We buy stuff online everyday.
Whether from a global giant such as Amazon or a highly-specialised boutique, the boom in commercial websites mirrors our increasing desires to shop online. But faced with such a vast array of outlets, and an even greater array of products, how do we decide what to buy when we plug in?
If you’re an avid reader of design blogs, chances are you’ll have come across the theory that a website’s colour scheme can influence its users. What you may not know is that a website’s design can even affect what products you choose to buy as a consumer.
Most of us consider ourselves rational – when we decide to buy a product for the first time, we like to think that we’ve weighed up our options, done our research, and subsequently arrived at an informed, logical decision.
The reality is quite different.
From user ratings and endorsements to scarcity sales, the evidence suggests that when it comes to shopping, we’re far from immune to hidden persuaders.
In a bid to explore this further, a group of researchers manipulated the background colours and images of a web page to see whether a website’s design would impact the product choices made by consumers .
Here’s what they found.
When users were asked to choose between 2 products in the same category (such as an Audi or a Lexus – both cars), they found that visitors who had been primed on money (the website’s background was green with pennies on it) looked at price information longer than those who had been primed on safety. Similarly, consumers who had been primed on comfort looked at comfort information longer than those primed on money.
What’s surprising is not that this effect was found to exist, but rather that it held true even when the user was a seasoned expert in that particular category of product.
If any visitor can be primed to change their search behaviours and subsequent choices simply by using the appropriate background image, the implications to online business could be huge.
For instance if you’re selling a washing machine that rates poorly on energy consumption but runs a fast cycle, you could potentially prime your visitors for speed and influence them into comparing the speed of your machine against the speed of others. Getting your consumers to pay attention to speed and not price could result in greater sales for you, and a blow to your competitors.
Despite the fact that online shopping enables us to search for products more easily and with greater autonomy, the fact that our buying behaviours can be dramatically influenced by even subtle changes in our online environment is a sobering one.
Whether you’re a boffin or a newbie, when it comes to online shopping it might pay to consider all the features that are important to you before you hit the online shops – otherwise you might come away with a bit more than you bargained for.
 N. Mandel and E. J. Johnson (2002). When Web Pages Influence Choice: Effects of Visual Primes on Experts and Novices. Journal of Consumer Research, 29(2), pp. 235 - 245