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December 8, 2008
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Marketing Mind Games: Science Sensei 7


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"Which Do You Prefer?"

That simple question is one to be wary of while shopping this holiday season. In fact, it's even dangerous if you aren't even intending to buy anything. New research reveals that it's a clever way for retailers to sell you something you might not have bought otherwise.

Alison Xu and Robert Wyer of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology conducted a series of experiments to investigate what they call the "which-to-buy mindset." It works like this: Rather than ask, "Would you like to buy my stuff?" a salesperson might be more effective by asking, "Which piece of my stuff do you like the most?" By doing that the salesperson is bypassing the typical first mental step of a shopper (whether or not they want to buy something at all), and skips straight to step two (which one do I buy?).





You could say that asking a person to choose a preference among choices primes their brains into some kind of "shopping mode" that's hard to shake.
In one experiment they had students evaluate pairs of different computers. At the outset, some were first asked to decide whether they were willing to buy a computer, and then were asked which one they prefer. Others were first asked to select one of the two computers as their preference, and then were asked if they were willing to buy one. Those who were asked to choose a preference first were significantly more likely to say they'd be willing to buy a computer.




Then the researchers did an experiment to test whether the "which to buy" prime works on products unrelated to the products being evaluated. They had other students read about and evaluate pairs of different computers. They asked roughly half of them to pick a preference, while the others were not asked to choose. Then they presented all the students with information about different vacation packages. Overall, those who were asked to pick a preference were much more likely to say they'd be willing to purchase a vacation package.

Lastly, the researchers tried an experiment that tested people's ability to part with real money. They asked student volunteers to evaluate pairs of products like mp3 players or cell phones. Again, roughly half of them were then asked to pick a preference, while the others were not. They then said the experiment was over, but on the students' way out, the researchers mentioned that they were selling candy from a different, completed experiment at half price. While only 2% of the students who did not choose a preference bought candy, 28% of the students in the "which-to-buy" group did.

As the researchers wrote in the December issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, "Salespersons may increase the likelihood of making a sale by inducing customers to consider which of several products they prefer while at the same time distracting them from making a decision of whether they really want to buy anything at all."

The research was funded by the Research Grants Council of Hong Kong.


 
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