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School of Business Study Finds Misuse of Common Marketing Tactic Likely to Result in Lost Holiday Sales

December 18, 2008
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   holiday sales
New research conducted by Juliano Laran, assistant professor of marketing, finds that a common marketing tactic used by retailers every day, “priming,” could backfire in certain situations – a well-timed finding as retailers face one of the most challenging holiday shopping seasons in years.

Priming is the act of sending subtle messages to shoppers to influence their purchase behavior. Furniture stores, for example, bake cookies on their showroom floors because studies show the smell stimulates purchases for the home. But surprising results of a new study published in the December 2008 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research reveal that priming can lead to lost sales when a customer is in a buying situation that is unfamiliar to him or her. This phenomenon is called “anti-priming.”

“The current economic environment is making retailers work harder for their sales this holiday season than they have in decades,” says Laran. “Combating anti-priming might be the most important tactic that good marketers should focus on this season.  It’s very clear from this research that priming does not work if a person is asked to make a decision in a scenario that is unfamiliar to him or her,” added Laran who conducted the study with Chris Janiszewski of the University of Florida – Gainesville, and Marcus Cunha of the University of Washington – Seattle.

Laran says the finding is especially relevant to retailers during the holiday season, when people are often shopping for people they do not know very well – a man shopping for a new girlfriend, for example.

“When a man shops in a store like Ann Taylor, a place he wouldn’t typically visit because it sells women’s clothing, the usual ‘primes’ set up in the store to influence a woman’s purchase might unintentionally send the man out the door and to a store like Best Buy where he’d feel more comfortable,” says Laran. “Women’s clothing stores often place fine objects as primes in stores. It is common to find pedestals in store doorways to create the feeling of ‘luxury,’ which has been proven to positively influence sales to women. Stores like Ann Taylor would attract greater holiday sales by setting up primes for males to make the store context more familiar, like sporting objects associated with ‘having fun.’”

Laran’s research found that close to 70 percent of consumers who were primed in an environment that was unfamiliar to them made choices that went in the opposite direction of the primes. For example, consumers who were primed with “impressing others” in an unfamiliar environment became much more likely to choose cheaper, fun products instead of more expensive, impressive products.

Studies were conducted with undergraduate students to test the theories of priming and anti-priming:

  • In the first exercise, researchers stimulated goals by having students unscramble sentences containing words either related to fun or relaxation.
  • The students were then told they were going to participate in a second, unrelated exercise, to choose a destination for a vacation from a list of choices. In reality, the first exercise contained words that primed the students for their destination choice. They were given a list of fun/party destinations like Las Vegas, and a list of relaxing destinations like Destin, Florida.
  • Half of the group was asked to plan a vacation for a month from now (a common behavior), whereas the other half was asked to plan a trip for the next day (a less common behavior).

The following results occurred:

  • Among students who were primed with words related to fun and were asked to choose a vacation destination for a month from now, 68 percent chose a fun destination, and therefore proved that the priming goals were effective.
  • Among students who were primed for fun but asked to choose a vacation destination for a day from now, 62 percent chose the more relaxing destination, and, therefore, acted in the opposite way of the intended priming.
Laran says the reason that the priming did not work with members of the second group is because they were uncomfortable with having to choose a vacation destination for the next day. The implication for travel agencies in this scenario is obvious – it might be smarter to stick to marketing vacations with long lead times versus great packages for the too near future, even if the price would seem too desirable to pass up.

“The implications of this research show that marketers should be aware of the effects of priming and anti-priming, and understand the amount of experience consumers have in a given situation or environment before using priming as a marketing tool,” says Laran.

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