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How Luxury Goods Affect the Brain and Drive More Purchases

A new study confirms what we’ve all thought: Buying a luxury item opens the floodgates to buying more stuff that matches it.

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Just in time for Christmas, a new
neuromarketing study offers a boost for good ol’ fashioned American
capitalism: it turns out that buying expensive things that don’t fit
in with your current home decor or wardrobe leads to more shopping binges.

 

According to a study by Henrik Hagtvedt
of Boston College and Vanessa Patrick of the University of Houston to
be published in the Journal of Marketing Research, customers
who purchase luxury items that don’t blend in with either their
wardrobe or their home tend not to return these products. Instead,
they buy more–usually cheaper–products to complement their new
acquisitions.

The cost more often than not exceeds that of the
original purchase, creating a vicious cycle of consumption. Patrick
and Hagtvedt term this “aesthetic
incongruity resolution.”
We call it not being shamed by your classy, design-conscious friends.

It turns out consumers are subsceptible to, well,
pretty things. Over three years, the 125 participants’ spending habits
for shoes, necklaces and furniture were tracked. Participants were
given high-end products from either “designer” labels or from
luxury retailers that frequently clashed with their aesthetic tastes.
After a period of time, subjects were offered the chance to return
the products in exchange for money or to keep the product obtained
through the study. (A scientific study that gives away luxury
goods? Sweet!)

The vast majority of participants opted to keep the
luxury goods instead of returning them–and also admitted to buying
a slew of cheaper items to complement their luxury product. According to Patrick:

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In talking to
people, it turns out that this is a pretty common occurrence. We buy
something we really like–after all what could be so wrong in
purchasing a cute purple sweater or a unique little side table for
the hallway? But, we take it home and that’s when it happens…these
items become really hard to give up.

So we buy more. And before
we know it, we have purchased matching necklaces, shoes and bags, to
go with the purple sweater or paintings, new wallpaper and new
lighting to accommodate the unique side table.

Hagtvedt adds:

When we buy
something with unique design elements and it doesn’t fit, it
frustrates us. This is because design has intrinsic value. So rather
than returning the item, we actively seek ways to make the item fit,
often by making complementary purchases. This has financial
implications that may have been entirely unforeseen when the consumer
made the initial purchase.

The science of neuromarketing asks
simple questions via creative uses of technology and academic
scrutiny: Why do people purchase items the way that they do? What is
the psychology and the reasoning behind consumerism? And how can
marketers take advantage of that? In recent years, neuromarketing
projects have used MRI
technology to understand women’s snack food purchasing habits
,
subconscious
reactions to mass-market consumer products
and how certain
car brands cause biological disgust reactions in some individuals
.

For Patrick and Hagtvedt, the relevance
of their study is in the ramifications for manufacturers,
retailers and the entire U.S. economy. All it takes to spur purchases, it seems, is convincing
someone with spending power to buy something that really does not fit
in their house.

[Image of Henrik Hagtvedt courtesy Boston College]

Follow Neal Ungerleider on Twitter.