Customers say they want choice, but the evidence shows they don’t!

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Stanford Professor Itamar Simonson is very clever. He brought snacks to class for his students. However, he wasn’t just being cool; he used them for research. Professor Simonson learned that sometimes, we don’t want to make a choice or at least not a new one. Once we settle on an option, we stick with it if we must make the same one again.

Professor Simonson’s experiment about choice had one of his two classes pick their snack every week. The others had to choose their snack for the next three weeks at the first session. He found that people making an Intertemporal Choice, a choice for some point in the future, had different preferences than people making a series of immediate decisions. Students choosing for future class sessions selected more variety than those who chose the day for the upcoming session.

 

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For example, someone choosing for three weeks might pick chips, crackers, and candy. Someone who decided each week might select candy, candy, and candy.

I do this, too. We order ready-made meals from a company called All Plants. As the name implies, everything is vegetarian. We choose from a list, and then the meals arrive frozen. I love their vegetarian lasagna or shepherd’s pie. However, I usually order some noodle dishes, also, to mix it up.

Guess what I have left over in the freezer at the end of the month? That’s right, noodles. It turns out I always have the same thing, and I’m OK with it.

The same goes for my Netflix queue. I have bookmarked some aspirational movies there. They have sat there for three or four years. I am never in the mood to watch anything aspirational. I watch what I usually do instead.

That Awesome Future Self

We also make choices at the moment, which are subject to the Immediacy Bias, which clouds our judgment about the prudence of waiting for a reward later. For example, there is a famous experiment where children are left alone in a room with a marshmallow with the promise that if they don’t eat it, the researcher will return with two marshmallows. Very few of the children make it to two marshmallows.

This situation is another version of this Intertemporal Choice. Do you want something lesser but more immediate or longer-term with a more significant benefit?

One of the things that ties all these together is our sense of self and how we define ourselves. We think of ourselves as a different person in the future or in the past versus who we are now. We also like to think of ourselves as better people in the future than we are now.

The future self will watch those aspirational films in the Netflix queue. Right now, present-day self is going to binge 90-day Fiancé. (Not really.)

I make impulsive choices for my future self, too. I took advantage of a Lightning Deal on Amazon for a back car seat cover for dogs.

Turns out, future self didn’t want it. I have yet to use it.

Now, it could be that keeping that car seat clean seemed like an excellent benefit when I bought it. Plus, it was on sale, so how could I not buy it?

However, once I got it, cleaning the back seat before putting it on seemed too much work. Also, learning how to attach it was challenging. Plus, I was confused about whether I should remove it when human passengers were in there, and that seemed like a hassle, too. In other words, the work and hassle associated with the benefit of keeping the seat clean seemed like too high a cost.

In this case, future me decided I didn’t want to use it. Future me didn’t seem to care no matter how much the Recent Past me thought I would love it.

One place where this concept might not bear out is regarding books. Many people buy books intending to read them and then don’t. However, few people regret purchasing those books. They are saving them for the future version of themselves that will put down the remote, pick up that book, and read it.

So, How Can You Use This Information?

In terms of the practical implications of this or understanding how this will affect people, recognize that the distance between choice and consumption will affect that consumption and how people evaluate it. So, if I’m having you make many immediate choices versus longer-term decisions, we can expect you to behave differently. For example, if we’re having you make choices for the future, we can expect you’ll be more variety-seeking in your preferences.

This choice option has essential, and sometimes harmful, implications for your customer behavior. Accommodating variety is excellent to a point, like my ordering the noodle dishes I don’t eat. However, if the uneaten noodles continue to stack up in my freezer, eventually, I will cancel the service because I can see that I’m not using it, and it’s a waste of money.

Another implication is that you can anticipate the probable behavior. Suppose you have an aspirational product or service, meaning people will want it for that better-faster-stronger future self. Is there a way to make that purchase well before the delivery? By contrast, if your offering is not aspirational but more about immediate gratification, how can you set up the impulse buy? The worse-slower-weaker self will jump all over it.

You can do a few things to increase the impulse of buying decisions. You can reduce the price or offer two-for-one deals. There can be loyalty programs that require a purchase but send a gift after registration.

You could also use Loss Aversion, the idea that we hate losing even more than we enjoy winning. For example, by creating the urgency of a deadline where the price goes back up, people might act quickly before they lose out on the deal.

You can also introduce new products or services by appealing to the improved version of people they see in the future, even if it isn’t the distant-future version. For example, getting people to buy a new breakfast option when shopping in the store could work because they aren’t eating breakfast right then. A customer might think, “Hey, that’s a great idea. I could start my day better if I ate something like that instead of my usual corn crisps.”

However, be advised that getting people to eat that new breakfast item is a horse of a different color. This effort gets into habits and disrupting triggers…which is a whole new can of worms. Perhaps for a different newsletter….

For this one, the key takeaway is that we all really believe in that future self and how much of a variety-loving, documentary-watching, clean-car-driving version of themselves they will become. If you can offer customers ways to achieve that by decisions they make today, or ways to reward the new-choice-avoiding present self with an easy decision, then you will deliver an experience of which your future self will be very proud.

Colin has spoken at hundreds of conferences, including some of the world’s largest brands. Talk to Colin about how he can speak ‘in person’ or ‘virtually’ at your conference. Click here.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Colin Shaw
Colin is an original pioneer of Customer Experience. LinkedIn has recognized Colin as one of the ‘World's Top 150 Business Influencers’ Colin is an official LinkedIn "Top Voice", with over 280,000 followers & 80,000 subscribed to his newsletter 'Why Customers Buy'. Colin's consulting company Beyond Philosophy, was recognized by the Financial Times as ‘one of the leading consultancies’. Colin is the co-host of the highly successful Intuitive Customer podcast, which is rated in the top 2% of podcasts.

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