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Buyer Behavior

Customers shop for Black Friday deals at Walmart. Photo: Walmart

By Alex Piazza

More than 174 million Americans shopped online and in stores from Thanksgiving through Cyber Monday.

And the average shopper spent $335 over that five-day period, according to figures from the National Retail Federation.

For many, it was the drastic price cuts that inspired them to shop. But beyond cost, there is a lot more that goes into a purchase.

Consider package design. Does the color and shape of the box entice you to buy it? And your emotional state when entering the store can greatly influence what items you leave with.

A cohort of marketing researchers at the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business is studying consumer behavior, and their work could have a significant impact on your retail experience.

Ask the Brain

Ask the BrainCompanies have long relied on surveys and self-reports to predict how people spend their money.

But like any survey, they have limitations. And those limitations can impact a company’s bottom line.

Research led by U-M Professor Carolyn Yoon has identified a more accurate way for companies to forecast consumer behavior—functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). These machines measure a person’s brain activity by detecting changes in blood flow.

As part of a recent study, Yoon and colleagues from Stanford University and Erasmus University recruited 30 people to test whether brain activity could accurately predict the future success of a crowdfunding campaign.

Participants were presented with 36 project appeals featured on the popular crowdfunding site Kickstarter, and then were asked to choose which one they would fund. Throughout the process, fMRI machines measured participants’ brain activity.

Carolyn Yoon

Researchers then evaluated both the fMRI scans and responses to the questionnaires, and their findings show fMRI can predict market behavior better than traditional tools like surveys. Yoon and her colleagues found that greater activity in a specific part of the brain during the decision task predicted the funding success of a project more reliably than the questionnaires.

“Relatively early response in the brain carries a great deal of weight in predicting what people will choose for themselves, as well as what others in the marketplace will choose,” said Yoon, professor of marketing and faculty associate in the Research Center for Group Dynamics at the Institute for Social Research.

In order to better understand what drives people’s spending habits, marketers now may be able to use brain scans and other traditional tools to make more accurate predictions about customer behavior.

Retail Therapy

Retail TherapyBad mood?

You could drive to the store and buy a new outfit.

Retail therapy is considered by some to be irresponsible, but findings from U-M marketing researchers shows shopping can actually help alleviate sadness.

“When we asked 100 adults for the first word that came to mind when hearing ‘retail therapy,’ they were more than twice as likely to give a clear negative response than to give a clear positive response,” said Scott Rick, associate professor of marketing. “We propose that retail therapy has been viewed too negatively, and shopping may be an effective way to minimize feelings of sadness that linger.”

In one study, Rick, along with researchers Katherine Burson and Beatriz Pereira, recruited 100 adults to test whether shopping can help curb certain negative emotions.

Participants viewed a three-minute movie clip that, backed by research, reliably induces sadness. They then were randomly assigned to either choosing or browsing conditions.

Scott Rick and Katherine Burson

Participants assigned to the choosing condition were told to imagine buying $100 worth of products by placing them in an online shopping cart. Choosers viewed 12 products and were asked to select four by dragging them into their digital cart.

Participants assigned to the browsing condition viewed the same 12 products, but instead were asked to identify four items that were most useful when traveling.

Only a handful of products were appropriate for travel, and considering all 12 may be desirable when shopping, choosers had more of an opportunity to implement their preferences and experience a sense of control. Researchers measured participants’ emotions after the product task, and they found the self-reported sadness of choosers was significantly lower than that of the browsers.

“Our work suggests that making shopping choices can help to restore a sense of personal control over one’s environment, and in turn, reduce residual sadness,” said Burson, associate professor of marketing.

Package Design

Cereal boxes line the shelf of a grocery store.

Some are red and some are blue. Some are short and some are tall.

Package design has evolved into a key marketing tool that can greatly influence consumer behavior.

For the past two decades, U-M researcher Aradhna Krishna has explored how the smell, sound, touch, taste and look of a product affects consumers’ perception, judgment and behavior. Krishna recently co-authored “Sensory Aspects of Package Design” with Luca Cian and Nilufer Aydinoglu.

“While the product may be the prize, the package is critical,” said Krishna, the Dwight F. Benton Professor of Marketing. “Packaging of a product is similar to a person’s outfit and external appearance. It carries great importance in first impressions, initial and ongoing interactions, and the formation of long-lasting relationships between the brand and the consumer.”

Some of the most successful marketing campaigns rely on science, and over the years, Krishna and her colleagues have identified how consumer perceptions shape the way in which companies address package design.

Aradhna Krishna

  • Information related to the rational elements of a product, such as health benefits, are more fluently perceived when placed near the top of a package. The emotional elements of a product, like taste, resonate best with consumers when information is placed at the bottom of a package.
  • Pictures on a package help consumers imagine using the product effortlessly and enjoyably. Consider a mug with the handle on the right or the left. That mug of hot cocoa will be much more appealing for right-handed people if the mug handle is shown on the right side. As such, depicting a product that can be more readily picked up and consumed will increase purchase intentions.
  • Food descriptions intended to appeal to multiple senses, like taste, sight, touch, smell and sound, generate improved taste perceptions when compared to descriptions that appeal to only one sense.
  • An appealing aroma—or an imagined appealing aroma, engendered by crafty advertising copy—accompanied by an inviting image goes a long way toward piquing consumers’ desire to eat and actual food consumption. Moreover, all smells (think soap scents or perfumes) improve people’s verbal and experiential memory. And unlike words or pictures, scent’s effect on memory persists over long periods of time.


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