Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Decision Quicksand: Why We Get Mired in the Aisle

Study Finds Variety Sends Shoppers Into Vicious Circle

By Marc Dresner, IIR

I consider myself a relatively swift and decisive grocery shopper, but every now and then I get stuck in an aisle, turning over the same packaging several times, scrutinizing labels, comparing prices, all in an increasingly maddening quest to find…what?

Not surprisingly, this usually occurs in less frequently shopped categories like household cleansers and detergents, where the purchase cycle is such that I don’t recall what I bought last time.

After about 300 seconds that seem like a month, when I start pulling my hair out, I’m apt to reason: “It’s just dish soap. Pick one and get out of this aisle!”

You may note a hint of desperation in that last sentence. Deep down, perhaps, I fear I may never make it out alive. But why?

Trash bags and toilet paper are not life-or-death decisions, yet they sometimes seem to assume the significance of one.

Surely clutter plays a role. And, of course, there’s no shortage of research on how too many choices and too much information affect (impede) decision making in the store.

Conventional wisdom says that we’re heuristic shoppers: When confronted with clutter, we go with what we know. But what do you do when you don’t have a default outside of buying the lowest price per unit?

If you’re the guy standing in the aisle beside me, you call your wife (true story). If you’re me, you grab whatever he grabbed after he got off the phone (also a true story).

But without that lifeline, buying even toothpaste can be a suffocating experience.

Appropriately enough, this deer-in-the-headlights phenomenon has a name: “Decision Quicksand.”

According to results from a study slated for publication in the August issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, we often equate the importance of a decision with the relative complexity associated with making it.

Take a low-risk purchase decision in a crowded category—a decision one initially assumed would be simple—and you have the ingredients for a vicious circle.

“Instead of realizing that picking a toothbrush is a trivial decision, we confuse the array of options and excess of information with decision importance, which then leads our brain to conclude that this decision is worth more time and attention,” wrote Aner Sela and Jonah Berger, of the University of Florida and University of Pennsylvania, respectively, who conducted the study.

“Our findings suggest that people sometimes fall into a recursive loop between deliberation time, difficulty, and perceived importance,” they concluded.

This explains why one can get hung up on a bottle of shampoo. As we begin to contemplate the options, we realize this is a more complicated decision than we thought, therefore it’s an important decision, which we overcomplicate by seeking out more information, which, in turn, increases the (mis)perceived importance of the decision, which causes us to spend more time on it, seeking out even more details… You get the idea.

It’s an interesting theory that got a bit more interesting when I passed it along to a friend in research at a Fortune 500 CPG who coincidentally has been banging her head against the wall over a modest line extension.

It seems “Jane” has scrapped multiple iterations of a fairly straightforward concept test because the marketers’ decision criteria have changed with each design proposal.

“I’m driving my supplier crazy,” she confided. “And now I know why: I’ve given the marketing folks too many options and they can’t pull back. We’re way past the point of need to know; some of the questions they’re asking don’t even qualify as nice to know.”

And here I was trying to point out that the line extension, itself, might be a bad idea…

I’ll be seeing my friend next week in Chicago at the 12th Annual Shopper Insights in Action Conference. Hope to see you there, too!

For information or to register, please visit www.shopperinsightsevent

Marc Dresner is IIR USA’s senior editor and special communication project lead. He is the former executive editor of Research Business Report, a confidential newsletter for the market research industry. He may be reached at mdresner@iirusa.com. Follow him @mdrezz.
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