Are You Too Lazy to Complain?
How we waste billions because we don't bother to return bad purchases.
you bought a product online, and it was faulty. How cheap would that
product have to have been for you to not bother to return it?
once bought a book for 1 British penny (about 20 cents) and I have to
admit, when it didn’t arrive, I didn’t bother to chase it up!
Now the results of a survey by online dispute resolution service Youstice have found that many Europeans fail to bother returning products worth far more. The survey
of 3,000 British, French, and German respondents discovered that
exactly one-third would not bother to return a faulty product bought
online that cost less than a certain price, which was, on average, 18.01
pounds (about $31).
This is a huge source of financial detriment: a Which? report showed that such non-returns cost British consumers alone 1.2 billion pounds a year (about $2.1 billion).
This is a shocking figure. But why does it exist?
The crux of the matter is this: Consumers are not rational. Is there any better argument against homo economicus than the fact that many of us would not bother to return a poor purchase?
is a saying in psychology that “our modern skulls house a stone age
brain” (Stankus, 2011). Despite living in an age of amazing
technological advances, humans are subject to ancient cognitive biases. In fact, these biases may even be more pronounced in contemporary times.
Dawkins uses a fantastic analogy: For millions of years, flying towards
the light has served moths extremely well; after all, they are still
around today. In very recent history, however, candles and light bulbs
have made this behaviour sub-optimal.
Likewise, our heuristics and
biases, like loss aversion and scarcity, may have ensured our
evolutionary survival but become somewhat inappropriate today. While the
ancestry of these innate drivers is clear from the fact that they even
exist in animals (e.g. Chen, Lakshminarayanan & Santos, 2006), money
has only appeared relatively recently in our evolutionary history—and
internet shopping even more so. The heuristics which kept us alive and
thriving for millions of years may be doing us harm online.
There are three biases to be aware of:
we are all cognitive misers—that is, we have very limited mental
resources for any one task. Timothy Wilson (2009) estimated that only
0.0004% of all sensory processing is conscious. Other research has shown
that conscious systems are rather limited in their processing power
(e.g. Miller, 1956; Shiv & Fedorikhin, 1999). The upshot is that
consumers will simply avoid a task if it is too difficult; for example,
making a decision when faced with too many choices. A famous example
comes from Iyengar and Lepper (2000), who found that the proportion of
browsers making a purchase from a stall selling jams increased from 3%
to 30% when the number of flavours was culled from 24 to 6. Returning a
product to an online retailer is, essentially, a lot of faff (fuss). For
many consumers, who are tired, distracted, or busy, it requires far too
much of their limited attention.
second principle is concreteness. We are better able to process stimuli
which are concrete rather than abstract—for example, there is ample
evidence that we process pictures better than words (e.g. Glaser &
Dungelhoff, 1984). Concreteness is important in terms of e-commerce
because consumers are likely to feel more detached and ambivalent
towards a product they have neither seen nor touched. Indeed, Peck and
Childers (2006) showed that encouraging shoppers to touch products can
increase impulse purchases; Brasel and Gips (2014) demonstrate that
mobile devices induce feelings of ownership via their touchscreens.
Kahneman, Knetsch and Thaler (1990) showed half of the subjects of a
study a mug, and asked how much they would pay for it; the other half
were given the same mug and asked how much they would sell it for. While
people would pay $2.25 on average for the mug, when it was touched—and,
virtually, owned—the average proposed selling price was $5.75.
may explain why consumers are less likely to bother returning a faulty
product bought online—without experiencing it properly, they feel less
of an emotional attachment.
third and final principle to play a part may be payment depreciation.
The further back in time a sunk cost is made, the less important it
generally becomes to us. For example, people are more likely to lend a
TV to a friend if it had been bought longer ago (Gourville & Soman,
1998), and people are more likely to replace a lost theatre ticket if it
was lost several days before the show as opposed to the day it plays
(Henderson & Peterson, 1992).
While a payment made online
might initially be viewed as a loss, over time it gradually becomes
incorporated into the status quo—the pain of loss is numbed by the
passage of time. Therefore, the time delay between purchasing a product
online and receiving it may make the outlay more abstract and less
painful, and thus there may be less motivation to seek redress.
What's Wrong With Us
fully a third of us may be failing to return products bought online
below the value of £18.01 ($31) because: we are cognitive misers;
products bought online are less concrete to us; and payments made online
are dulled by the time delay between purchase and delivery.