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Reconcilable Differences: Helping Couples Make Joint Buying Decisions

by Neeraj Arora Monday, February 6, 2012

Marketing research has looked carefully at how individuals assign “must haves” and “can’t haves” to certain product attributes when making purchase decisions. People may, for instance, insist that the MP3 player they select have a certain minimum capacity. Or they may only consider buying a particular brand of camera.

But what happens when two or more people make a joint buying decision? Specifically, what happens when an individual’s “must haves” and “can’t haves” are combined with conflicting “must haves” and “can’t haves” of others who participate in the purchase decision? Though it is common for spouses or families to shop together for big-ticket items such as televisions and cars, there has been little research on how these joint buying decisions are made.

With my colleagues Ty Henderson (Wisconsin School of Business PhD in Marketing ’07, now Assistant Professor at University of Texas-Austin) and Qing Liu (Wisconsin School of Business), I published an innovative research paper on this topic in the November-December 2011 issue of Marketing Science. We looked at the “product consideration” phase and the “product selection” phase of husband-and-wife joint buying decisions in consumer electronics to gain insights into how the best decisions are made.

Our findings have direct implications for both buyers and sellers. For buyers, we found that less knowledgeable couples tend to make their decisions based mainly on price. Deeper product knowledge leads the couple to make a decision based more on brand and product features. We also found that, when the members of the couple disagree on their “must haves” and “can’t haves,” it is helpful to narrow, rather than expand, the set of choices. If the couple can agree on which products to exclude from consideration, they will tend to make a faster and better decision.

For sellers seeking to maximize buyer satisfaction, it is helpful to know that couples who are focused on the product’s price may benefit from some education about product. Increasing the customer’s knowledge of the different product features may help ground the decisions in product features rather than price. In addition, sellers who ignore the emphasis that consumers place on product attributes may underestimate demand for a new functionally superior product and could even underprice the new offering.