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shopper research: how fear influences purchase decisions

guts over fear, shopper decisions

In the past, when someone was out in the wild being chased by tigers, fear caused a ‘fight or flight’ response. In today’s society, fear leads us to procrastinate due to choice overload or purchase the latest iPhone, for example, due to fear of missing out. (Social media FOMO is THE worst, as any Millennial knows of course.) 

People respond to the feeling of fear with fast action and save the rational thinking for later, because otherwise, how would we function in our daily lives?

Read on to find out why and how fear influences purchase decisions, shoppers' biggest fears and how brands can get around these fears to ensure success.

Taking the leap.

Everyone fears the unknown to some extent. People are also constantly in a rush, and let’s be honest… we can be pretty lazy. So, we tend to go with what we know.

The art of selling a product means convincing a shopper to go into the unknown by giving your brand a try… why should they take that leap?

"Fear is the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind."

(H. P. Lovecraft)

We feel the pain of loss twice as much as the pleasure derived from a gain (Lehrer), or as Kahneman and Tversky put it:

 “ human decision making, losses loom larger than gains.”

Jumping the leap

The risk assessment.

Standing at the shelf, faced with a myriad of options, most people will choose the brand and product they have always chosen.

The fear of an inferior wash for your white shirts or an embarrassing choice of wine rears its ugly head… why risk the social shame, feelings of regret, or the lighter wallet?

People might take some more time deciding on a new car but in a supermarket or many retail environments, buying cereal or makeup, shoppers will gravitate to what they have always bought. 

It is also true that these days, younger generations (such as Millennials) are more willing to try new brands and products, due to the prevalence of customer reviews, cheap deals or trials, and Instagram influencers who promote up-and-coming small businesses (rather than big established brands).

However, this is dependent on the type of product (e.g. this works more effectively for fast fashion at a low price point than for supermarket staples), the target audience (age, income, life stage, attitudinal factors, etc.) and the buying environment (it’s more effective online than in store).

Shopper research for your brand

Ghosting your brand.

In fact, shoppers may even walk away from a purchase if the decision seems too hard (check out our blog 'The Paradox of Choice' to get the important details on this HERE).

Their decision-making becomes thwarted by fear and they simply do nothing. People regularly walk out of shops empty handed, not because the prices were too high, but because they weren’t able to make a decision. 

“Psychologists refer to this as a “status quo bias,” a form of inertia based on loss aversion. In other words, people feel a strong bias toward doing nothing or maintaining their current or previous decisions.”


“...people generally prefer status quo—even if they say (or their actions suggest) they’re open to new ideas or ways of doing things”.

Why fix what ain’t broke? Well, even if it is a little bit broken, can I be bothered to search out an alternative… one that might not even turn out to be an improvement?! (Cue perfume dilemma in the duty-free section of the airport…)

Confusion, just as much as choice overload, can cause problems for brands when it comes to shoppers’ decision-making process… 

No doubt you’ve seen the Bega and Kraft peanut butter dispute in the news (shock, horror and scandal!). Bega intend to continue using the iconic yellow-lidded-and-labelled jar which Kraft developed for their peanut butter, now that they’ve purchased a number of Kraft’s food products. 

Kraft will be releasing a peanut butter made with a new recipe, in a different factory, by different people. This has led to a big legal dispute but also raises questions about how shoppers will respond to the Bega PB… 

It would be risky for Bega to redesign the iconic packaging, as this might alienate customers. By keeping the pack the same (minus the Kraft logo) with the well-established and visually identifiable design, Bega are likely to be able to transfer shoppers over to their brand, thus maintaining sales. 

However, if people are shopping by brand, they might choose not to buy the product because they can’t see the classic logo that they usually recognise on the pack – and may not identify with Bega as a brand.

Will shoppers even notice the difference? Only time will tell! 

Okay, so now we know that we’re all big scaredy cats. What exactly are we scared about?

Shopper making purchase decisions

What are shoppers' biggest fears?

  • We fear disappointment.
    Will the product live up to expectations or will it be a big, fat fail?
  • We fear embarrassment.
    Will my friends and family be impressed? Is my social or professional reputation on the line?
  • We fear paying too much.
    Am I being ripped off? Have I got a bargain? Should I have compared more options (or dare I say it - looked on Amazon?!).
  • We are creatures of habit.
    We run on autopilot, do most things with little thought and are often afraid of change.

How can brands get around this?

1. Short term price promotions like ‘buy one get one free’ or an alternative solution which lets the shopper try, or even ‘try before they buy’.

This can alter buying behaviour and convince shoppers to give your brand a try - without starting a price war with your competition.

“Getting consumers to try something is one of the best ways of getting them to buy"

(Scott Bearse, Deloitte)

Deloitte found that customers using fitting rooms convert at a rate of 85% compared with 58% for those that do not do so.

2. Once shoppers give your brand a try, ensure they have a great experience. This has to be better than the experience delivered by their usual brand, or they will simply revert to previous buying patterns.
3. Create repeat purchases through loyalty cards or similar ongoing reward systems.

4. Use social proof, for example customer testimonials and reviews, to reassure shoppers about the products that they’re buying. Reduce the perceived risk.

5. If possible, break down the sale into digestible (less scary) chunks, such as offering a trial food delivery box before asking the shopper to commit to a weekly delivery.

6. KISSmetrics advise looking at what consumers want when they buy your product and asking the question ‘what is the worst that could happen?’

So, you’re selling a piece of jewellery - is someone more likely to pick it off the shelf because it looks pretty or because they’re afraid their fiance won’t say 'yes' if they don’t buy the most impressive ring? Reassure the shopper by addressing their biggest fear.

Ensuring success.

Brands must remember that emotions are key to many purchase habits, not reason… and once established, purchase habits are hard to break.

Shoppers can be tempted to try your brand though through competitive prices and promotions but to keep them coming back for more, the sensory experience must follow through on the promise.

Put simply, remember to:

  • Reassure your shopper
  • Reduce their perceived and actual risk
  • Address their biggest fear

Over to you.

We're passionate about bringing brands closer to their consumers. Give us a call on 02 8097 0200 or send us an email on to see how we can help.


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packaging: the silent salesman


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