By Kelly Goldsmith, Jing Xu and Ravi Dhar
Are your customers in a concrete or abstract mindset as they think about purchasing your product? The answer can affect how much they buy.
Every day consumers make purchase decisions by choosing among large sets of related products available for sale in the aisles of stores. What factors might systematically affect how consumers make decisions among an array of products? Our research explores one aspect of that question.
As most marketers realize, not all shoppers are created equal. Within the same store, one may be searching for a specific product to meet an immediate need, while others may simply be browsing. Just as they can have different goals when they enter a store, individual consumers may approach purchase decisions with different mindsets that can affect how they shop. In social psychology, a mindset is defined as a set of cognitive processes and judgmental criteria that, once activated, can carry over to unrelated tasks and decisions. In other words, if you get a consumer thinking a certain way, that way
of thinking — that mindset — can influence his or her subsequent shopping behavior.
In particular, social psychologists have identified two distinct mindsets that are relevant to how consumers make decisions when choosing among large sets of related products: abstract and concrete. An abstract mindset encourages people to think in a more broad and general way. Consumers in an abstract mindset who face an array of related products will focus more on the shared product attributes associated with an overarching purpose — for example, the general category of hair care or car maintenance. Conversely, a concrete mindset draws attention to lower-level details and attributes associated with execution or usage; consumers in a concrete mindset will thus focus on factors that differentiate between products.
In our research, we examined how abstract versus concrete mindsets affected consumers’ purchase decisions. (The research results are described in detail in a working paper called “The Role of Abstract and Concrete Mindsets on the Purchase of Products from Adjacent Categories.”) In a series of experiments, we found that mindset matters. When consumers must decide whether or not to make purchases from a variety of related but different product categories — such as toothpaste, mouthwash and dental floss in an array of oral care products — an abstract mindset increases the number of products consumers select. But the reverse occurs when consumers choose among products that are similar enough that consumers could substitute one for another — such as a variety of beverages. In those cases, a concrete mindset increases the number of products consumers want to buy.
In the experiments, we first used exercises that prior research has suggested should help establish an abstract or a concrete mindset — such as asking some participants to write about a year from now (an assignment likely to induce an abstract mindset) while others were asked to write about tomorrow (which is likely to induce a concrete mindset). We then compared the purchase intent — and in some experiments, actual purchases — of consumers in an abstract versus concrete mindset. We found that it is not a question of one mindset being better than the other at increasing consumers’ likelihood of purchase. Instead, the effect of concrete and abstract mindsets varied with the type of product arrays from which consumers were choosing.
Specifically, when faced with a choice among different types of products that relate to the same overarching goal — for example, the various kinds of products available in the oral care aisle — having an abstract mindset, rather than a concrete one, increased the number of products purchased. This presumably occurred because an abstract mindset draws attention to the higher-level purpose — in this case, oral care — which in turn increased consumers’ interest in all means serving that goal — toothbrush, floss, etc. — and thereby increased the total number of products consumers wanted to purchase.
However, when consumers chose among products that were similar enough to be substituted for one another — such as an array of beverages — an abstract mindset decreased interest in purchasing additional products when compared to a concrete mindset. That is because an abstract mindset leads to a focus on the higher-level goal — such as satisfying one’s thirst — and, presumably, to the fact that one beverage is sufficient to satisfy that abstract goal. Conversely, consumers with a concrete mindset focused on the differentiating factors between products — and were thus likely to select a greater number of substitutable products than their abstract-focused counterparts did.
These findings have two clear and straightforward implications for managers: To increase sales, companies should consider matching or manipulating the mindset of the consumer.
Matching the Mindset. The nature of the retailer or the types of products offered may naturally promote a more abstract or concrete mindset upon which businesses can capitalize. In some cases, consumers may tend to approach a retailer planning to make purchases for distant future use; for example, consumers may be evaluating furniture that will be delivered in a number of weeks. The literature on abstract versus concrete mindsets suggests that when consumers consider products for distant future use, they may naturally be in a more abstract mindset than consumers who are evaluating products for immediate consumption. Our research suggests that retailers who recognize that their products may promote distant future considerations (and thus a more abstract mindset) may increase sales if they organize their product offerings in a way that highlights their products’ relationship to a common higher-order goal. For example, a furniture retailer might group products in a way that showcases how different types of furniture all share the benefit of adding comfort and warmth. Conversely, for retailers such as snack vendors who recognize that their products promote fairly immediate use and hence a more concrete mindset, grouping similar, substitutable snack products together should help maximize consumers’ purchase rates.
Manipulating the Mindset. While matching the mindset may be an effective strategy for retailers whose goods naturally promote a distinct mindset, for many retailers the variety of products they offer is such that no clear mindset predominates. For these retailers, manipulating consumers’ mindset as they view specific sets of products may be one effective way to increase purchase rates.
Imagine a retailer offering a large set of related but different products in an oral care aisle. Our findings suggest that, to increase sales, that retailer should consider promoting a more abstract mindset as consumers make their product considerations. For example, managers could implement promotions highlighting the individual products’ relatedness to the overarching, higher-level purpose (i.e., oral care, as opposed to simply clean teeth) in order to increase consumers’ propensity to purchase more types of oral-care products. Conversely, for a retailer offering a large set of substitutable products, such as drinks in a beverage aisle, the opposite suggestion holds. In-store communications promoting a more concrete mindset — by stressing the individual and unique benefits of various products — could be used to increase total sales.
While we believe our work suggests important practical implications for retailers, future research is necessary to fully explore and understand the observed effects. We hope that the current research will prompt future inquiry into this area.
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