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Direct and indirect product experiences

Sep 01, 2007

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Research by Rebecca Hamilton

Direct experiences with products helps customers choose the products with which they will be most satisfied in the long run.

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 Experiences.”

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 using it.

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 purchasing.

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 rhamilto@rhsmith.umd.edu.

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