Special Session Summary Consumer Decision Making in Online Environments

Gerald HSubl, University of Alberta
[ to cite ]:
Gerald HSubl (1999) ,"Special Session Summary Consumer Decision Making in Online Environments", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 477-478.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 477-478



Gerald HSubl, University of Alberta

The rapid growth in the popularity of interactive media such as the World Wide Web (WWW) has manifested itself in two general developments that are of particular interest from a consumer research perspective: (1) a drastic increase in the number of companies that seek to use the WWW to communicate with (potential) customers and (2) the rapid adoption of interactive media by broad consumer segments for a variety of purposes, including pre-purchase information search and online shopping (Alba et al. 1997). The increasing access of both sellers and potential buyers to interactive media has been the driving force behind the substantial growth in the commercial use of such media.

Despite the rapid growth in the commercial use of interactive media, little is known about how consumers form product-related judgments and make purchase decisions in interactive online environments. Each of the three papers included in this session addresses important and hitherto unanswered research questions with respect to the domain of consumer decision making in online environments.

Dan Ariely’s paper focuses on the concept of interactivity. He argues that online environments allow for extremely high levels of interactivity relative to traditional media and that the level of interactivity can be controlled by the information provider. The findings of five experiments indicate that interactivity generally helps consumers better match their preferences, have better memory and knowledge about the domain they are examining, and be more confident in their judgments, but that under certain circumstances interactivity may actually have detrimental effects on consumer decision making.

The papr by Gerald HSubl and Valerie Trifts examines the effects of two interactive decision aids on consumer decision making in online shopping environments. One of these tools assists consumers in the initial screening of available alternatives. The other improves consumers’ ability to compare alternatives that are considered seriously for purchase. A set of hypotheses about how each of these aids affects the amount of search for product information, the size and quality of a consumer’s consideration set, and decision quality are developed and tested. The results of an online shopping experiment indicate that the two interactive decision aids have highly desirable effects both on the quality and on the efficiency of consumers’ purchase decisions.

The paper by Naomi Mandel and Eric Johnson examines the possibility that design elements of online environments can change consumers’ preferences by influencing the importance of different attributes. In particular, preference construction may be influenced by web page backgrounds through associative priming. The findings of three experiments support the hypothesis that background stimuli in an online environment can affect consumer decision making through changes in preferences.

The common theme of the three papers included in this session is the investigation of consumer preference formation and decision making in online environments through experimental research. Each of the papers examines the impact of different features and capabilities of such environments on information processing, preference formation, decision efficiency, and decision quality. The papers complement each other in that they differ in the independent variables that were manipulated and/or in the focal outcome variables. The combined findings of the three papers provide a substantial amount of insight into how consumers make decisions in online environments. A brief summary of each of the three papers follows.



Dan Ariely, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The idea that different information systems provide consumers with different levels of interactivity has long been noted in the marketing literature (Wright 1973; Weitz 1978; Bettman 1979). In order to clarify this concept of interactivity, consider the levels of interactivity in both television and print ads. In the case of television ads, consumers can change the channel or turn off the television set. Aside from this limited freedom, consumers have no control over what information will be presented, in what order, or for how long this information will be presented. On the other hand, in the case of print ads consumers have much more freedom to choose the order in which to examine the different aspects of the ad as well as the amount of time and attention to give these aspects. For example, a consumer can browse through a newspaper to see who has a certain model of Macintosh computer rather than paying attention to adjacent ads.

Although the concept of interactivity has been around for some time, with the development of computers and computerized networks, understanding interactivity has become much more important (Hoffman and Novak 1996). This increase in the relevance of interactivity to marketers is primarily due to two characteristics of electronic communication. First, while traditional mass communication media such as television and print ads differ on their level of interactivity, this difference has not been very large. In contrast, electronic communication has the potential for extremely high levels of interactivity, tremendously increasing the possible range of interactivity. In addition, while traditional communication media have a fixed level of interactivity (for example television has a very low level of interactivity), the level of interactivity of electronic communication channels is variable and can be chosen by the marketer or information provider.

The curren work presents and tests a general model for understanding the advantages and disadvantages of interactivity. In five experiments, the implications of interactivity were tested in regard to decision quality, memory, knowledge, and confidence. The findings show that for simple computer systems interactivity can help consumers better match their preferences, have better memory and knowledge about the domain they are examining, and finally be more confident in their judgments. However, the results also show that for complicated computer systems, interactivity has demands on processing resources and therefore under some circumstances can have detrimental effects on consumers’ decision quality, memory, knowledge, and confidence. The paper is concluded with applications for electronic commerce, and suggestion for future directions.



Gerald HSubl, University of Alberta

Valerie Trifts, University of Alberta

Online shopping environments allow for a high degree of machine interactivity (Hoffman and Novak 1996). For example, they may enable consumers to interactively access information made available in some form of online database. As a result of recent technological advances with respect to online shopping environments, sophisticated interactive decision aids can be made available to shoppers. Such decision aids offer consumers unparalleled opportunities to locate and compare product offerings (Alba et al. 1997). The authors examine the effects of two interactive decision aids on consumer purchase decision making in an online shopping environment. One of these tools, the information agent (IA), is a computer-based intermediary that assists consumers in the initial screening of available alternatives. The other, the comparison matrix (CM), is a tool for organizing product information designed to improve consumers’ ability to compare alternatives that are considered seriously for purchase.

Effort-accuracy tradeoffs made by consumers frequently lead to sub-optimal decisions, especially when the number of available products is high and/or alternatives are difficult to compare (Payne, Bettman and Johnson 1993). The authors suggest that the two interactive decision aids will improve consumer decision making in online shopping environments without increasing decision-making effort. Based on theoretical and empirical work in marketing, judgment and decision making, psychology, and decision support systems, a set of hypotheses about the effects of the IA and the CM on each of the following aspects of consumer decision making was developed: (1) the amount of search for product information within an online store, (2) the size and quality of the consideration set, and (3) three different indicators of the quality of the purchase decision.

A controlled experiment using a simulated online store was conducted to test the hypotheses. The results of the study indicate that each of the two interactive decision aids has a powerful impact on consumer decision making in online shopping environments. As hypothesized, availability of the IA reduces consumers’ search effort for product information, decreases the size but increases the quality of their consideration sets, and substantially improves the quality of their purchase decisions. Availability of the CM leads to an increase in the number of alternatives for which detailed product information is viewed, but a substantial decrease in the number of alternatives seriously considered for purchase. In sum, the findings of this study suggest that interactive decision aids that assist consumers in the initial screening of alternatives and facilitate the comparison of alternatives have a highly desirable impact on the quality and efficiency of consumers’ purchase decisions in online shopping environments.



Naomi Mandel, University of Pennsylvania

Eric J. Johnson, University of Pennsylvania

This paper examines the idea that web page design can change preferences by influencing attribute importance. Specifically, preference construction (Payne, Bettman and Johnson, 1993) may be influenced by web page backgrounds through associative priming, which occurs when a person retrieves an item from long-term memory and activation spreads automatically to other related items in memory (Herr 1989). When a subject looks at a web page, she may experience this priming from stimuli such as the page’s background pictures or colors, which may then affect the subject’s judgments about the product’s attributes and whether or not to buy the product. For example, if an automobile dealer’s web site contains a red and orange background with flames, the subject may activate the "safety" node in her brain automatically, causing her to weight the safety attribute more heavily when choosing a car.

Several aspects differentiate this paper from the other studies of the effects of priming. First, marketing on the World Wide Web differs considerably from both television and print advertising. Web advertisements, unlike TV commercials, are interactive, causing some consumers to experience "flow," and become more involved in the purchase (Hoffman & Novak 1996; Csikszemtmihalyi 1990). Thus, unlike TV ads, web ads can be looked at and scrolled through for as long as the viewer chooses. Unlike print ads, web sites can be any size and contain as many graphics as the creator chooses. Therefore, the choice of visual background stimuli such as pictures or colors becomes increasingly important. While several marketing studies have shown that verbal stimuli can influence consumers’ judgments, few studies to date have examined the effects of subtle visual stimuli on these judgments.

Experiment 1 examined whether a web page background can manipulate salient features. Subjects who were shown automobile descriptions after reading an introduction with a red flame-like background rated safety significantly more important when purchasing a car than did those who saw a gray background. Experiment 2 examined whether different background stimuli actually change preferences. Subjects who saw the flaming background on an initial introduction page preferred a car whose description emphasized safety, while subjects who saw a green background with pennies were more likely to prefer an economy car. The results were replicated for furniture as well as automobile choices. One surprising result was that subjects who had received the money prime twice (once for furniture and once for cars) were significantly more likely to show the priming effect than those who had received the prime only once. Experiment 3 replicated the results with a large sample of Wharton Virtual Test Market panel participants, and also studied differences in the decision making process as a result of the priming. The implications of the findings for web site design are discussed.


Alba, Joseph, John Lynch, Barton Weitz, Chris Janiszewski, Richard Lutz, Alan Sawyer, and Stacey Wood (1997), "Interactive Home Shopping: Consumer, Retailer, and Manufacturer Incentives to Participate in Electronic Marketplaces," Journal of Marketing, 61 (July), 38-53.

Bettman, James R. (1979), An Information Processing Theory of Consumer Choice, Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990), Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, New York: Harper and Row.Herr, Paul M. (1989), "Priming Price: Prior Knowledge and Context Effects," Journal of Consumer Research, 16 (June), 67-75.

Hoffman, Donna L. and Thomas P. Novak (1996), "Marketing in Hypermedia Computer-Mediated Environments: Conceptual Foundations," Journal of Marketing, 60 (July), 50-68.

Payne, John W., James R. Bettman, and Eric J. Johnson (1993), The Adaptive Decision Maker, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Weitz, Barton A. (1978), "Relationship Between Salesperson Performance and Understanding of Customer Decision Making," Journal of Marketing Research, 15(4), 501-516.

Wright, Peter L. (1973), "The Cognitive Process Mediating Acceptance of Advertising," Journal of Marketing Research, 9(1), 53-62.