Comfort Shopping: Sad Customers Buy More


Most merchants would include “happy customers” as a key part of their mission. Oddly, new research shows that sad customers are likely to spend more money when shopping. Merely watching a sad video clip caused subjects to pay nearly four times as much for a water bottle than subjects who watched an emotionally neutral clip.

The new study released Friday by researchers from four universities goes further, trying to answer whether temporary sadness alone can trigger spendthrift tendencies.

The study found a willingness to spend freely by sad people occurs mainly when their sadness triggers greater “self-focus.” That response was measured by counting how frequently study participants used references to “I,” “me,” “my” and “myself” in writing an essay about how a sad situation such as the one portrayed in the video would affect them personally…

On average, the group watching the sad video offered to pay nearly four times as much for a sporty-looking, insulated water bottle than the group watching the nature video, according to the study by researchers from Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and Pittsburgh universities. [From AP – Sadness May Encourage More Extravagance]

As Neuromarketing readers have come to expect, the subjects were oblivious to their altered behavior and insisted that the video clip they had seen had no effect on their purchase. The study’s authors are Jennifer Lerner from Harvard, Carnegie Mellon’s Cynthia Cryder, Stanford’s James Gross, and the University of Pittsburgh’s Ronald Dahl.

I suppose this is good news for funeral directors, though they certainly knew this already. For marketers who deal with customers other than the recently bereaved, the implications are less clear. One certainly doesn’t want to sadden one’s customers. Perhaps the best bet is to adopt a marketing approach that has broad appeal but might resonate particularly well with those individuals having a bad day. The AP story quotes Edward Charlesworth, a Houston-based clinical psychologist, as singling out the old McDonald’s slogan, “You deserve a break today!”

Every purchase process involves the brain balancing reward seeking, pain avoidance, and no doubt other factors – it seems that when one is sad, the reward value of a desirable purchase goes up.

Comfort Shopping

We’ve all heard about comfort food, usually carb-laden dishes that hark back to childhood, and attributed the appeal of these dishes to a combination of physiological effects and emotional associations. While that may be true, this research suggests comfort food is a part of a broader phenomenon in which individuals reward themselves when feeling down. “Comfort shopping” is apparently part of that same group of behaviors.

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