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Marketing Psychology: Price Framing

January 30, 2015 2 comments

Price framing is one of those topics that everyone seems to have heard of, but every person you ask will give you a different definition of what it is and how it works. Yet if you’re managing a web store with thousands of products, for example, understanding how to present prices and products in the most optimal way can make an enormous revenue difference.

Let’s take a moment to talk about how price framing works and why it has an effect on consumers.

First of all, when we talk about price framing, we’re talking about changing the context of a price presentation – without substantially changing the price itself – in order to encourage more purchases. This is the reason you’re charged $39.99 rather than $40.00 for iPhone earbuds. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

What Do You Mean I’m Not Being Rational?!

One of the most amazing things about how price framing works is that it shouldn’t work at all. Up until a few decades ago, economic theory took utilitarianism as a given. When making a choice whether or not to buy an iPhone, both economists and psychologists assumed that you made a rational calculation of the pros and cons of the choice, and selected the outcome that, to the best of your knowledge, would be most useful or advantageous to you.

So it shouldn’t matter at all how a price is presented to you. The price is the price, and you should make the same calculation of advantages regardless of context.

Except that the rational action theory of economics turns out to be mostly bullshit.

If rational action theory were true, your tendency to purchase a $39.99 item (when you would not have purchased a $40 item) would be based solely on the utility of the one-cent savings. I think we can all agree that something else is at work here. This is an example of how marketers have always been decades ahead of economists.

The first people who noticed that people don’t make explicitly rational outcome choices were psychologists Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky. They are the grandfathers of what’s now called behavioral economics. They discovered through controlled experiments that people use cognitive shortcuts, called biases, to help make choices. These shortcuts don’t always produce rational decisions.

For example, Kahneman and Tversky discovered that, when people are given a choice of losing $10 for sure, or having a 50-50 chance of losing $25, they tend to avoid the certain loss even though rationally speaking it’s the worse choice.

Other pioneers have significantly advanced the study of these cognitive shortcuts. Two of the most prominent are Richard Thaler (author of Nudge), and Dan Ariely (author of Predictably Irrational).

So, what affect can these biases have on consumer behavior (and specific to us, on price presentation)?

Here are three major principles that may be helpful:

1. People evaluate prices relative to a reference point

Up until recently we believed that, when evaluating a potential purchase, people made comparisons to absolutes. Is this iPhone worth the 400 units of currency that I will part with?

Well, it turns out that we evaluate purchases on relative terms. We’re looking for the value that’s reasonable. But what’s reasonable can be determined by many things.

In a Psychology Today article called “Pricing and Framing: When Are We Likely to Pay More For Products,” Dr. Gizem Saka gives us the scenario of the bread maker:

…You have two options. A standard quality break maker is for sale for $80; and a higher quality bread maker is sold at $120. You compare and contrast the two machines. You tell yourself you are not an expert maker, and you go with the $80 one.

[…]

Now when you go to the shop, you have 3 options. You can spend $80, or $120 or $475. Rationally speaking, adding an irrelevant option should not change your decision between the $80 and the $120 ones. The pros and cons did not change; quality of the bread makers remained the same, and you are making the same salary. You know that you are never going to spend $475 on a break maker…

But the thing is, now you do would feel more comfortable buying the $120 one. After all, you are not buying the most expensive alternative. You have found the middle ground, and you are probably happier, compared to someone who buys the cheaper version with only two options.

This is a form of psychological anchoring that Saka describes is widely known as the irrelevant third option, or in business terms, the loss leader. It is a super-premium product that may not be profitable in its own right but makes the next option down seem more attractive.

This is the most famous use of the principle that the attractiveness of an option will change depending on what’s presented with it. But this is only one example of the effect one can have by introducing or removing options.

2. People evaluate price differences relative to the level of the initial price.

The scientific name for this is the Weber-Fechner Law, if you want to Google it.

You will tend to be more motivated if a $20 price is lowered to $10, than if a $120 price were lowered to $110. Again, there’s no good reason for this. The economic advantage to you is the same in both scenarios.

Ernst Weber was a 19th century scientists who discovered that the stronger a stimulus is, the more change you have to make to it before we can perceive the change. If you’re carrying three pounds of stuff and I add a pound, you will notice the change much more easily than if you’re carrying 30 lbs and I add one.

Fechner improved on this idea by figuring out the mathematical relationship between intensity and perceived change (it’s a simple logarithm, if you care).

The Weber-Fechner law is why you have a hard time paying $5.00 for a Starbucks Sugar-coma Mocha, but you have an easier time coming down $5,000 on the asking price for the house you’re selling. This is especially important when studying price elasticity – the variation in dollar amount that people are willing to pay for the same item.

3. Losses hurt more than gains give pleasure.

This is part of what’s called the Endowment Effect, for you Googlers. People tend to ascribe more value to that which they own. Therefore people try to avoid losses more than achieve gains. People want to avoid late fees more than they care to take advantage of early-bird discounts, even if the value is the same.

One working paper from a USM student described how this effect was studied on the “discount for cash” gasoline consumers in the 80’s.

It’s illegal to do so now, but it used to be that gas stations would charge you a special surcharge if you wanted to pay with a credit card (trying to recoup their extra processing fees). The credit card companies, fearing backlash insisted that any such price difference had to be termed a “cash discount” rather than a “credit surcharge.”

It turns out they were right to fear: those paying for gas by credit card had a significantly more negative reaction to the transaction if they “paid a surcharge” rather than simply missing out on a “discount.”

Further Research

Research is still young in this field, fleshing out the details of principles like these. The results are fascinating. For example, one working paper from the Harvard Business School found that it makes a big difference in preference depending on whether a price is “all-inclusive” or “partitioned.”

If you split out a price into line items, the way budget airlines are more prone to do, people will tend to prefer the deal if the secondary item is top-notch for the price (incredible in-flight service, full-service meal, etc), and oppose the deal if the secondary item is lackluster (one movie option, snackbox, etc.).

Why is this? because the secondary item is easier to evaluate compared to its price than the primary item (the plane trip itself). It’s easier to see if you’re getting a deal or not. So if your secondary items aren’t that high-quality for the money, all-inclusive is the way to go.

I’m excited to see what new principles we’ll be able to add to these three as research develops. If you have some to add (and can cite your source), please use the comments to let people know!