Taking a fresh look at consumer choice

The range of products on display in supermarkets and local shops is split up into various different aisles according to product type: vegetables and fruit, dry goods, drinks, etc. On the shelves of each of these aisles, products are grouped by category: soft drinks, water, wine, and so on, and within each category, are mostly displayed by brand. As consumers, we are familiar with this traditional layout. But what happens when you group products differently? Kristof Geskens answers that question in his doctoral research.


“To stick to our supermarket example: each time you make a purchasing decision, it is based on a goal – what do you want to achieve? For example: ‘eating healthily’. Within the range offered by the retailer, you then go in search of the product that you see as best meeting that goal”, Kristof explains. “But in your average supermarket, healthy foodstuffs are not grouped together. Nevertheless, consumption goals are the main driver of purchasing decisions. Therefore the way in which retailers present their ranges does not match up with the way the consumer makes his purchasing decisions.”

Practical experimentation

Kristof researched how consumers react to a different way of presenting products, based on consumption goals. A number of examples of this can already be found. Kristof explains: “Delhaize is experimenting with this: part of its wine range is not displayed according to colour and land of origin, but according to the accompanying dish – red meat, chicken, fish, etc. In the car hire company Hertz’s online offering, you no longer see categories like passenger cars, delivery vans, removal vans and trucks, but instead you’ll find Green Collection, Fun Collection, Prestige Collection, Family Collection, etc. – which is a way of dividing things up that is more relevant to many consumers. And Soubry has even used this philosophy to develop new products that respond to a specific need: quick spaghetti for a fast snack, sport spaghetti for sport lovers, etc. A quick glance at the packaging shows the consumer exactly what the pasta is designed for.”

Lost in translation

The decision-making process when buying a more complex product, such as a car, illustrates the problem facing consumers even more clearly. Kristof explains: “Let’s assume you are looking for a safe car: when cars are presented in a traditional way, you will have to look at a variety of brands and models, and select those cars that meet your criterion. But this presupposes that you can judge to what extent specific product characteristics contribute to your goal. For consumers who are less well informed, translating this information is far from easy. An alternative grouping, such as that used by Hertz, is therefore a handy way to facilitate choice.”

Experience counts

Kristof’s research shows that consumers with little product knowledge do value this help when making their choice. “In any case, these consumers rely on advice or interpretations provided by salespeople, friends and acquaintances, who translate product characteristics into a consumption goal for them”, he explains. “Experts - consumers with a great deal of product knowledge and experience - often regard this alternative grouping as irrelevant. After all, they know which product characteristics are necessary to achieve their goal. They often find these attempts to help them choose condescending, or worse still, frustrating.”

Fruit salad or biscuit?

His research also led to a fascinating insight: if you group products according to consumption goals instead of product characteristics, people make different choices. Kristof gives an example: “If you create a separate stand with healthy snacks, people will assume that all the products on the stand are equally healthy, and they will choose a biscuit instead of a fruit salad, for example, whilst the fruit salad is actually healthier. In this case, they allow other considerations to play a part in their choice, such as personal taste, or price. You can therefore conclude that if retailers want to help people to achieve their goal more quickly or easily, this can sometimes be counterproductive.”

Three tips

What advice does Kristof have for retailers and marketeers?

  • Think carefully about consumption goals.
    Check whether you can define clearly-delineated goals within your product range, and whether the segments that fit into this category are large enough, in other words, whether it is worthwhile for you to market your products in this way. Potentially, it is possible to come up with numerous consumption goals, but in a shop, space is limited. Online, you can define a quasi-unlimited number of categories, or allow the consumer to define them.
  • Bear your target group in mind.
    A specialist wine merchant who chiefly sells to well-informed wine lovers has no need to divide up his range based on what dishes wines should accompany. A supermarket, however, may wish to do this.
  • The way in which products are presented influences consumers’ choices.
    Retailers and marketeers can bear this in mind if they wish to push particular products.

Source: ‘How goals affect consumer choice’ by Kristof Geskens. PhD in Applied Economics at UGent, 2014. Supervisor: Professor Maggie Geuens (UGent). Co-supervisors: Bert Weijters (UGent) and Alexander Chernev (Kellogg School of Management, USA).

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