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How A Sequence of Decisions Affects Later Shopping Choices

When you’re picking out a jacket or a sofa, does it matter in what order you decide on its color, style, and material? According to a study by Yale SOM’s Gal Zauberman and his co-authors, the sequence in which you choose features of a purchase affects your mental representations of the object and may change how you think about it, including how you categorize it and how you might decide to replace it.

A coat rack of jackets of different colors.

Julie Edwards/Alamy Stock Photo

When consumers shop for a product, they often must make decisions about a series of traits. For example, a customer might choose a jacket’s color, fabric, and style. But does the order of these decisions matter?

In a recent study, Yale SOM marketing professor Gal Zauberman and his colleagues investigated the effects of changing the sequence of such choices. Unlike previous studies in this area, the research did not simply assess whether the order of feature selections altered the final product that the consumer picked. Instead, the team studied how the decisions affected the person’s mental representation of the object and subsequent shopping choices.

The researchers found that the order of trait selections seemed to influence how people thought about the product—for example, which feature they focused on when describing the object to others. This shift in mental representation ultimately affected how participants chose to replace that product.

“It will have implications later on,” Zauberman says. “You still think differently about these objects.” Companies might want to consider these findings when deciding how to present choices to consumers on shopping websites, he says.

To conduct the study, the researchers first recruited 84 people on the website Amazon Mechanical Turk for an online experiment. Participants had to choose a sofa set and select a color and fabric. Some people picked the color first and then the fabric, and others did the opposite. Next, they wrote down a description of the chosen sofa.

The order of trait selections didn’t affect which sofa participants ultimately chose. But it did influence their descriptions of the product. Among participants who picked color first, 59% of them emphasized color in the written summary. But among those who chose fabric first, only 19% focused on color.

The researchers found similar results when they asked 97 online participants to choose a Starbucks drink: either coffee or green tea, and hot or iced. After making their decisions, people selected which other available drink was the most similar to the one they had picked. If they had chosen the type of drink before the temperature—say, specifying coffee and then iced—they were more likely to say that the other coffee drink was more similar.

“Marketers, especially in a digital environment, have control over the order in which consumers see the attributes. We might as well do it in a way that is conducive for consumer choice, satisfaction, and potentially profitability.”

Next, the team investigated what happened when people had to make a decision about a product with real-world consequences—namely, to choose a replacement. In a lab experiment, 158 students selected a logo and color for a bag. Afterward, the researchers told them that their first choice wasn’t available, and they could pick another bag. Sixty-six percent of participants who picked the logo first chose another bag with the same logo. But among students who had selected color first, only 41% of them did so.

The researchers then wondered if the consumer had to make an active choice to trigger this effect or if simply viewing information about features in a certain order would have the same result. To find out, they presented some online participants with possible colors and styles of coffee mugs and asked them to memorize the details—but did not ask them to choose one. Only later did those people pick a mug among four options. Then they had to replace their chosen mug with another one. In that case, the order in which participants had viewed and memorized the traits had no effect on how they chose to replace their mug.

The study might be relevant to marketing strategies. For instance, a company that sells leather jackets might want to position itself primarily as a leather goods manufacturer rather than a coat manufacturer. So when presenting choices to customers on its website, the firm should perhaps show material selections before other features such as color, Zauberman says.

“Marketers, especially in a digital environment, have control over the order in which consumers see the attributes,” he says. “We might as well do it in a way that is conducive for consumer choice, satisfaction, and potentially profitability.”

But the research won’t necessarily apply to all product traits. If a consumer chooses a car’s upholstery before the model, the second attribute is so much more important that it’s still likely to be more prominent in her mind. And the team doesn’t yet know if their results extend to more complicated shopping decisions involving very high levels of features.

Still, the study suggests that the order of trait decisions may have more nuanced effects than previously thought. Two consumers could pick the same final product but—depending on the sequence of feature decisions they made—select different replacements down the road. “While you and I chose the same option, we’re thinking about it differently,” Zauberman says.

Department: Research