When you make a major purchase, how do you choose between competing products? Do you buy solely on price? Or do you consider features, quality, and brand reputation?

A new study in the April 2009 issue of Journal of Consumer Research reveals that our purchasing decisions are susceptible to the influence of external descriptions. When we shop, we may spend too much when we base our decisions on product specifications.

The researchers found that “even when consumers can directly experience the relevant products, and the specifications carry little or no new information, their preference is still influenced by specifications”. In other words, even when we can compare products first-hand, we don’t trust our own judgment. We let specifications influence our decisions.

First-hand experience
I’ve experienced this first-hand many times. I might, for example, be shopping for a new blender and find a model that I really like. It does what I need and is easy to use. It matches our kitchen and the price is right. But then I’ll notice that it only has 6 speeds and other models have 8 speeds. Suddenly I’ll second-guess myself and end up buying a different blender — one that I ultimately find less satisfying.

Now obviously, product specifications are useful; they allow us to compare models and features. The problem comes when we let the specifications unduly influence our decisions.

When I purchased a digital camera in 2007, for example, I became fixated on the number of megapixels each model offered despite the fact that I know megapixels make no difference to quality. Ultimately I chose the camera that I preferred subjectively, but for a while I had dismissed it because its specifications weren’t top-of-the-line. I made a smart choice. That little camera has been a reliable producer of great photos.

Practical implications
The authors of this study conclude that marketers can manipulate consumers by taking advantage of their tendency to seek better specifications. For example, manufacturers might create new measurements and emphasize their importance, such as a hypothetical “crispness index” for crackers. And I’ve often wondered if some companies don’t funnel customers toward certain profitable models in their product line through the use of specifications.

The authors also have a recommendation for consumers: Base your buying decisions on experience, not just on numbers. They write, “The situation we find ourselves in when we decide what to purchase often differs significantly from the situation we will find ourselves in when we eventually consume the good we purchase.”

Comparing specifications is useful for creating a pool of choices, but you should base your final decision on personal experience whenever possible.

[Journal of Consumer Research: Specification seeking: How product specifications influence consumer preference]

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