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Consuming Passion: Human psychology shapes the shopping experience

As the Christmas shopping season approaches, retailers are wishing they could get inside consumers’ heads as well as their wallets. Divining finicky shoppers’ needs and wants is the key to winning customers, and the delicate science of selling has never been more complicated.

Retailers use product placement to appeal to various age groups as well as different genders
Retailers realize that product placement must appeal to various age groups as well as different genders.

“Retailers live on a razor thin margin, and it’s extremely tough to survive in retail,” said Dr. Leigh McAlister, marketing professor at The University of Texas at Austin. “These guys are not manipulative puppet-masters behind the scenes—they don’t have that luxury. They have their eyes wide-open, searching for what the consumer really wants. And the consumer is very savvy.”

Discerning what the customer desires is so important, in fact, that the study of human behavior has become almost as crucial as the analysis of profit margins and gross sales. Although humans can be fickle creatures, certain general behavior patterns seem to emerge when people set out to shop.

“When we look at gender differences in shopping behavior, we see that men, in general, spend less time in a store,” said Dr. Rajagopal Raghunathan, marketing professor at The University of Texas at Austin. “They make up their minds what they want ahead of time, go in, grab it and get out quickly.”

Conversely, women tend to be much less goal-directed and often go shopping simply to enjoy the overall sensory experience and to gather information that may be used at a later date.

“A woman may linger for quite a while and sample things, try things on, investigate new brands without even intending to buy anything during that visit,” said Raghunathan. “They’re experimenting, and they’re very adept information-gatherers.”

Men, according to research and observations by marketers and urban anthropologists, also seem to be less capable of taking in complicated information and processing it rapidly. For example, if they encounter a large display of pants but there are no color-coordinated shirt displays right alongside, they will simply buy a pair of pants and leave the store without searching for a shirt. A woman will be more likely to sweep the entire area of men’s clothing, ponder numerous shirt choices and buy at least one appropriate shirt.

In a retail establishment such as Banana Republic, men’s accessories like socks are likely to be placed near the checkout counter. For men these sorts of items are impulse buys and are utilitarian goods, according to Raghunathan. They do not require extensive deliberation and can be grabbed at the last moment.

The women’s socks, however, are more likely to be placed by the dressing room or alongside pants and shirts because a woman may spend the same amount of time sampling and selecting them as she would a pair of shorts.

The observant retailer also realizes that product placement in the store must appeal to different age groups as well as different genders.

“Parents are very susceptible to their children’s influence,” said Raghunathan. “If retailers place candy and toys at a child’s eye level, the child will nag, and the parent is very likely to concede and buy the product.”

Drugstores, in catering to senior citizens, must accommodate the physical limitations of the elderly by placing products likely to be bought by that demographic in reachable range and making aisles wide enough for a person with a walker to comfortably navigate.

Justin (left) and her mother Beth Hearne browse clothing racks at The Cadeau
Most consumers are willing to spend more time selecting and more money on an item in the hedonic category than on a utilitarian item. Justin (left) and her mother Beth Hearne browse clothing racks at The Cadeau on Guadalupe Street in Austin, Texas.

“Retired individuals may have a greater availability of time for shopping,” said Dr. Linda Golden, marketing professor at The University of Texas at Austin. “And they may prefer to shop at particular times of day, which is something a retailer would want to be aware of when offering sales on items targeted to this group. They tend to be more price-conscious because many are on fixed incomes and are usually pretty responsive to coupons and discounts.”

With such a profusion of demographics data available, one would assume that every retailer could reduce product placement and store layout down to a formula and please every customer every time. When it comes to consumer behavior, however, demographics analysis is only the tip of the iceberg and not the goose that laid the golden egg.

Even a man can be made to linger longingly in a store—if he’s a gadget enthusiast and the store happens to hold the latest in plasma TVs and pocket PCs.

“How a consumer behaves, what they purchase, how long they dwell in a store has a lot to do with how much that person is involved in a product category,” said Golden. “The more involved they are, the more likely they are to be willing to take the time to micro-process attributes of an item in that category.”

A consumer will also behave differently when buying a utilitarian product as opposed to a hedonic product. Hedonic items—which might be anything from Godiva chocolates for one person to Bang Olufsen speakers for another—are goods that have an emotional pull and tend to appeal to the buyer’s senses. They are aesthetically pleasing and probably are seen more as a luxury and a treat than a necessity.

Utilitarian products such as paper towels or pain relievers tend to be items on which a buyer does not care to lavish a great deal of money and thought.

“As far as how functional, utilitarian items are arranged in stores, you’re normally made to go to the back of the store for something like toothpaste or aspirin,” said Dr. Patricia Stout, advertising professor at The University of Texas at Austin. “You’re in the store because you need a pain reliever and you’re going to find it, wherever it is. Impulse items like nail polish or lip gloss are up front because you may require a little more tempting to spend money on those.”

Retail establishments often advertise that their goods appeal to hedonic impulses by the way in which the actual store is physically “packaged.” A Victoria’s Secret is lushly pink, silky, frilly and evocative of a very feminine French boudoir, which may or may not offer information as to the actual quality of the lingerie. The appeal is to the senses and to the image that the consumer hopes to project after purchasing the goods.

“With hedonic items, we think more about the brand and are willing to shell out more money and spend more time choosing them,” said Raghunathan.

Fine chocolates appeal to the senses
Luxury items such as fine chocolates appeal to the senses and may have an emotional pull for the shopper.

Although the study of online shopping and online advertising is still in its infant stages, a reasonable conclusion may be that retail outlets have a slight edge over product Web sites when it comes to purchase of hedonic products, said Raghunathan.

Most individuals seem to have much stronger feelings and ties to things that they can touch and personally, physically select. The failure of online grocery shopping, according to Raghunathan, is a perfect example of the lure of a tactile, sensual shopping experience. Buying groceries online and having them delivered would seem to be a godsend for over-scheduled families, but researchers found that individuals prefer to hand-select even their tomato sauce and cookies.

In addition to the intimate contact with a product, the lighting, music and pleasant aromas that may greet a customer at a retail outlet are likely to aid in the seduction.

“If you’re looking for a purely utilitarian product like diapers, for example,” said Raghunathan, “You can go online and just do a search for the best price. You know precisely what you want, the product is pretty much generic and you don’t mind ordering online. When there needs to be an appeal to the affect and the senses, as well as social interaction, the online experience is pretty impoverished.”

Impoverished or not, many economists and marketing gurus predict a rosy season for online shopping. And strong buying at retail outlets as well.

Even with talk of war and layoffs and a “soft economy,” certain human impulses—such as the need to express regard for others with special tokens—remain constant. The holidays are about tradition and giving, and perhaps it would assuage retailers’ worries some to recall a hackneyed cliché which defies market research—when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.

Kay Randall

Photos: Marsha Miller

Special thanks to The Cadeau
for the photo opportunities

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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