Public Release:  Feeling cramped while shopping? Variety provides relief

University of Chicago Press Journals

When consumers find themselves in stores with narrow aisles, they react in a surprising way: they seek variety. According to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research, confined spaces might help people diversify their choices.

Authors Jonathan Levav (Columbia University) and Rui (Juliet) Zhu (University of British Columbia, Vancouver) built on prior research on "psychological reactance," behaviors consumers employ to attempt to regain their freedom in situations where they perceive it to be threatened.

"For example, when consumers' freedom of choice is limited by stock-outs, they might exhibit reactance by evaluating the unavailable options as more appealing," the authors explain. "Extending this line of research, in this paper, we investigate an important yet overlooked factor that can also limit consumers' freedom: physical confinement."

According to the authors, in Western cultures, choice is viewed as a way to exert control over one's environment. And when people feel confined, apparently their shopping habits change.

The researchers designed a series of laboratory experiments to test the hypothesis that confining spaces lead to greater variety seeking. In the first study, participants shopped for candy in a laboratory space modified to create both wide and narrow aisles. The participants in the narrow aisle chose a greater variety of candy bars than consumers in the wide aisle. In a subsequent study, the authors found that participants in narrow aisles were more likely to choose unfamiliar and unique brands. The results were amplified among people who tend to have high reactance tendencies. In a real-world study, the researchers found that increased customer density led to more varied choices among supermarket customers.

"Our results suggest that in larger, less crowded stores, manufacturers should be less keen to deliver a wide variety of products in a category, and should instead focus on stocking a few of their better-known or dominant product offerings," the authors write. "In contrast, manufacturers should prefer to deliver a greater variety to more crowded stores, as customers in those stores will be more likely to diversify their choices in a category."

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Jonathan Levav and Rui (Juliet) Zhu. "Seeking Freedom Through Variety." Journal of Consumer Research: December 2009 (published online April 22, 2009).

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