In the ’70s, psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman were the first to study a cognitive phenomenon called “anchoring” and its influence on decision-making. Over the decades, extensive research on anchoring has explained that the way and context in which we receive information profoundly influence how we synthesize it.
The effects of anchoring are very visible in marketing, sales, merchandising, and product pricing as it profoundly influences consumer behavior. By offering clever price contrasts, marketers can shape customers’ purchasing decisions. For example,
- By offering lower prices and promotional sales, department stores induce customers to compare the sale price against the original price—the “anchor”—and think they’re getting a bargain.
- By displaying shiny, expensive new cars in the showroom, car dealerships encourage customers to accept the prices displayed on their used cars or less flashy models.
- Patrons at restaurants tend to order the second least-expensive bottle of wine in an attempt to avoid looking cheap. Therefore, restaurants tend to put the highest markup on that very bottle.
The Case of the $429 Breadmaker
Customers are usually more likely to purchase a product when competing alternatives are included, as opposed to having only one product option.
Consider a classic example of this “single-option aversion” phenomenon. A few years ago, Williams-Sonoma couldn’t get customers to buy their $279 breadmaker. They cleverly added a spiffier-and-slicker deluxe breadmaker model to their product line for $429. While Williams-Sonoma didn’t sell many of the new and expensive breadmaker, they doubled sales of the original and less-expensive model.
When the $279 breadmaker was the only model available for sale, customers couldn’t tell whether the price was competitive because there was nothing to compare it to. By introducing a better product for a higher price, Williams-Sonoma provided an anchor upon which its customers could compare the two models; they naturally sided with the $279 model as an attractive alternative.
The Case of the $69 Hot Dog and the $1000 Chocolate Sundae
Usually, absurdly expensive premium goods are less of publicity stunts and more of strategic marketing tactics.
Consider the case of Serendipity 3’s menu anchors. In 2010, the popular New York eatery introduced a $69 hot dog called “Foot-Long Haute Dog” with dressings as exotic as medallions of duck liver, ketchup made from heirloom tomatoes, Dijon mustard with truffle shavings, and caramelized Vidalia onions to justify the high price. Of course, Serendipity 3 gained plenty of publicity when The Guinness Book of World Records certified this hot dog as the most expensive wiener of all time.
The true purpose of these ridiculously priced premium items is to make the next most expensive item seem cheaper. Customers who were drawn by the Haute Dog’s publicity gladly ordered the menu’s $17.95 cheeseburger. Even if $17.95 was too pricey elsewhere, Serendipity 3 customers deemed it reasonable in comparison to the $69 hot dog.
A few years previous, Serendipity 3 similarly offered a $1000 “Golden Opulence Sundae” that was only available with a 48 hour-notice. They sold only one Sundae per month. Nevertheless, this was just a shrewd marketing ploy to convince customers to spend more on high-profit margin desserts such as the $15.50 “fruit and fudge” confection or the $22.50 “Cheese Cake Vesuvius.”
Unsuspecting customers ended up paying too much for other meals at Serendipity 3 while believing they were getting a great deal.
Idea for Impact: Be Sensitive of Anchoring Bias
In both the above case studies, even if the companies sold almost none of their highest-priced models despite the publicity they generated, the companies reaped enormous benefits by exploiting the anchoring bias to induce customers to buy cheaper-than-most-expensive high-profit products.
In summary, anchoring exploits our tendency to seek out comparison and our reliance on context. The anchoring bias describes our subconscious tendency to make decisions by relying heavily on a single piece of information.
Call to Action: Sensitize yourself to how anchoring and anchoring bias may subconsciously affect your decision-making. If you’re in marketing or sales, investigate how you could use anchoring bias to influence your customers.
For more on cognitive biases and behavioral economics, read 2002 Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman’s bestselling Thinking, Fast and Slow. Also read Nir Eyal’s Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products on how to influence customer behaviors and build products and offer services that people love.
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