Shopping decisions are painful: How marketers can help

My wife and I can never decide where to eat. First, we narrow the selections between full-service, casual, and takeout. Then, we whittle the options down based on type of cuisine or location. Finally, we take turns eliminating selections, and eventually we (usually) agree on a place.

Once we’re there, we still wonder if we made the right choice. In short, the whole selection experience is rather annoying. Why? Because neither one of us really cared where we went. Each place had equivalent pros and cons. We were quite ambivalent about the decision. But the process of deciding was super irritating.

Sound familiar? How about this scenario: You need a new TV, so you go to and select three different models that seem to fit the bill and add them to a comparison chart. After sifting through the specs and pulling out your hair in frustration, you finally select one and buy it. Once you take delivery and hook it up, you see a commercial for one of the other TVs and wonder if you made the right choice. Ugh.

The attitudinal ambivalence we experience is perfectly normal and well-studied (Otnes et al). But new research suggests that how marketers handle this for their customers should vary depending on their culture and inherent acceptance of conflict (Panga et al).

Using positive product reviews to provide pain relief

One way to lessen the burden of choice is to offer positive consumer product reviews. Obviously, if you’re selling your own products, the expectation is that at least one product option has overwhelmingly positive reviews. Or, if you’re a B2B organization with a dedicated sales team, you can provide customer references in place of consumer reviews.

The more you can control a univalent evaluation of your product, the less likely a customer is going to struggle with a decision and fear they’re making the wrong choice (van Harreveld et al).

If you’re using an analytics product like IBM Watson Customer Experience Analytics, you can evaluate the dwell time on product pages and find correlations on items added to a cart with browse abandonment events. The same observations can be made regarding customers that utilize a product comparison feature and abandon their session versus those who ultimately add a product to a cart.

What you should find is a bell curve that illustrates the relationship between the time people spend reviewing and researching a product, and whether they convert to purchase. That is, at a certain point in time, they may decide to abandon the process and come back later or buy from a competitor that offers a shopping experience that’s less ambivalent and discomforting.

For these customers, if the site mechanics can’t be changed, you may want to consider offering them a “limited time offer.” Studies show the time pressure will probably work in getting them to complete a purchase even with discomfort in the process.

Understanding how product reviews impact returns

As operations managers and supply chain engineers know, the biggest sales-related expense is a returned product. Every direct and indirect cost is typically charged to the company, including shipping and restocking.

Knowing that uncertainty about correctness of choice leads to psychological discomfort, there’s evidence that suggests bivalent evaluations will increase the likelihood of preference reversal (Panga, Kehb, Lic, Maheswarand, 2017). In other words, if people are exposed to positive and negative attributes and reviews on a product, and buy said product, they are more likely to return it than if they had just viewed the positive attributes and reviews.

So even though you may be tempted to “be honest and open” about why your product isn’t great, you might be better served to simply direct a customer to the best fit product for them and explain why it’s a good fit. Once your customers take delivery of an item, it’s a good idea to send them follow-up communications that offer assurance around their purchase decision.

Accounting for dialectic thinking

As far as we can make a sweeping generality that Westerners are nondialectical thinkers and Easterners are dialectical thinkers, the rules of thumb above apply. However, if you’re selling and marketing in eastern countries, you should acknowledge some contrasts.

Whereas Westerners get stressed out when they have bivalent evaluations, Easterners prefer these evaluations. If you only give them the positive information, they’ll feel like they don’t have “the whole story” and will seek out that additional information. So, when marketing in eastern countries, it may behoove you to include both the positive and negative attributes and sentiment about your products.

Like all academic-based research, there’s a definite need for real-world testing to see how these studies apply to your audience. Utilizing products like IBM Interact, IBM Watson Real-Time Personalization, and A/B testing from IBM Watson Campaign Automation, you can try marketing variations and draw conclusions on the best recommendation set to offer your customers. Or, if you’re a B2B marketer, you can hone in on the product detail and referrals that you plan on sharing with your prospects.

Experiment and see how tweaking your use of product reviews might enhance the buying experience. With the right approach, you can make your customers’ buying decisions a lot less painful.

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