How Your Name May Cost You at the Mall

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Looking to sell some of that stuff from your garage, fast? Call the Zimmermans.

According to a new study, people whose surnames start with letters late in the alphabet may be the fastest to buy. What could possibly explain this weird phenomenon, which the study authors dubbed "the last-name effect"? The research didn't provide a definitive reason, but the authors offer an intriguing theory. Since America's obsession with alphabetical order often forces the Z's to the back of the line in childhood, they suffer. They were always the last to get lunch in the cafeteria — sorry, Young, the other kids bought all the chocolate milk again — and had to beg for the teacher's attention from the back of the classroom. So later in life, when the Z's — and even onetime Z's who became A's through marriage — see an item they really like for sale or are offered a deal, they jump on it, afraid that supplies won't last. The chocolate milk is finally in front of them. So they grab it.

"For years, simply because of your name, you've received inequitable treatment," says Kurt Carlson, an assistant professor at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business and a co-author of the paper, which is to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research. "So when you get to exercise control, you seize on opportunity. It's a coping strategy, and over time it becomes a natural way to respond."

Carlson and Jacqueline Conard, an assistant professor at the Massey Graduate School of Business at Belmont University, uncovered the last-name effect through four different experiments. In the first one, MBA students received offers via e-mail for four free tickets to a women's basketball game but were told the overall supply was limited. The average response time for people with names beginning with one of the last nine letters of the alphabet, R through Z, was 19.38 minutes. Those with names starting with one of the first nine letters, A through I, replied in 25.08 minutes — a statistically significant difference.

For the second experiment, 280 adults with an average age of 39.1 responded to an e-mail invitation to fill out an online survey. In exchange, they were told, they had a 1 in 500 chance of winning $500 in a drawing. (In fact, since only 280 people responded, the odds were much better.) Again, people with surnames closer to the end of the alphabet responded faster to the offer. The results didn't differ by gender, and the researchers also found that people whose current surnames were at the beginning of the alphabet but whose childhood surnames had been closer to the end also responded to the offer more quickly. In other words, Zimmermans who married Addisons and changed their names were still coping with their lousy place in past lines.

These two experiments have a relatively obvious shortcoming: people who responded more slowly to the e-mail offers could have just been checking their accounts less frequently. A third experiment addressed that issue by giving everyone a deal simultaneously. At the end of a college wine-evaluation class, the instructor told the attendees they'd get $5 and a bottle of wine if they participated in a 45-min. study a few days later. As expected, students with late-in-the-alphabet names were more likely to accept the offer, and they did so faster than the others.

In a final experiment, researchers asked 41 undergraduate students to imagine a scenario in which they needed a backpack, then saw a bookstore sign offering the item at 20% off "while supplies last." But, the students were told, they did not have their wallet, and it would take 15 minutes to fetch it and return to buy the backpack. The late-in-the-alphabet students were more likely to say they found the discount appealing and that they'd run home to close the deal.

The results are provocative, but come on: Isn't it a stretch to posit that one's place in a grammar-school lunch line has any impact on adult behavior? Perhaps not, at least according to my own utterly unscientific surveys. I grabbed a TIME staff list and started scanning the Z's. I found one Paul Zelinski, 59, a production director for TIME and Sports Illustrated for Kids. Zelinski says he spent many days in the back of the class as a student in Brooklyn Catholic schools. "In grammar school, I didn't mind, because there was this girl next to me who was cute," says Zelinski. "But in high school, it stunk. I couldn't see over the taller guys in front of me."

Upon hearing an explanation of the last-name effect, Zelinski said it made perfect sense. He's always looking to close a deal quickly. He recently bought a car on the Internet; instead of haggling forever, he got what he considered a fair price, made the purchase and moved on.

Zelinski still frets about being in the back. In early January, he attended college football's national championship game in Arizona, where he stood near a railing for two hours to guarantee a good view of the Auburn pep rally. He also says he gets to New York Giants games early, at 8 a.m., to tailgate, because he fears that the prime spots will run out. "I don't know if that has to do with being Zelinski or being Polish," he says. "I might have to go into therapy next week to find out."

What do the lucky ones at the front of the line think? Do they, in fact, inquire about things more slowly than poor souls named Zelinski? I scanned the contact list in my cell phone. Since I don't have a direct line to Hank Aaron or former New York Mets relief pitcher Don Aase, my first entry is Henry Abbott, the excellent basketball writer who runs the TrueHoop blog at "I totally fit this theory," says Abbott, 36. "My wife calls me the researcher. I don't get dazzled by the first deal. I just finished scanning 30 websites for a stupid muzzle for my dog."

Does he buy the last-name effect? "Maybe," he says. "I can understand that if my name began with a Z, I'd be sick of waiting. I do have a feeling that if I miss a deal, there are going to be other good deals." Three days later, Abbott e-mailed me a note: "Found myself thinking about this story several times since we talked. The more I think about it, the more it makes sense."

The last-name effect has very practical implications. Companies, especially those pitching limited-time offers, should first mail out those promotions to consumers with surnames that fall deeper in the alphabet. Shoppers with these names should be more aware of their tendencies. Does it really make sense for me to buy this item? Or is alphabet angst at play?

As for teachers, the takeaway is clear. "There may be no great alternatives to alphabetical order," says Carlson. "But flip it around every now and then. That's a reasonable way to balance things out."