Fall 2007

Power of Ideas

Last-Minute Shoppers Settle for Less

Prof. Jennifer Aaker explores how time affects purchasing decisions and marketing messages


By Ronna Kelly

In early December, shoppers have the luxury of time to contemplate the perfect holiday gifts for their loved ones. Fast forward to December 24, and the prospect of waking up the next day empty-handed probably weighs more heavily than any grandiose notion of finding the perfect present. Suddenly, getting a gift that is merely "not bad" is of paramount concern.

When the time to make a purchase is short, consumers settle for gifts that are "good enough" rather than gifts that are certain to please their recipient, according to new research by Jennifer Aaker, the Xerox Distinguished Professorship in Knowledge. On the other hand, given ample time to choose, consumers are more likely to desire goods and services that promise positive outcomes, Aaker found.

"Last-minute shoppers on a tight deadline will pay more for a product advertised as a means to prevent a negative outcome, such as disappointing their spouse, than for a product advertised as a means to promote a positive outcome, such as thrilling their spouse with the perfect gift," Aaker explains.

Aaker details her findings in an article coauthored with Cassie Theriault, a marketing Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business; and Ginger Pennington, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business. Their article, "Time Will Tell: The Distant Appeal of Promotion and Imminent Appeal of Prevention," will appear in the February 2008 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

After conducting a series of experiments with hundreds of college students, the trio found that the time before deciding to make a purchase is a critical factor in a consumer's decision making.

One study involved a group of students facing midterm examinations who either perceived the exams as "soon, only a week away" or "still a full week away." These students received sales pitches from a fictitious tutoring service that were presented either as a way to avoid failure –- highlighted with the marketing slogan, "Don't do poorly in any class!" –- or, more ambitiously, as a way to achieve success with the catchphrase, "Ace every class!"

The experiments found that consumers who have to buy something as soon as possible worry about failing their goal.  This concern leads them to settle for products advertised as having the bare minimum features needed, as in the case of the tutorial service pitch claiming to help students to "not do poorly in class."

With more time to make a decision, however, consumers become more confident that they can reach "higher goals" in their purchase, so a product that is "good" will likely appeal more than a product that is merely "not bad," according to Aaker. Moreover, Aaker found that consumers are willing to pay more for items that sellers present as having desirable features, or products that are "promotion-framed," sold under such sales slogans as "You desire the very best!"

For marketers, the findings underscore the importance of considering whether to promote a product as something positive or as a means to prevent something negative. Products that are inherently prevention-oriented, such as insurance, for example, could benefit from limiting the apparent time left before the purchase.

For consumers, the research poses important questions on how they make decisions. Should they worry that their standards decline when time is running out? And if they have more time to decide, should they think about setting ambitious goals, and perhaps even ask themselves, "Would I really buy this if I had to make the decision tomorrow?"


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Jennifer Aaker

Jennifer Aaker, Xerox Distinguished Professor in Knowledge, Haas School of Business