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'Want' versus 'Should', Small Windfalls, and Customer Behavior

'Want' versus 'Should', Small Windfalls, and Customer Behavior

It makes a difference to your marketing strategy whether your customers buy your stuff because they want to (ice cream) or because they should (carrots).

In a recent research paper, Harvard Business School researchers explore the want versus should conflict and what it means to managers in a number of areas from demand forecasting to store layout.

Some insights:

  • Consumers spend less and order a higher percentage of "should" items the further in advance of delivery they place a grocery order.
  • Encouraging people to order their groceries up to 5 days in advance of consumption could influence the healthfulness of the foods they buy.
  • Grocery stores that locate the produce section ("should" buy) near the entrance have this figured out.
  • Online and catalog retailers that offer a range of goods as well as different delivery options might be able to improve their demand forecasting by understanding these findings.
In a paper released last month, the same team extends the want/should idea into prescriptive medicine for policy makers in the larger world of decision making.

Finally, the researchers -- Katherine L. Milkman, John Beshears, Todd Rogers, and Max H. Bazerman -- explore the idea of "small windfalls" -- the dollar you find on the street or unexpected poker winnings -- and how they influence purchasing decisions. One finding: Coupons stimulate spending, although classic economic theory would hold otherwise.

Does a buck found in your dirty laundry burn a hole in your pocket? Are you motivated by a half-0ff coupon?

(Ice cream image by Tavalli, CC 2.0)

Sean Silverthorne

Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.

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