What nervous shoppers pay attention to

Does uncertainty change how customers make decisions? Yes, according to recent research that found people were more likely to rely on feelings rather than functional considerations when uncertain.

Let’s look at how these findings impact how you engage your customers.

In uncertain times, people focus on feelings

The world seems in a heightened state of uncertainty. Economic, societal, and political instability are casting a pall over everyday decision-making, including what and how we buy. Taking this as their theme of enquiry, researchers from Columbia and Nanyang Technological Universities conducted six studies to investigate customer responses to products under conditions of certainty and uncertainty.

In each of the studies participants were primed to feel certain or uncertain before being asked to respond to a product offer. In some cases the functional attributes of a product were emphasised (for example, square footage for an apartment, battery life for a laptop or fuel efficiency for a car), and in others, emphasis was placed on the affective attributes (for example, apartment with a great view and ample sunlight, laptop aesthetics or the superiority of design for a car).

In all cases, participants who were primed to feel uncertain were more likely to choose the product with superior affective but inferior functional characteristics over the option with superior functional but inferior affective characteristics. In other words, people said they preferred the apartment with sunlight over the one with a larger floor plan, and the laptop that looked better over the one with a better battery.

According to the researchers, “by increasing the reliance on affect in judgments, uncertainty can shift consumers’ preferences toward options that are particularly attractive on affective dimensions, even if these options are inferior on more functional dimensions”.

Uncertainty was also found to amplify the effects of:  

  • A TV ad’s soundtrack on behavioural intentions, where uncertain participants who watched an ad about books with a pleasant sounding soundtrack said they were almost twice as likely to buy, borrow or read a book than those who listened to an unpleasant soundtrack; and
  • A product’s picture on willingness to pay, with uncertain participants willing to pay $514.13 for a TV promoted with a picture, compared with only $396.62 for a TV advertised with a blank screen. 

Implications for you

When it comes to influencing behaviour, uncertainty is one of the big four elements along with tangibility (how real something seems to your customer); immediacy (how quickly they get to experience it); and self-worth (whether it supports their sense of self). While I usually talk about uncertainty in a specific context, like how certain the outcome is for your customer if they choose to do business with you, a more generalised, collective uncertainty that pervades the market is also likely to impact your customer.

In uncertain times it may be time to dial up the feelings and dial down the functionality.

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