The Blink Test: Brands Should Avoid Displaying Mismatched Products

Email copywriters are often advised to stick to one product in their messages. Simplicity also works best on web pages, especially when it comes to product displays, judging by a new academic study.

The study found that “mismatched display items decrease purchase of the target by highlighting the values and consideration of outside options and/or categories,” write the authors led by Uma R. Karmarkar, assistant professor at the UCSD Rady School of Management and School of Global Policy and Strategy.

Test panelists, who were studied with eye-tracking technology, spent as much time or more on the mismatched products as on the target one.

However, displaying of similar items on the page boosts purchases of the target, although they also dilute attention. 



“Collectively our results suggest that these purchase decisions rely on perceptions of the full set of visible items rather than the information specific to the target item,” the authors write. 

They continue that “target liking, target fixation and target recall were similar across matched and mismatched conditions despite differences in purchase rates. Instead, the purchase- relevant differences that did arise were primarily related to the display items and their relationship to the target.”

In addition, “shoppers spend more time looking at the display-only items when the target and the display come from different (mismatched) categories than when they come from the same (matched) category.”

The study was conducted with 58 participants, ages 18-40. They were shown target products such as office supplies, gifts, apparel, and personal electronics, on computer screens.  

The targets were flanked onscreen with two display-only images one of three categories: landscapes, category-matched products and mismatched products. 

“Though our analyses focused on product images, only the target product was also accompanied by a descriptive text label and price information,” the authors state.

However, “it is likely that this additional information, particularly price, would be available for display items as well in commercial settings. This suggests “more competition for consumers’ attention, and raises the possibility that attention would vary in ways other than the ones tested, leading to different purchasing outcomes.

The study does not address email. But Karmarkar says, “if we wanted to think about it abstractly, one interesting question is whether the effects of mismatched display items might be stronger if the email is framed around a specific type of product.” 

Karmarkar continues: "For example, an email about beach towels (as a random product example) sets up a "towels-based" purchase question, strengthening the target category and expectations about the target product that would be seen on click through.” 

The result: “It could be possible that mismatched displays would be even more distracting since they would provide a stronger, and unexpected, contrast. On the other hand, an email that has a broader scope, with towels as just one example, could be more resistant to these effects.”

The researchers also surveyed 1,414 consumers online to measure purchase intent.

“One question marketers asked me was whether the biases we saw would continue to happen if people had more information about the display options,” Karmarkar says. “For example, maybe if people saw the prices of the display options, they'd start comparing things based on price instead of product category.” 

The conclusion was that “matched or mismatched display categories still influenced peoples' choices when everything was labeled clearly and had price tags,” Karmarkar concludes.  

The authors also include Ann L. Carroll, Marina Burke and Shori Hijikata. The study appears in Frontiers in Neuroscience.


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