Numbers Affect Customers in Countless Ways

From prices to user ratings, numbers influence how we shop.

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Based on research by Shelle Santana, Manoj Thomas, and Vicki Morwitz

On the weekend before Thanksgiving, marketing professor Vicki Morwitz, a leading expert in behavioral pricing, embarked on what researchers call a “customer journey.”

Morwitz stopped by the Union Square farmers market in Manhattan to shop at her favorite produce stand in the city. With the holiday only a few days away, garlic was in high demand and the stand put a limit on how much you could buy, only three bulbs per customer.

“I really like their garlic, so I thought: ‘Oh, I can only buy three? I better buy three.’” Morwitz says, admitting she was influenced by the presence of the number. “Even though I know what the research says.”

Morwitz’s experience demonstrates the way that numbers — in this case three which indicates a scarcity of an item — affected her purchasing strategy.

It’s one of several types of numeric information that Morwitz examines in her forthcoming review paper, “The Role of Numbers in the Customer Journey,” co-authored with her former students Shelle Santana of Harvard University and Manoj Thomas of Cornell University, which outlines the latest thinking on the different ways the presence of numbers, not just those in prices, influence customers.

“Numbers are all around us and we don’t even necessarily see the many ways that they affect us,” says Morwitz, the Bruce Greenwald Professor of Business. “My co-authors and I thought it would be beneficial to take a step back and think more broadly about the way different kinds of numbers affect us as consumers.”

The paper is included in a special issue of the Journal of Retailing to be published in 2020 and dedicated to the latest research on the customer journey, a term used to synthesize the various decisions consumers make on the way to making a purchase.

Morwitz’s paper describes a four-stage model for the customer journey: need recognition; information search and evaluation; the purchase; and post-purchase evaluation.

A need recognition is when a customer seeks to acquire a good or service that will fulfill a desire, and it's here where people begin to budget money, which is oftentimes their first encounter with numbers on the journey.

The next stop, the information search and evaluation, is where customers encounter all sorts of numbers, from product ratings to caloric information, or the amount of memory on a computer.

Then comes the purchase, which is when consumers take stock of the price of an item and consider if it is on sale or if discounts can be used.

Finally, consumers arrive at the post-purchase evaluation, where they might offer their own product ratings, or reflect on the price with or without a discount.

To illustrate the numeric influence on the customer journey, the co-authors offer fictional scenarios in which people are “bombarded” with numbers—from numerals in the names of stores and products to measurements, customer ratings, and, yes, prices.

In one, “Leanna,” who normally has breakfast at home, has overslept and is rushing to work when she passes a 7-Eleven store and decides to buy a coffee. She takes in the prices as well as the cup sizes and purchases a coffee that’s in her budget. Later, she decides to be more diligent about leaving time to make breakfast to save money.

In another, “Tyler” wishes to buy a new laptop, so he considers size, weight, memory, as well as online ratings from computer experts. He decides to purchase an Acer Nitro 7 version 10.1, and then provides his own online ratings for the computer and the retailer.

All the numbers that Leanna and Tyler experience play a role in their judgment and decision-making strategies, which is a crucial part of the journey, though Morwitz says it is important to note that individuals process numeric information differently.

“The customer journey is not, for instance, just getting online or going to a store to make a purchase,” Morwitz says. “The customer journey encompasses what led a customer to think about making a purchase and what happens afterward.”

Oftentimes, as part of the customer journey, Morwitz explains, numbers are understood to have a symbolic value beyond describing magnitudes.

“A price ending in a nine might signal that you’re getting a deal, whereas a round price might imply prestige,” Morwitz says. “Or consider the difference between a diner menu with many pages as opposed to a more upscale restaurant that might have a smaller number of items. Numbers carry a lot of these associations as well.”

Morwitz says that future research on the customer journey will likely examine in greater detail how numbers affect people before a purchase and how consumers feel afterward.

“Let’s say you bought a $99 hotel room online, but after all the fees it came to $150,” Morwitz says. “But later on, when someone asks you about it, do you say it was a bad deal at $150, or do you say it was a good deal based on the $99 figure?”

“It’s a question of how you represent it and how you feel about it,” Morwitz says. “We like to feel like we’re good consumers who make good decisions.”

About the researcher

Vicki Morwitz

Vicki Morwitz is a Professor of Marketing at Columbia University's Graduate School of Business. Professor Morwitz earned a B.S in applied mathematics...

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