How Shoppers Really Decide

How Shoppers Really Decide

Every day, shoppers make choices, lots of them. In this article I’ll reveal how you can actively help shoppers to make better purchase decisions.

Let’s begin by looking at how shoppers compare specific product attributes. Some attributes can be frankly negative, such as sugar in confectionery and soft drinks. So you’d think that it would be smart to promote a ‘Zero sugar’ fizzy drink right? Wrong!

Following on from my recent post about the paradox of choice and how that accounts for the continuing success of the discounters, I thought it worth drilling down into the psychology of how shoppers actually make purchasing decisions in-store. Although this is a bit more technical as reading matter, the potential ramifications and opportunities for retailers and brands are prolific.

Beware the power of '0'

Shoppers, as humans, tend to compare and evaluate choice options using relative comparisons. In other words, they compare options, to each other, and not individually. So returning to our fizzy drinks example, if drink ‘A’ has 20 grams of sugar and drink ‘B’ has just 1 gram of sugar, then shoppers know that ‘A’ is 20X more sugar in it than ‘B’.

But if we now add in a drink ‘C’ that has 0 grams of sugar, the difference between ‘C’ and either of the others is infinite ergo meaningless. For it to mean something to shoppers, they need to be able to compare in context, or in absolute terms. And yet Coke Life was the product that was withdrawn?

According to the researchers: “Compared to zero, any number is infinitely larger, so this type of comparison becomes meaningless. In this case, consumers lose the reference point that allows them to use any relative comparison”.

Although it goes against everything shoppers tell you in focus groups, you can increase likelihood to buy a particular product by increasing any undesirable ‘aspects’ above 0.

Make sure you know what your brand is famous for

Here’s another psychological process that influences shopper decision making: When evaluating different purchase options, shoppers are swayed by what is termed ‘Leader Driven Primacy’. Basically, once we identify a preferred brand based on a specific aspect. Any subsequent evaluation of other brands references against the preferred brand. Therefore it is biased and so builds support for the initial brand. Thus the final selection choice itself to be biased.

So if you have product attributes on pack, make sure you put the right ones at the top of any list or graphic hierarchy.

The Mere Exposure effect

What about multiple sitings of the same product in-store?

How does that psychologically impact on shopper choice mechanisms? According to researchers Armel, Beaumel and Rangle, desirable items such as confectionery are up to 11% more likely to be chosen if they are in the sight lines of shoppers for longer.

But in contrast, distress related items such as household cleaners are 7% less likely to be chosen when in view for longer. So no more one size fits all! also relates to processing fluency: The more times you look at something, the faster your brain becomes able to process it. And because you think you now ‘understand’ that product more, you mistakenly assign the rapid processing with product desirability.

Narrow aisles alter shopper decision making

This may be all well and good for the mega brands that can afford multiple sitings in-store. But what if you are a smaller, less well-known brand? Here’s some psychology you can employ to your advantage.

Display your products in the more crowded areas and narrower aisles.


Because Levay & Zhu discovered that when shoppers are spatially confined, they react against a perceived intrusion into to their personal space by making more varied and unique purchase choices. A series of research initiatives demonstrated that people in narrower aisles seek more variety than people in wider aisles. A subsequent study identified this effect of confinement in narrow aisles also extends to more unique choices.

In summary, there is a positive relationship between crowding and variety seeking when it comes to grocery purchases. So what this means is that in small and crowded areas, shoppers will be more adventurous: Ideal locations for niche brands and lesser known products. Conversely, shoppers will be less adventurous in more spacious settings: This is where to stock the top brands and best selling lines.

Want to improve in-store performance? Or perhaps you are just curious to know what makes for the best shopper oriented retailing? Either way, Let’s talk.

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About Phillip Adcock

My name is Phillip Adcock: I have more than 30 years of human behavioural research and analysis, and have developed a unique ability to identify what it is that makes people psychologically and physiologically 'tick'.

Would you like to know more about how shoppers and consumers think? Download my FREE guide now. Alternatively, check out, where there are more FREE downloads available there. Or why not simply email me with what's on your mind?

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Phillip Adcock

Phillip Adcock CMRS
Psychology & Behaviour
Change Consultant

Phillips Signature

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