, as the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered businesses and increased consumers’ exposure to e-commerce channels, investigation into online impulse buying is a critical topic of inquiry for both scholars and practitioners alike.
To investigate conceptual correlates of online impulse buying, we rely on the extant body of literature on uncertainty [25, 31, 45] and self-control [4, 13, 34, 73] to propose a moderated multi-mediation model. We posit that the perception of uncertainty of COVID-19 variants has a direct effect on online impulse buying and an indirect effect via online shopping trust. To capture the psychological consequences of a prolonged pandemic, we further examined the direct effect of COVID-19 burnout on online impulse buying as well as indirect effects via self-control (i.e., self-regulation and impulsivity). We further explored the possible moderating effects of self-control based on its common conceptualization as an individual trait.
Impulsive buying is characterized as the unplanned and uncontrollable urge to buy goods [4, 74] that is motivated by both cognitive and affective factors , such as fear [12, 62] and disregard for consequences . Failure of rational decision making and intrusion of irrational feelings and thoughts that more consumption will remedy negative states principally under impulsive buying [28, 78]. Harnish and Bridges  argue that irrational beliefs about avoidant coping and self-demoralization create a cycle of impulsive buying as a maladaptive outlet [50, 51]. The hedonic gratification that follows an impulsive purchase motivates the vast majority of consumers to engage in this behavior at least occasionally  which often results in guilt and diminished self-esteem afterward . Within the context of COVID-19, the pandemic induces both affective and cognitive reactivity among individuals [95, 96], fueling changes in consumption behavior [15, 61].
During the infancy of the pandemic, several businesses were shuttered through government-mandated lockdowns and many consumers were newly introduced to online modalities of consumption [46, 61, 76]. Consequently, online impulse buying paralleled the rising use of e-commerce [15, 76]. Such trends were not surprising, however, as impulse buying has routinely been implicated to be a mode of coping with the sudden loss of control over one’s environment following disasters [22, 35, 36]. Thus, the current study investigates the conceptual drivers of online impulsive buying as a form of irrational coping using classic theories of uncertainty avoidance and self-control during a relevant social ecology of heightened distress.
Perceived uncertainty of COVID-19 variants and online impulsive buying
Perceived uncertainty is the subjective appraisal of a situation’s ambiguous nature that inhibits one’s abilities to adequately assess probable outcomes . Classical theories of uncertainty (e.g., Uncertainty Reduction Theory, Motivation to Reduce Uncertainty Theory) posit that individuals are motivated to utilize various strategies (e.g., seeking information) to increase clarity [7, 42, 56]. For simplicity, we refer to the broader body of these theories as the uncertainty avoidance and reduction (UAR) theory. UAR theory argues that novel stimuli without predictable outcomes breed discomfort due to the loss of one’s agentic control of their environment [25, 31, 45] and accordingly increase preference for behaviors with more predictable outcomes . The emergence of novel health crises historically begets public angst, such as in the case of the 2009 H1N1 outbreak [82, 83] and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic [2, 86]. Even with the dissemination of vaccines in late 2020, the evolving state of COVID-19 and its variants (e.g., delta, omicron) presents a myriad of public health uncertainties.
Within the context of consumerism, consumers may look toward altering their buying behavior as a coping mechanism to regain some degree of personal control [4, 12, 87], particularly by increasing the rate of online impulsive consumption [10, 12, 75, 87]. With the availability of online only retailers (e.g., Amazon.com, Ebay, Alibaba) and many traditional retailers offering online options (e.g., Walmart + , Target Shipt), consumers have an unprecedented number of alternative channels to shop from to fulfill their desires . Thus, online impulse buying may be a readily accessible outlet for coping [10, 16, 94] while successfully avoiding primary threat sources (e.g., physical proximity to others) [35, 43, 49, 77] and enjoying the immediate gratification from hedonistic purchases . Indeed, the high degree of ambiguity at the start of the pandemic has been implicated to be a prime culprit for the unprecedented spikes in spending by consumers [62, 66]. Perceptions of COVID-19 uncertainty, however, are subject to wane with growing familiarity. To address this, the current study captured perceptions of uncertainty pertaining to COVID-19 variants, a relevant topic of concern at the time of data collection (February 2021) for the current study’s sample of Chinese consumers as China tackled its first wave of variants. As was the case with past public health crises, we posit the following:
Perceived uncertainty of COVID-19 variants is positively associated with online impulse buying.
Uncertainty & online shopping trust
Trust is a fundamental component in social exchanges  and has accordingly acted as the catalyst in maintaining positive buyer–seller relationships [39, 64]. Several past studies have routinely shown that trust is one of the most significant elements in online consumerism , increasing one’s intentions to shop online [32, 71, 80] by lessening associated perceived risks and fostering consumer confidence [3, 18, 29]. China’s Zero-COVID approach includes sudden government-mandated city lockdowns that shutter businesses and limit outside activities in response to even a few cases of COVID-19 . Compared to physical retailers and stores, online retailers may therefore be a more consistent and trustworthy outlet for consumerism amid continued possibility of unexpected disruptions to day-to-day life [1, 63], contrary to otherwise normative times .
E-commerce channels may provide a sense of normality [10, 16, 94] which can garner trust among consumers . This may be particularly accentuated during the COVID-19 pandemic where consumers are more likely to be exposed to targeted advertising with increased exposure to online mediums of entertainment, news, and social media . That is, when faced with the need to cope with uncertainty, consumers may be more inclined to trust online alternative channels of shopping to yield comparable hedonistic experiences as traditional modalities and subsequently utilize the service for their impulsive desires [40, 58]. Thus, we posit the following hypotheses:
Perceived uncertainty of COVID-19 variants is positively associated with online shopping trust.
Online shopping trust is positively associated with online impulse buying.
Online shopping trust mediates the effect of perceived uncertainty of COVID-19 variants on online impulse buying.
COVID-19 burnout & impulsive consumption
Burnout is defined as the psychological phenomenon of exhaustion, detachment, and feelings of inadequacy stemming from prolonged exposure to stressors . Recently, studies have documented individuals experiencing COVID-19 burnout as a result of prolonged exposure to pandemic-related news, events, demands, and intrusive changes to daily life . In contrast to the domain-general stress burnout, COVID-19 burnout is argued to be triggered from COVID-19-related thoughts and feelings . COVID-19 burnout may have notable implications for online consumption, as e-commerce presents a readily available avenue for coping with pervasive pandemic-related stressors. Indeed, negative state is associated with the tendency to externalize symptoms through risky and impulsive behaviors, as observed in delayed discounting and gratification tasks [55, 93] as well as consumerism [4, 12, 87].
Because anxiety and worry represent reactance to negative stimuli, they counter self-control and result in both cognitive and affective exertion [65, 69]. The motivated regulatory failure perspective of Ego-Depletion Theory (EDT) [4, 5] suggests that prolonged exertion from negative states renders one less motivated to maintain self-control and increases the subjective reward value of hedonistic stimuli . Under distress, consumers may be inclined to discard their self-control and long-term goals  in favor of impulsive and hedonic purchasing as a means of coping [4, 35, 65]. In other words, in the similar manner as domain-general stress burnout, it is likely that COVID-19-specific burnout will correspondingly result in low levels of self-regulation and high levels of impulsivity. For these reasons, we posit the following:
COVID-19 burnout is positively associated with online impulse buying.
COVID-19 burnout is negatively associated with self-regulation.
COVID-19 burnout is positively associated with impulsivity.
Self-control and the urge to buy
Self-control reflects one’s abilities to maintain regulatory focus and motivation against impulsive forces [4, 5, 34]. In practice, consumers with high self-control are less prone to impulse buying and exhibit more responsible management of fiscal spending within both real [4, 99, 73], and virtual spaces [89, 90]. Self-control and regulatory focus thereby facilitates the mitigation of reactance to adverse stimuli [13, 34]. Hence, online impulsive buying is a fundamental consequence of self-regulatory failure, yielding to temptations of trait impulsivity beyond other merited characteristics afforded by e-commerce (e.g., convenience) [35, 44, 73]. Thus, we identify self-control tendencies as potential moderators and posit the following:
Self-regulation buffers (i.e., negatively interacts) the effects of a) perceived uncertainty of COVID-19 variants and b) COVID-19 burnout on online impulse buying.
Impulsivity facilitates (i.e., positively interacts) the effects of a) perceived uncertainty of COVID-19 variants and b) COVID-19 burnout on online impulse buying.
Self-control, albeit often characterized as trait qualities, is malleable and directly responsive to external working forces. Building consumer self-control can shield against urges of online impulse buying [21, 81, 88], but bouts of impulsivity are nonetheless common occurrences for the majority of consumers [30, 74]. In historical accounts of disasters, such as in the aftermath of 2005 Hurricane Katrina or the 2011 Christchurch Earthquake, stressed consumers showed impulsivity in their buying habits and sought greater hedonic purchases [22, 77]. Further, consumers adaptively responded with increased consumption levels in anticipation of impending disasters that may strip one’s agentic control over their environment [4, 35]. For these reasons, we posit the following:
Self-regulation is negatively associated with online impulse buying.
Impulsivity is positively associated with online impulse buying.
Self-regulation mediates the effect of COVID-19 burnout on online impulse buying.
Impulsivity mediates the effect of COVID-19 burnout on online impulse buying.