Customers who forget to buy: what marketers can do

“Ah, I forgot to buy that.” In today’s multitasking, multidevice world, forgetting to purchase something happens pretty regularly. In fact, consumers forget to buy about 30 percent of items they intend to purchase.

Typically, this doesn’t occur with big-ticket transactions, like buying a new large-screen TV. Forgetting to purchase something occurs more often when buying smaller, unrelated, less-intuitive items, such as the printer paper you figured you’d get at the store while picking up the TV.

For example, during the 2010 Christmas season, 44 percent of consumers forgot to buy thank-you notes, 37 percent forgot to buy holiday cards or letters, 36 percent forgot to buy batteries (for Christmas gifts), and 25 percent forgot to buy wrapping paper.

As we watch people text while driving, jaywalk to catch a Pokémon, and take selfies at a concert, it seems obvious what’s going on: People are increasingly more distracted. In my previous blog, I wrote about the trend toward short-form content and how people today expect to continuously consume massive amounts of data from diversified sources. That leaves little time to be reflective and purposeful.

The Aisle-by-Aisle Approach and Shopping Lists

Our instincts on why people are forgetful aren’t without merit — there’s science behind the phenomenon. According to a new Journal of Consumer Psychology research article, consumers are routinely forgetting to buy and not taking the appropriate actions to prevent it, such as using a shopping list. The article’s hypothesis is that consumers are more likely to forget to purchase items they infrequently buy when they rely on their memory alone, but not when using a stimulus approach, such as browsing every aisle. This extends to online shopping as well. According to the article:

“In an online shopping paradigm, participants are more likely to forget infrequently purchased products than frequently purchased ones when they use the search function to find the products they need by directly typing the product’s name in the search bar (memory-based search), but not when they browse the categories of the online store in search for the products they need (stimulus-based search).”

Ironically, even though people know they may forget items, they don’t take measures to correct this problem, such as create lists and adopting a browse shopping pattern.

How Companies Are Addressing This Issue

There are some companies that address this forgetfulness issue by forcing customers to shop in a browse or aisle-by-aisle method. I remember grocery shopping in Stew Leonard’s in Connecticut, and this was the way you navigated through the store. IKEA is set up in a similar fashion.

Our friends at the Journal of Consumer Psychology would probably want to test if customers become conditioned to being “forced through aisles,” tuning out the experience and eventually negating the positive effects. Until then, it’s seems like a pretty good approach.

Other companies, such as Staples, are using a “shopping list” approach to combat forgetfulness. Recently, Staples added a back-to-school “Scan My List” feature to its Staples Easy System app. This nifty service allows parents to quickly upload the list of necessary supplies into the app, which turns it into a shopping list in 24 to 48 hours with options to customize.

Approaches You Can Take

If you’re not in the position to reconfigure your retail shopping experience and aisle layout strategy, and you don’t think a “shopping list upload” app is the right fit for your business, there are still everyday marketing tactics you can use to help combat forgetfulness and deliver strong results:

1) Offer recommended, complementary products at time of checkout. Then, do it again after purchase. For replenishment items, keep reminding customers periodically near the time of average consumption/depletion – standard order fulfillment time with shipping.

Any channel will do. Email is the most obvious, but you can also use retargeting ads, SMS, and mobile push. A snail-mail coupon might even be worth considering if the net effort yields a positive net present value.

2) Anticipate things people need and forget. You know your brand, your products, and their typical consumption patterns, so put this knowledge to use. For example, you might send reminders to purchase replacement water filters as the summer months start heating up and people are drinking more water.

Another example would be an online big-box store tracking the devices purchased, cross-referencing batteries required versus average life span of batteries per device, and sending out replenishment emails based on this data.

The good news is that none of these communications are too difficult to implement. Sometimes, as marketers, we just need a reminder when we forget.

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