Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The Dangers of Asking Consumers

I am a huge proponent of thoroughly understanding your customer and engaging them in a dialog rather than talking at them. But asking them the wrong questions can yield the wrong results.

For example, the normally reliable Nielsen Company recently issued the results of a well-intentioned but rather silly survey. Their study shows "that more than half of U.S. consumers would give up all forms of packaging provided for convenience purposes if it would benefit the environment."

It's tempting to think this is the case, but I have my doubts. For example, the survey indicates that one in four consumers would be willing to give up packaging designed to keep products clean and untouched by other shoppers. I'm sure this is how one in four consumers answered the question, but is it really what one in four consumers would do when offered the choice between a protected product and one that had been handled, smudged, and sneezed on by other shoppers? I guarantee that the lofty ideals of those 25% would go right out the window once they were presented with a real-life choice.

Another example is that just shy of one in three consumers claimed they'd give up packaging designed to keep products in good condition. Do you really think those shoppers would bypass a product sealed in protective packaging and instead select an eco-friendly, unprotected product in poor condition?

I try to do my share to save the environment, so I'd love to believe consumers really would act as claimed in this Nielsen survey, but I don't believe it. Asking people questions like this is bound to bring out their altruism, which is a form of survey bias called Social Desirability. This might be because of a subconscious desire to be a better citizen of the planet. Or, it might be a conscious desire to not have the survey takers think one is a gas-guzzling, tree-killing, fur-wearing, seal-bashing, planet-mangling cretin.

Either way, it seems to me Nielsen could've generated better and more accurate information by observing shopping behavior rather than gathering data from the sorts of questions that they asked.

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