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Liberals Like What’s New, also in the Supermarket

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UA Magazine speaks with Vishal Singh, Associate Professor of Marketing at NYU Stern.

supermarket, grocery store, political ideology, nyu stern, vishal singh

vishalsinghWhat kind of products to do you prefer from the grocery store? Are you always tempted to try what’s new on the shelves? Then you’re political ideology is probably liberal, according to new research. This week we reached out to the co-author of this study Vishal Singh, Associate Professor of Marketing at New York University Stern School of Business.

You have tested if political ideology influences purchasing behavior. Why is it important to have insight in this relationship?
We know that ideology influences our opinions on a range of issues such as welfare and taxes; we know it influences our personal decisions such as pre-marital sex and drug use. What is interesting here is that decisions at the grocery store do not serve as a signal of your personality; they have no political or social significance. They are not decisions we think long and hard about. Our finding that ideology influences choice at the grocery store tells us that aspects of our ideological differences are reflected unconsciously, even for mundane, routine decisions.

Can you explain how the study was executed?
In a nutshell, we observed store sales data over a period of six years for a wide variety of consumer packaged categories, both food and non-food. Our measures of ideology were voting and religiosity at the county level. We also had access to local area demographics which allowed us to control for socio-economic characteristics such as income and education. Importantly, the methods used in the paper control for any differences in quality of generics/private labels across retailers. With this information, we were able to relate market share of national brands, store brands, and new products to the measures of ideology while controlling for other factors.

What were the most important results?
The most important result relates to new product performance for the consumer packaged goods we looked at. One of the robust findings in the previous literature is that conservative values are associated with a preference for the status quo and skepticism about new experiences. Our hypothesis was that this might be reflected in propensity to try new products and services. What is interesting in the paper is that such ideological traits manifest themselves in even low-involvement decisions, such as whether to buy a new flavor of yogurt on the supermarket shelf. For almost all the products we looked at, from categories such as deodorant and yogurt, we found the market share of new products to be lower in areas which measured higher on conservatism. We looked at about 25 categories; in not a single category do we find that new products performed better in more conservative areas. That is a compelling result.

Previous research has shown that conservatives and liberals differ on basic personality traits. That makes me wonder: isn’t personality more directly (unconsciously) influencing consumer behavior than political ideology does? How does this work?
Indeed, we are simply using ideological differences as proxies of certain personality traits. As a matter of fact, we don’t even have direct measures of ideology and use religiosity and political voting as proxies for ideology. This looks reasonable though based on previous research and our own analysis of two large nationally representative surveys.

You studied purchasing behavior in supermarkets. Do you think that the found link is also present in other industries, such as the fashion or technology industry?
A problem with empirical analysis on these questions is lack of good data, at least good (non-survey) field data. I would imagine that there are likely to be large differences in fashion, technology adoption, automobiles, and so forth. Note that these products are generally more expensive and bought less frequently and firms intentionally design/market them to appeal to certain segments. Consumers put extensive thought into them as they not just provide material value but are often a reflection of our personality.

What would you like to further investigate regarding this topic?
There are lots of different areas to explore—some simply related to using better data and others to broader set of questions such as inter-generational influence across ideology. For example, in the current work we only had access to county level measures of market shares, religiosity and political voting. It would be great to link individual level measures of ideology, personality traits and socio-economic characteristics with individual level purchase data on a broad set of products, such as fashion, durable goods, services, media consumption and so on. In every aspect of our daily lives, from the way we work, shop, communicate, or socialize; we are both consuming and creating vast amounts of information. More often than not, these daily activities create a trail of digitized data that is already being stored, mined, and analyzed by firms for business decisions. My guess is that it is a matter of time where drawing psychological insights from such data becomes main stream.

The study was published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Photo: B Tal/Flickr

political ideology liberal, conservative studies, politics study, consumer purchasing behavior, consumer behavior marketing, marketing consumer behavior

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