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Retailers, Beware: Shoppers Don’t Like To Be Watched Online

When consumers are given suggestions based on their browsing, they often just leave. Retailers, Beware: Shoppers Don’t Like To Be Watched Online

As shoppers well know, retail sites often make product suggestions based on consumers’ browsing history.

New research suggests that may be a mistake.

The reason is that consumers dislike being observed while deliberating—to the point that many may react by not making a purchase if they think their shopping is being monitored, or by avoiding retailers that they know will watch them browse.

That’s the gist of a recent paper published in the Journal of Consumer Research by Yonat Zwebner, an assistant professor of marketing at the Arison School of Business at the Interdisciplinary Center, a university in Herzliya, Israel, and Rom Y. Schrift, an associate professor of marketing at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. Across 10 studies, the pair investigated how consumers react when they are being observed while deciding whether to make a purchase.

In one of the studies, conducted while Dr. Zwebner was a postdoctoral fellow at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, she and Dr. Schrift approached 173 random people on campus and offered them $1 to participate in a quick game. A nearby table was set up with 10 baskets, each with a different product, all priced at 10 cents. Participants could choose to spend all of the dollar, some of the dollar and keep the change, or buy nothing and pocket the dollar.

The researchers enlisted a colleague to act as a bystander and ask them if he could join the study. “We wanted to see how the participants would react when they thought another participant was observing them while deliberating,” Dr. Zwebner says. While the participants were making their choices, the bystander either watched them make their decisions, only saw their final choices, or stood aside and didn’t observe them at all.

The researchers found that 41% of participants whose browsing was observed decided to walk away with no products, compared with 20% of those who weren’t watched at all or had only their ultimate choices observed.

“That shows that the act of being observed while deciding—not someone standing nearby, not being judged by their final decision—is what bothers decision makers,” says Dr. Zwebner.

“People feel it’s invasive to have someone watch them while they are in the vulnerable decision-making phase, fearing they might make a particular decision just to satisfy the bystander, or that they’re making the wrong decision,” she says. “So they quit.”

Another study showed how consumers will often avoid potentially making the “wrong” decision while being watched by choosing the default option rather than their preferred choice. When students in a lab were offered an off-the-rack school T-shirt or one they could design, 51% of a group who were told their decision making wouldn’t be watched chose to design their own shirt. In a group that was told their decisions would be observed, only 30% chose to design their own.

“The mere anticipation of being observed shifts our decision making, and we will take the most obvious and easy option, the shortcut,” says Dr. Zwebner.

In studies of online shopping, the researchers found that participants were “significantly less interested” in using an online platform that monitors their decision making than they were in a platform that tracks only their final choices.

Taken together, the studies can help marketers decide how to approach consumers.

“If a firm wants consumers to just buy anything, then they could signal that customers are not being observed by saying that a chat box online or salesperson in a store is there to help as they go through the decision-making process—but that they are not being monitored,” Dr. Zwebner says.

Retailers that want consumers to choose a default or specific item can let them know they are being observed in real time, and customers will be more likely to choose the most obvious and easy option, she says, as the T-shirt study demonstrated. Of course, there is a risk in this approach, as in the $1 study: “The observed consumer might leave without purchasing anything, just to emphasize their autonomy.”

Online marketers who want to guide consumers to specific products but lessen the risk of driving them away could let customers choose whether or not they can be observed while shopping, Dr. Zwebner says. A message saying something like, “In order to offer you the best product experience, check here and we will monitor your behavior on our site to adjust recommendations for you,” should help consumers navigate the trade-off between the cost of being observed and the benefit of receiving the best recommendations, she says.

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