Research by Rebecca Hamilton
Direct experiences with products helps customers choose the
products with which they will be most satisfied in the long
Enter a big-box electronics store and you are likely to find
customers poring over displays of cell phones, digital music
players and DVD players, trying to determine which product is
right for them. Yet despite their efforts, many of them will
ultimately be unhappy with the product they take home.
The reason for their post-purchase dissatisfaction, according
to recent research at Smith, may lie in their pre-purchase evaluation
of the product. Simply reading product descriptions or seeing
products on display may not provide enough of the right kind
of information—or the right kind of experience—to allow customers
to choose the product with which they will be most satisfied
in the long-term.
Rebecca Hamilton, associate professor of marketing, and Debora
Viana Thompson, PhD ’06, of Georgetown University, address this
issue in their paper “Is There a Substitute for Direct Experience?
Comparing Consumers’ Preferences after Direct and Indirect Product
In a series of studies conducted in the Smith School’s Netcentric
Behavioral Lab, the authors examined the effect of direct experiences,
such as actually using a product, and indirect experiences,
such as reading a product description, on consumers’ purchasing
preferences. “We looked at the underlying thought process and
were able to actually measure how people were thinking about
their choices,” says Hamilton. In the studies, participants
read about or used a virtual digital music player, and then
answered a series of questions that asked them to describe the
product. The authors then coded the participants’ thoughts to
determine if they were focused on concrete details , such as
how they would use the product, or on more abstract themes ,
such as why they would want to own the product.
The authors found that when consumers rely on product descriptions,
and have not actually used a product, they tend to focus more
on the desirability of the product, rather than on how easy
the product will be to use. In contrast, after using a product,
customers become more focused on the usability of the product
rather than on all of the things the product can do for them.
This means that consumers might prefer one product in the store,
but prefer a different product once they bring it home and begin
Hamilton found that product experiences at the point of purchase
seem to be critical in shaping the customer’s product preferences.
In one study, participants were given the opportunity to use
two models of a virtual digital music player—one that offered
more pre-loaded songs but was harder to use, and another that
had fewer songs but was easier to use. After using both, the
majority of participants preferred the easier-to-use music player
with fewer songs. Two weeks later, the same participants were
asked to read product descriptions and then choose between the
same two models of music players. To Hamilton’s surprise, this
time they preferred the more desirable but harder-to-use music
player with more features. “We expected to find more evidence
for learning, and less of an effect based on the context in
which consumers made their choices, but product experiences
at the point of purchase were very influential,” commented Hamilton.
To combat buyer’s remorse, more and more companies are offering
a ‘try-before-you-buy experience’ to consumers. At some stores
that sell Maytag products, you can throw a load of dirty laundry
into a Maytag washer or bake a tray of cookies in a Maytag oven.
REI staffers encourage campers to actually put up a tent before
Providing a hands-on, point-of-purchase experience with their
product may not be feasible for all manufacturers and retailers.
But it is possible to manipulate consumers’ thought processes
by encouraging them to focus on concrete details about the product.
Hamilton found that engaging in a preliminary exercise in which
consumers focused on how they would accomplish a goal made consumer
preferences formed by indirect experience indistinguishable
from those formed by direct experience. The authors note that
successful interventions require more than rewriting product
descriptions. As their research shows, simply providing more
information about the product isn’t enough to resolve the discrepancy
between consumers’ preferences before and after purchasing.
Hamilton says that virtual experiences with products, either
online or in a product display, may also help increase the consistency
between consumers’ preferences before and after use. On the
Kodak Web site, potential camera purchasers can examine digital
cameras in three dimensions, rotate them 360 degrees, and view
demos showing how to use each camera’s different modes and menus.
Encouraging consumers to imagine how they would use the product’s
features step-by-step may produce preferences more like those
formed based on direct experiences.
“Is There a Substitute for Direct Experience? Comparing Consumers’
Preferences after Direct and Indirect Product Experiences” is
forthcoming from the Journal of Consumer Research. For
more information about this research, please contact