Wrong Purchase? Why Shoppers Can't Stop Buying

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When you splurge on designer shoes for your spouse this holiday season, you should double-check that they go with the rest of her wardrobe. Because if they don't, says a new study, she likely won't send you back to the store to return them. Instead, she'll just buy new clothes to make it all match, further draining that checking account already hit hard by the holidays.

That costly behavior is explored in a new study to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Marketing Research, which calls the consumer psychology phenomenon "aesthetic incongruity resolution," an academic way of saying "what do you do when the couch doesn't match the curtains?" Vanessa Patrick, a marketing professor at the C.T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston, and Henrik Hagtvedt, a marketing professor at Boston College's Carroll School of Management, find that when consumers buy a product high in "design salience" — in other words, stuff that looks nice — and subsequently find that the product doesn't fit in with an existing wardrobe or home décor, they're more likely buy more products to accommodate their new purchase. "There's a domino effect that can be quite dangerous," says Hagtvedt.

The researchers found that a set of conflicting emotions drives this shopping behavior. When you buy designer items — they could be shoes, jewelry, furniture — and discover an aesthetic mismatch, you're more likely to feel frustration, instead of regret, about your predicament. Consumers become attached to the unique designer item, and want to do everything they can to make it fit with their existing environment. "Frustration is a more activating emotion," says Hagtvedt. By contrast, the researchers found, if the new purchase doesn't possess many design elements, and just doesn't fit in, you're likely to simply feel regret about the decision and take the product back to get a refund.

The first experiment that Patrick and Hagtvedt conducted was a straightforward survey. The team asked 125 people to describe a situation in which they bought a product that did not fit with their consumption environment, and explain whether they purchased additional items to accommodate it, or just returned it. For those who purchased more items, "product design salience" of the new purchase — its "impeccable design," or "cool colors" — was the most frequently cited factor driving their decision.

In another experiment, subjects were given a pendant that did not match their existing wardrobes. Half the participants were given a designer pendant with a striped pattern. The others were given a plain, orange piece with no stripes. They were then offered a choice: buy a matching pair of earrings for $5, return the pendant for a $5 refund, or just keep the pendant and pass on both the earrings and the return option. The results were telling. Nearly 60% of those who received a designer pendant chose to buy matching earrings, while only 14% of those who received the plain one made the same decision. Meanwhile, 85% of the subjects who got the non-designer pendant returned it, while 14% of the designer pendant recipients did so.

For a third experiment, subjects were shown pictures of one of two types of armchairs, and the living room in which that chair that would be placed. Both the trendier, trimmer chair and the lumpier model shown to the subjects were not aesthetic fits in the living room. They were then asked to imagine a situation in which they had purchased that chair for the living room, and to report their feelings of regret and frustration about the purchase, and whether they'd buy more matching items or return the chair. Subjects shown the designer armchair reported higher levels of frustration about the aesthetic mismatch, and said they'd be more likely to buy more stuff to make the living room work. On the other hand, participants shown the non-designer chair were more likely to say they'd regret that purchase, and return it.

So if you're shopping for designer items, keep this new version of buyer beware in mind. "Beware of the never-ending spiral," says Hagtvedt. "You'll start with an innocent purchase, and the next thing you know, you're buying a new living room."