From holding a higher-paying job to sitting in a taller chair, there are countless factors that can make us feel more or less powerful. But how do perceptions of power influence consumers’ buying decisions? The authors’ recent research explores this question and finds that customers who feel less powerful are more likely to seek out a wider variety of products, such as a variety pack of chocolates or a combo of multiple types of coffee beans, but that interventions that boost consumers’ autonomy can ameliorate this effect. In light of these findings, the authors suggest that if a retailer has reason to think that its customer base is likely to feel relatively powerless, then it may benefit from showcasing a wider range of products. At the same time, if offering a range of products is infeasible, they suggest that it may be worth pursuing strategies to intentionally boost customers’ sense of autonomy, such as focusing on empowering messaging and offering customization options, to reduce less-powerful customers’ need for variety and thus increase the chances that they’ll make a purchase.
How powerful do you feel right now? While we may assume that our perceptions of power come from the actual authority we have over ourselves and others, there are in fact many factors that can cause us to feel more or less powerful in a given context. When the economy worsens, fears of rising prices or job losses can make us feel powerless. When we get a high-paying job, it can make us feel powerful. Even seemingly banal experiences such as seeing a favorite sports team win the big game or just sitting in a taller chair can increase our sense of power — and this can have a major impact on how we make decisions.
In particular, our recent research demonstrates that consumers’ perceptions of power can have a major influence on their shopping behavior. Building on prior research on compensatory consumption (the notion that people buy things not just for their utilitarian value, but also to compensate for some sort of psychological threat), we find that customers who feel less powerful are more likely to seek out a wider variety of products, in a subconscious effort to restore their autonomy. For example, less-powerful buyers are more likely to opt for a variety pack of chocolates, while more-powerful buyers are more likely to go for a package with fewer different flavors.
This may seem counterintuitive. After all, one might expect that customers who feel powerful would flaunt their power by buying as many different kinds of products as possible, just because they can. But our studies suggest that the opposite is true. Powerful customers know that they can get what they want, so they don’t feel a need to prove it by sampling as many different types of products as possible. In contrast, we found that powerless customers feel a need to restore their sense of autonomy and remind themselves that they can be in control — and the ability to choose six different ice cream flavors instead of just one helps them do that.
To test this in the lab, we conducted a series of studies in which we manipulated participants’ sense of power either by having them recall an experience in which they felt powerful or powerless, or by randomly assigning them to be either managers or subordinates. We then asked if they would prefer a combo pack of different types of a product (such as candy, ice cream, or coffee) or a package with just one type, and we consistently found that less-powerful participants were more likely to seek out variety.
However, we also found that boosting participants’ sense of autonomy ameliorated this effect. In one study, we presented participants with product slogans, some of which were neutral and some of which were designed to restore autonomy (such as “Always remember: You are your own boss”). In another, we offered some participants a product with customization options (i.e., a mug that could be printed with a custom message), and we presented others with a non-customizable product. While these interventions did not increase participants’ feelings of power, they did increase their feelings of autonomy, and this boost in autonomy reduced the desire for variety among participants who felt powerless. As a result, among participants who read an autonomy-restoring slogan or who were offered a customizable product, levels of perceived powerfulness had no impact on whether they were more or less likely to choose a variety pack.
We then conducted a similar experiment in a real-world restaurant setting. We manipulated perceptions of power by having participants sit in a taller or shorter chair, and then we asked them to select either a sampler platter or a single dish of comparable size and value. Again, we found that when participants were made to feel less powerful, they were more likely to choose the higher-variety option.
We also found that feeding a lower-power customer’s desire for variety can increase the chances that they will make a purchase. We ran two similar experiments in which we offered customers more or less variety (in this case, we offered either single-flavor or combo-packs of coffee beans, and two-item or four-item bento boxes), and we found that customers who felt more powerless were 20% more interested in making a purchase when they were presented with a higher-variety package.
So, what does this mean for retailers? First, if a retailer has reason to think that its customer base is likely to feel relatively powerless (whether due to economic conditions such as having low income or substantial debt, occupational conditions such as holding a more-junior job title or working in a lower-status industry, or even contextual conditions such as relative age or seat height), they may benefit from showcasing a broader range of products. Whether in social media marketing, websites, or brick-and-mortar store displays, retailers can intentionally draw attention to the choices available to customers rather than highlighting a single product. For instance, a convenience store manager might choose a window display that highlights the number of ice cream flavors available, rather than the quality of the ice cream, or offer bundle deals in which customers can try three flavors for the price of two. Of course, offering too many choices can be overwhelming — but our research suggests that just a small amount of variety can be appealing to customers who don’t feel very powerful.
At the same time, our studies also highlight that perceptions of power are changeable. As such, especially if offering a range of products is infeasible for your business, it may be worth pursuing strategies that intentionally boost customers’ sense of autonomy, such as focusing on empowering messaging and offering customization options, to reduce less-powerful customers’ need for variety. These approaches are already widespread: Burger King’s famous slogan “Have it your way” and L’Oreal’s “Because you’re worth it” both emphasize customers’ freedom and autonomy, thus likely reducing their desire for a range of products. Similarly, offering customization options such as the ability to add your name or a unique design to a product can boost autonomy, making products more appealing even without a large selection of flavors or types.
Of course, these efforts must be balanced with other marketing priorities. If your brand is all about simplicity, for example, then customization options and slogans focused on autonomy may not make much sense. In addition, feelings of powerlessness are dynamic and affected by a wide range of factors, so retailers may struggle to determine or consistently influence customers’ perceptions. That said, our findings suggest that especially in the context of an economic downturn (when many customers may be feeling particularly powerless), retailers may stand to benefit from either offering a wider variety of products, or taking steps to proactively boost customers’ sense of autonomy.