Consumer Behavior Research: A Question of Timing

When designing online surveys to measure consumer behavior, we have to ask ourselves a fundamental question:  are we measuring the past or the future? And it’s an unfortunate fact of market research that consumers have a hard time reporting either accurately. But before you design that next online survey, think about it: which type of measurement will be most useful for your specific needs?

Consumer Behavior Research - Crystal Ball Predictions

Accessing the Crystal Ball

Our interest might ideally be in future behaviors. For example, we may be seeking to learn how likely our target market is to purchase Brand X versus Brand Y. That information reflects brand preference.  As another example, asking “How likely are you to purchase product Z at $5.00 each” helps to gauge price sensitivity for a specific brand (asked in a series of price pints). Both are attempts to measure future consumer behavior, and that data would be great to have — if we could be confident it was accurate.

Consumers Can’t Accurately Project Future Behavior

The challenge is that people have a hard time accurately predicting their future behavior. They may want to, but their ability is quite limited. Ask people about their purchase plans, for example, and in some product categories the projected results might differ from reality by as much as 50 percent. There are a couple of reasons for this

  • Aspirational performance—It’s not necessarily that people are deliberately lying. Sometimes reported future behaviors are simply what we aspire to. I may fully intend to make that purchase in the next 30 days, but then time gets away from me…
  • Social desirability—If there’s a perceived social desirability to a certain behavior, there’s a chance I may report what I “should” do, rather than what I actually “will” do. In a survey in which I’m asked about my future exercise behaviors, I may well reply that I plan to exercise three times a week. In fact I know I won’t, but there’s a social desirability pressure there, and I don’t want to admit to anyone, least of all myself, that I’m really only going to exercise once.

Market researchers know that there’s a substantial difference between planned and actual future behaviors. Does that mean we shouldn’t ask about future behaviors at all? No, it can be perfectly appropriate in some circumstances. Just understand that stated intent may not equal reality. It’s not the stuff we want to build sales forecasts upon.

Measuring Past Consumer Behaviors

If actual consumer behavior is important, we need to ask about things they have actually done. Consider this example:

  • Like versus Loyalty: It’s one thing to like a brand; it’s another to be loyal to that brand. You might like Whole Foods grocery stores, but in fact shop much more often at Stop & Shop. In this situation you like Whole Foods, but are loyal to Stop & Shop. They’re clearly not the same thing. But by asking about recent past behavior, we get the more realistic measure of consumer behavior: “In which of the following grocery stores have you shopped in the last 30 days?”, followed by a list of grocery store brands. That will yield more accurate information about actual shopping behaviors than asking, “In which of the following grocery stores will you shop in the next 30 days?”

Consumer Behaviors & The Limits of Memory

Whenever you ask about past behavior, it’s best to be very precise and specify a fairly limited time frame. Typically people cannot accurately recall behaviors more than six months ago, and we generally recommend a limit of three months. For example, if you’re going to ask how much they spent on Product “X”, you first need to ascertain if they’ve purchased that product in the last 3 months. If they have, then you can ask a follow-up question about price.

The Debate Remains

The bottom line is that there’s a debate when we’re measuring consumer behavior. Past behavior is potentially more accurate than a forecast of the future, but which is most useful? That depends on your goal, but most often it’s more accurate and more precise to ask about recent past behaviors.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kathryn Korostoff
Kathryn Korostoff taught market research best practices at Ask Your Target Market, and is the president of Research Rockstar, delivering market research training and support services. She can be reached at KKorostoff AT ResearchRockstar DOT com.