Seeking a Cents of Freedom
Feeling confined leads consumers to seek more variety.
Feeling closed in on may make shoppers yearn for more buying options, says a study examining the effects of personal space on purchasing behavior. The research, which found that a variety of options provides a sense of relief for claustrophobic shoppers, was conducted by Rui (Juliet) Zhu of the University of British Columbia, Vancouver and Jonathan Levav of Columbia University.Previous research has found that consumers seek to regain their freedom in situations in which they feel it is threatened; this is called “psychological reactance.” In this case, narrow aisles and physical crowding affected shopper perception of freedom, and in turn, their buying choices.
How did the study authors come up with the idea to study how crowded conditions would affect buying behavior?
“I have always interested in studying indoor environmental factors and their effects on consumer behavior,” Zhu tells demo dirt. “Prior to this research, I have looked at ceiling height, table surface, background music, color [and other factors], and physical crowding and aisle width is another factor I found interesting to study.”
“The paper capitalizes on the fact that the way to express yourself and to express freedom is by making varied choices, so we put [participants] in a situation where they would want to express their freedom,” Levav tells demo dirt. “They were physically constrained by being put in a place that feels small, and they would look for ways to break out of the shackle, and that way is to be able to make choices.”
“Freedom is a big part of our lives, especially in the West,” Zhu adds.
With different attitudes about freedom and choice, does consumer behavior differ in the West versus the East?
“Wanting freedom is universal but the way it is expressed is different between the East and the West,” Levav explains. “Some cultures value uniformity and some do not. In the West one way to express yourself as a free person is having freedom of choice. In Eastern cultures, choice is not necessarily a vehicle to express your freedom,” he adds.
“The effect we find is more likely to be found in Western cultures where variety is the way to express your freedom,” Levav maintains. “In some places, making varied choices is not a way to express your freedom.”
“In the West people want to wear different color t-shirts, but of the same brand,” he notes. "How individual then, are they really?"
The research did not study differences between various products, such as clothing, cosmetics, household items and food, but the results were reliable in terms of what the study authors did focus on.
“We didn’t examine different types of products in our research, but we did observe that across different domains, such as candy choice, marker choice, and donation choices, our effects are robust,” Zhu says.
Results would not be universal, and cannot be generalized, Levav says. “Everything that we show, we show in areas where people don’t have particularly strong preferences. We function in that grey region.”
For example, while robust and reliable, the findings are not to be considered totally clear-cut. “We did not find a discernable pattern with the effect versus where you don’t,” Levav adds. “Sometimes you don’t get the effect with for example, cigarette brands; people are very loyal to cigarette brands. If someone smokes only Marlboro, he may say, ‘It doesn’t matter where someone puts me, I smoke only Marlboros.’”
While brand loyalty would interfere with the demonstrated results, that holds true in general when it comes to consumer research, he notes.
How can the results benefit real-world scenarios? Retailers may boost profits if they implement some of the findings of this study, Zhu says. “[There are] some very interesting implications coming from our research,” she says. “For example, if a retailer wants to promote new product, it might be better off putting them in a relatively crowded store, as physical crowding, thus confinement leads to variety seeking and more unique choices!”
Levav agrees that he would like to see retailers be able to increase profits by using study findings to improve sales, adding that people should keep in mind that research reports average behavior, and does not speak for every individual case. “It is not like you can say, 'This would happen for every single person,'” he says. “This is what happens on average.”
Future studies will focus on additional environmental characteristics and their effects on consumer behavior. “I have a number of projects ongoing that examines other environmental factors, such as noise level, flooring material [and so on],” Zhu says. “The reason I have been active in this area is that while both practitioners and scholars believe physical environment is very important in our lives, very little systematic studies have been done. So I’m doing more in this area and find it fascinating.”
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