Heuristics and Shopper Behavior

In order to understand shopper behavior, it’s important to understand the decision-making process and reach consumers at the moment that most influence their decisions. One of the key concepts to understand concerning the psychology of shopping is heuristics.

A heuristic is a mental shortcut that helps us make decisions and problem solve quickly. They allow us to shorten the decision-making time without always having to think about the next course of action. For example, over time we recognize if a website is trustworthy or not. Does it look well laid out and designed or does it have a lot of annoying banner ads and graphics? We then store and use this information the next time we go online to quickly decide if a website is trustworthy or not. Due to our previous learning, the second time the process doesn’t require as much mental effort.

There are 4 types of heuristics that influence shopper behavior:

1. Availability Heuristic
This is a mental shortcut based on how easy it is to bring something to mind. For example, when deciding which laundry detergent to buy you may well choose Tide because it comes to mind the fastest. You may well have chosen another brand if you had more information available about it. You simply chose the one that came to mind the easiest. In other words, we often rely on how easy it is to think of examples when making a decision. The number of examples there are is directly dictated by how accessible these examples are. Consequently, less easily recalled information is ignored even if it is statistically (and obviously) more important.

The availability heuristic can be used in marketing by giving examples of the results your product has brought forth in order to make it easier for potential customers to imagine an outcome they could likely achieve if they chose it. By giving potential customers a taste of what they could experience with your product, you’re not only exciting the consumer imagination, but you’re also imprinting a positive association in their memory between your product and the subsequent attractive outcome they have the power to achieve.

2. Representativeness Heuristic
This is a mental shortcut based on comparing a current situation to a representative example. To convince us that objects or products are representative of an idea or concept we might have, marketers use representativeness. For example, if we watch TV and see numerous ads with a rugged man driving a pickup truck, we may well conclude that pick up trucks are only for rugged men who work outdoors.

3. Anchoring Heuristic
This heuristic is the effect of a prior judgment of an object, the anchor, on our future judgments regarding another object.  These judgements could be about a numerical value, a probability or even a moral judgement. To influence consumer choice, marketers can anchor brands according to their own strategic reference points of value. For example, product manufacturers often introduce either a higher or lower priced item first depending on how they want to influence a consumer’s subsequent decisions. If they start by introducing a higher priced model first, then the lower priced model will look like a better deal in comparison.

4. Attribute Substitution Heuristic
When trying to make a purchase decision we often substitute an easier question for a more complicated one in order to make the decision easier and faster. For instance, when buying a new pair of running shoes we may not inquire about the technical aspects (pronation vs supination, crash zone, foot strike area) and instead just ask the question, “which brand do I like best?”

We can better understand shopper behavior through an understanding of heuristics. Understanding how shoppers decide what to buy and helping them through the steps is important. You can increase your chances of truly persuading consumers and driving them to action by considering heuristics in your next marketing campaign.

See also Heuristics and Shopper Behavior Part 2

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