A recent article from MIT (1) argues that consumers’ decision processes in the retail arena, replete with confusing choices and an overabundance of brands, are dominated by an “indexing strategy.” To reach a decision, consumers may be indexing (or utilizing a bundle of proxies to compare) rather than conducting an exhaustive search as such an optimization process could have high cognitive costs. If true, this finding has implications for companies in the retail arena for product design, promotions, delivery and pricing.
First, it opens up a dimension in the psyche of the consumer, that makes analyzing decisions more complex for the observer (retailer) even though it simplifies the process for the consumer. In a world of a large number of close substitutes for any product or service, a consumer with a preference for minimizing cognitive cost, will only consider a subset of products, that is not necessarily obvious to the retailer. As the consumer “indexes” against an unknown subset of substitutes, she will likely consider all aspects of comparability – as the simplified process allows her to do so, in the comfort of an already reduced cognitive cost. Ironically, these attributes may include both physical and virtual aspects – with differing weights, making it very difficult for the retailer to define “competition,” in a world of interacting product definitions.
Second, status-quo strategies that may include price discounting, bundling and couponing, may have a longer lasting effect on the “indexing strategy,” followed by the consumer. Such tactics by the retailer could move the brand away or closer to the indexing bundle, used by the consumer. Although the impact of such strategies on the near term decisions of the consumer is ambiguous, it does increase the complexity of optimizing such strategies. And, finally, retailers who have a rigid view as to “who their competition is,” may find themselves drifting – as the consumer preferences and retailing tactics may enroll or remove them from the proxy bundles considered by the consumer.
Retailers may have to move away from long held views on the competitive landscape and tactics that may have brought customers to their doorstep in the past. Flexible and dynamic strategies in design, delivery and pricing may be needed to win the consumer indexing game.
(1) The brain in the supermarket, Published: Friday, March 27, 2015 - 11:33 in Mathematics & Economics, Science News