MHB WEEKLY: By the students, for the world

An E-Z Buy: The “Last Name” Effect | April 6, 2011

Thanks to technology, advances in psychology and the incorporation of academic study into the private sector, research that analyzes the attitudes and behaviors of consumers is more frequent than ever — and often used in the design and modification of marketing strategies. Both corporate America and society in general benefit from these efforts: major companies, which have come to expect that customers have purchasing intentions and associated purchasing behavior, can increase profits in predictable and systematic ways; consumers, meanwhile, get a bird’s eye view of the links between their major life events and everyday shopping habits. How, then, will an upcoming study in the Journal of Consumer Research — which connects a person’s surname to his or her marketplace decision making — be interpreted by individuals and exploited by businesses?

According to Kurt Carlson and Jacqueline Conrad — coauthors of “The Last Name Effect: How Last Name Influences Acquisition Timing,” the research project in question — consumers whose last names start with letters late in the alphabet tend to buy products faster than others, a phenomenon they dub the “last-name effect.” And while their work won’t be officially published until August, a press release (“Why Do the Abbotts Wait, While the Zimmermans Rush to Buy?”) from the University of Chicago Press and an ensuing article in Time magazine have already saturated the academic and corporate worlds with their work — which the authors argue has widespread commercial potential. “The last-name effect is especially important to retailers and salespeople,” explains the study, “because customer names are easy for marketers to obtain and because there are many decisions in which the decision is not whether to buy, but when to buy.”

To demonstrate this last name effect, Carlson and Conrad conducted four distinct experiments. First, they emailed MBA students to offer them free tickets to a women’s basketball game, specifying that the amount of tickets was limited. Students whose last name started with a letter from R through Z replied significantly faster: their average time was 19.38 minutes, compared to 25.08 for students with A through I last names. Second, the authors asked 280 adults to participant in an online survey with a chance to win $500. Again, those with late last name letters were prone to join the survey more quickly. (Even more tellingly, wives acted in ways that corresponded with their maiden names, not their husbands’ names.) A third hypothetical situation, in which the researchers offered $5 and a bottle of wine as rewards for student participation in a 45-minute study, repeated the trend. As did the fourth and final experiment, in which Carlson and Conrad asked students to imagine having left their wallets at home: how would they act if they walked past a bookstore sale for 20 percent off all items “while supplies last?” Students with late-letter last names more often responded that they’d run home, grab some cash and take advantage of the deal.

From the results of these experiments, researchers think the last name effect is caused by childhood experience. Americans prefer to use the alphabet as a sitting or standing arrangement, so the Z’s are usually in the back of the classroom or at the end of the line. Their waiting time is longer than that of others, and sometimes they lose selections or opportunities because others in front of them have a better chance to seize prime choices. In the end, when the Z’s have a shot at a great deal, they are more likely to accept it immediately. For businesses, this research has a clear takeaway: to ensure the success of a time-limited sale, they should index their consumer database and target customers with late-alphabet last names to get faster responses.

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    Established in 2009 at USC, the Master's of Science in Human Behavior is designed to equip students with knowledge of consumer psychology, social media and market analysis skills. This is our blog. Subscribe

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