Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 120
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

The Lost Customer Dilemma

Researchers explore customers' thinking as they navigate a complex shopping environment.

Do you ever see frowning customers examining hand-held scraps of paper and studying their surroundings, looking for clues to tell them where to go?

Of course you do.

How often do you see unoccupied employees standing in a location customers are likely to see? Probably not very often. Your people are busy, often they're guiding customers who ask for help. But for every customer who gets help, many more remain silent and make decisions that hurt your business, like going elsewhere, or never coming back.

Philip Titus, of Bowling Green State University, and Peter Everett, of Pennsylvania State University, recently examined the thought processes customers used as they shopped in an unfamiliar, typical supermarket, and they made observations they hope will guide all managers of complex shopping environments.

Titus and Everett recruited 63 adults, handed them lists of 21 articles, and followed along one-at-a-time as they searched the store. The shoppers spoke aloud their thoughts as they pursued the task, and the researchers recorded their movements and their words, prompting them if they fell silent.

Titus and Everett found the shoppers used 2 search strategies, one they labeled �passive,� and the second �active.� With a passive strategy, customers examined their locations and then scanned their lists hoping to spot articles that would be nearby. With an active strategy, shoppers first selected an item from their lists and then searched for it. All the shoppers used both strategies, but they used a passive strategy most often, hoping to encounter articles by chance.

As they committed one error after another, their frustration was obvious. Titus and Everett recorded these errors and sorted them into groups. Categories included becoming disoriented, so shoppers didn't know how to proceed, going to the wrong section, going to the right section but not realizing it, misunderstanding a product on their list, and staring at a correct article on the shelf and not recognizing it.

The researchers studied their results and found shoppers' errors all involved a failure to comprehend and recognize product groupings in the store. And this occurred because a) the retail setting was too complex, and b) customers lacked product knowledge. This difficulty was an important finding and led the researchers to several recommendations for retailers.

First, merchandising arrangements should be legible to novice shoppers. Managers should create product categories that enable shoppers to quickly recognize and locate a category of interest. Managers should resist creating separate product groupings that share important features, as do health foods, diet foods, and gourmet foods.

Second, retailers should create orientation aids in the store to overcome the maze-like appearance of many store aisles. For example, consider assigning a letter to each aisle and a number to each 5-foot section along each side of each aisle. Armed with a correct destination coordinate, shoppers could quickly narrow their searches to a 5-foot section of shelf space.

Third, retailers should create a product reference, like a catalogue or a computer monitor, and place it in locations throughout the store. These references need to provide both locations and descriptions of products, keeping in mind customers' many errors involving insufficient product knowledge. Entries should include a description of the product's function, its product category according to your arrangement, a picture of the packaging so customers can recognize it, a location coordinate, and a prompt telling a person which way to go.

Finally, manufacturers should package and label their products keeping in mind the frequent errors customers made trying to recognize items on the shelf. Titus and Everett recommend more clarity.

Customers create a dilemma for retailers by demanding both great variety and simple shopping environments. Some merchants respond by adding staff and training customers to ask for directions, but this is an expensive solution that misses many patrons. Other retailers reduce variety and staff and lower their prices. Titus and Everett offer another solution which may help retailers find a middle ground. It should also keep an enterprising computer programer busy for a few days.

Reference: Titus, Philip A., and Peter B. Everett (1996). Consumer Wayfinding Tasks, Strategies, and Errors: An Exploratory Field Study. Psychology and Marketing, 13 (3), 265-290.

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