Don’t call me picky! Choosy shoppers just know what they want

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — I’m not picky, I’m just very selective — the famous words of many hardcore shoppers. So what makes some consumers so hard to please? Findings from a new series of Penn State University marketing studies suggests selective shoppers are unimpressed by offers of free gifts or other gimmicks. Nor does peer pressure seem to influence them either.

“In marketing, we call customers who want the absolute best version of a product ‘maximizers,'” explains department chair and professor of marketing Margaret Meloy in a university release. “But with picky customers, the best is more idiosyncratic. For them, it might not be about getting the best quality, but getting the precise version of a product they have in their head–a shirt in a very precise shade of black, for example. We wanted to explore this a bit more.”

So marketing researchers set out to measure levels of shopper pickiness and establish how that selectivity impacts consumer behavior. Study authors first had to create a scale to measure pickiness. They developed a series of questions designed to reveal the psychological gyrations of the picky shopper’s decision-making process. However, they had to do this without using the “p” word, because of its negative connotations.

After refining the scale enough to accurately measure levels of pickiness, researchers delved into more studies to determine the ramifications of such thoroughness. Their results show shoppers who score at the upper end of the picky-shopper scale tend to have a narrower window of what they consider acceptable. Study authors describe this as “having a small latitude of acceptance and a wide latitude for rejection.”

Picky shoppers don’t care what you consider ‘popular’

The study finds discriminating shoppers at this end of the scale were more likely to refuse the free “thank you” gift offered to them for being a survey participant.

“This may seem irrational to some people who may not understand why a person would reject things that come at no cost,” says Andong Cheng, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Delaware. “We speculate that it could be psychologically costly for picky shoppers to take free items that they don’t like because possessing these items is a source of irritation for these individuals.”

The team also discovered that skeptical shoppers do not make decisions on the basis of a product’s popularity. When told that their top selection is less popular than other choices, those who score high on the pickiness scale tend to ignore this information and stick with their original first choice.

Researchers add these new findings support the theory that choosiness is a general personality trait that ranges across multiple situations in a person’s life. Previous research indicates that it may be a fairly common trait, with roughly 40 percent of participants agreeing that they have friends or family they would label “picky.”

“We looked at a range of contexts to see whether being picky in one domain meant you were likely to be picky in others,” Meloy confirms. “Sure enough, individuals who were picky in one domain were picky in other domains. For example, if you tend to be picky while shopping for groceries, you’ll probably be picky shopping for clothes, as well.”

What is it about choosy shoppers that makes them different?

According to the findings, calculating customers already have an image of exactly what they are looking for before the hunt begins. Therefore, it’s up to the savvy retailer to pitch the product or service in a way that matches this enigmatic mindset.

“Picky shoppers have very narrow preferences and they see perceived flaws in products others wouldn’t notice,” Meloy says.

She points out that companies with many fussy customers may want to reconsider how they reward salespeople or dedicate certain sales staff to their more meticulous clients.

“Alternatively, a company may allow picky shoppers to customize their products to satisfy their idiosyncratic preferences,” Meloy suggests. “It’s not just about offering the best products, but offering the products that are best for the picky customers.”

The study findings give companies additional strategies to use as they attempt to reach the expectations of the most discriminating shoppers. The Penn researchers note their findings point to the need for companies to understand their client base and come up with business practices that match.

“If you know you have a lot of picky customers, you might not want to bother with offering free products or promoting products by saying how popular they are with other people,” Meloy concludes. “It’s just not going to work as well with picky customers. These companies will need to come up with strategies that give customers more control to better align their idiosyncratic preferences with the company’s offerings.”

The study appears in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.