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Research from Assistant Professor of Marketing Gia Nardini sheds light on consumers’ shopping behavior

Imagine you’re in the market for a new laptop. You type “best laptop” into a search engine and click enter. Up pops pages full of lists: “Best Laptops for 2019,” “Best Business Laptops,” “Best Laptops Under $500.” You click one and eventually fall, Alice-like, down the rabbit hole of comparison shopping.

Assistant Professor of Marketing Gia Nardini

Three hours and a few headaches later, you have an excessive number of tabs open but are no closer to finding the best laptop than you are to understanding what RAM means. You think, ‘Maybe my current laptop isn’t so bad? Sure, it doesn’t always turn on. But really, how often do I even use it?’ Eventually, you call off the search.

According to research by Gia Nardini, assistant professor of marketing at the Daniels College of Business, companies know you do this. They know it can be overwhelming to shop for items, especially customizable ones like laptops, so they try and simplify the process.

“Given the sheer number of available products, making a choice often becomes overwhelming for consumers,” Nardini said. “Companies try to mitigate this difficulty by making choices easier for consumers. For example, instead of searching through hundreds of laptops, people can choose their desired screen size, memory capacity, etc., in a series of simple steps to get exactly what they want.”

Intuitively, this makes sense. Simplifying the decision process by breaking it down into a series of smaller steps sounds like it would lead to more purchase decisions.

But in her research, titled, “When self-customization backfires: The role of a maximizing mindset,” which was recently published in Psychology Marketing, Nardini and her co-author argue that simplifying the decision process may not lead to a higher purchase likelihood.

“Surprisingly, we find that this simple, step-by-step choice process inspires people to maximize—to keep looking until they find the best,” Nardini said. “Rather than choose the laptop they’ve just created, consumers now feel like finding the best is possible, and they prefer to keep looking. Thus, by making the process of choosing a product easy for consumers, companies are inadvertently causing consumers to leave without making a purchase.”

If this seems a bit counterintuitive to you, you aren’t alone. It’s one of the main reasons why Nardini chose to research this topic.

“I decided to pursue this research because the effect was so counter to what you might expect. But, at the same time, it is also relatable,” Nardini said. “In my own life, I’ve felt as though a decision wasn’t as hard as I was expecting, and that motivated me to deepen my search—I didn’t want to settle once I realized that making a choice wasn’t that hard.”

So for argument’s sake, let’s say you’re still interested in buying that new laptop. Here’s Nardini’s advice:

“In our daily lives, I think we can easily become caught up in an exhaustive search, especially with the help of the internet,” she said. “We may have tons of tabs open, trying to make sure we get the best possible option out there. But sometimes we need to recognize when it is time to simply make a choice; just because we can keep searching, doesn’t mean we should.”

On the flip side, this research also has implications for the organizations that are selling these products to us. Nardini said, “As for companies, this research suggests that simplifying the choice process can actually hurt their bottom lines. Companies need to do more than make it simple—they need to assure consumers that they are getting a great product, possibly the best product for their needs.”