New research from Google and the Behavioural Architects seeks to understand the complexities of the purchase decision process at a time when e-commerce is erupting as a result of COVID-19 – here’s what you need to know.

The new research, which you can find here (and is summarised here), lays its focus on “the ‘messy middle’, a space of abundant information and unlimited choice that shoppers have learned to manage using a range of cognitive shortcuts.”

It is a multifaceted study based on literature reviews, shopping observations, search trend analysis, and a large-scale experiment.

Ultimately, what the study finds is that people rely on cognitive biases formed many years before the internet, which has charged them with an unprecedented speed and scale. The six explored in the research are:

  • Category heuristics – key product specs that simplify decisions
  • Power of now – the longer you wait, the weaker the proposition becomes
  • Social proof – the power of others’ recommendations
  • Scarcity bias – as availability decreases, desire increases
  • Authority bias – trust and expertise can sway decisions
  • Power of free – a free, even unrelated, gift with a purchase is a motivator

People deploy these across two key mental modes when they look for information about a category’s products and brands: exploration and evaluation.

Image: Google

The experiment:

Based on the understanding that decisions are an emotional as well as a rational matter, the researchers looked to test the six biases in a purchase-making context to see how they might work for brands.

Using a conjoint analysis, which measures how people value different attributes of a product or service, looking not at tangible benefits but at cognitive biases. “For our purposes we chose to create a generic, unbranded website which would situate participants’ decision-making within a familiar context.

Shoppers were asked to share their first and second favourite brands from a selection within a specific category. These preferences then became the basis of the simulation, with the shoppers asked to choose between pairs of brands to which some or all of the six biases had been applied. For each of the 31 products, 1000 online shoppers were recruited.

The results revealed that the identified biases were crucial, even for new challenger brands. But it boils down to a handful of key lessons:

  1. Even brands that people haven’t heard of can disrupt preferences in the messy middle.
  2. However, brands do still really matter. “Despite our best efforts to swing things in favour of the fictional brands, in every category, many shoppers remained loyal to their favourite brand even when the alternative offered a vastly superior proposition.”
  3. Presence can be all it takes to shift a preference. Around a third of respondents would go for their second preference when offered the option prior to purchase – sometimes just showing up at the right time matters.

“As our experiments show, with a few powerful behavioural cues to act as signposts, brands can show up at the right moment and win consumer preference, whatever their category.”  

Sourced from Google