Business Psychology

Article No. 360
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

The Right Pitch

Research reveals a common retailing mistake when customers are feeling a loss of control.

Imagine walking into the shoe section of your sporting goods store and recognizing a dejected young man examining basketball shoes. He's the star player from the local high school, and he missed a crucial lay up in the previous night's loss to a cross-town rival. Here he is, shopping for shoes in your store. Guess which opening statement will lead to a sale?

Option 1: "That's a fine shoe you're holding there. You'll be amazed how fast and easy you'll improve with that shoe."

Option 2: "That's a fine shoe you're holding there. If you work hard, it will hold up well for you, and your game will improve pretty quickly."

You can be forgiven for choosing option 1, the wrong option, because emphasizing ease of use is so common that many people in sales resort to it like a default. Everyone, the reasoning goes, wants an easier life where important goals can be reached with minimal effort. For example, countless video and print ads portray the goal of a clean, orderly house reached by relaxed, well-made-up housewives allowing featured products to virtually do the work for them.

The logic of minimal effort leading to the fulfillment of important goals when those goals are threatened didn't sit well with Keisha Cutright from Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. There's too much psychological research that refutes this logic, so she tested option 2 which promised good results with hard work. In five head-to-head experiments posing option 1 against option 2, when people were feeling a loss of control, a product that offered to help them regain control if they worked hard to achieve it was the clear winner.

How could that be true?

People often feel frustrated in reaching goals, and this frustration often leads them to the marketplace to find products and services that will help them. The list includes a clean house, good health, adequate income, school achievement, sport and fitness goals, appearance, and many more. Professor Cutright describes these needs as a loss of control, i.e. the achievement of goals seems out of one's control.

Products that promise good, rapid outcomes with hard work offer reassurance that desired outcomes are possible. They also offer a partner (the product or service) to help them achieve these outcomes. As a result, people feel empowered because it was their own hard work that made the difference.

Professor Cutright's research answers a question that has always bedeviled retailers: Why do people walk away when they clearly need a product and have the means to purchase it? The answer: The merchant promised an easy answer, a product that required little effort, and consumers feeling a loss of control don't want this answer. They want to work hard to reach their goals.

Cutright also found two limiting conditions. First, people are only motivated to partner with high-effort products and work hard in the specific areas in which they feel low control. For example, the basketball player who is willing to work hard to play better basketball will not also want to work harder to have a shining clean kitchen floor. Retailers will need to anticipate feelings of loss of control using situational cues as did the retailer using option 2 in the opening example. Skillful sales people also know how to stimulate feelings of need for a product.

A second limiting condition involves the speed of achieving goals. Cutright's research found that consumers were only interested in acquiring high-effort products if they were promised rapid progress toward their goals. If the retailer cautioned that progress would be slow, then consumers preferred low-effort products that didn't require their hard work.

Reference: Cutright, Keisha M. and Adriana Samper (2014) Doing It the Hard Way: How Low Control Drives Preferences for High-Effort Products and Services. JOURNAL OF CONSUMER RESEARCH, 41(3), 730-745.

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Keywords: Personal control, High-effort products, and Products as enablers. Consult Subject Index for related research.

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