Changing Customer Behavior- Is it possible?

Per KristenssonBy: Per Kristensson

During the past decade, customers have displayed overwhelmingly positive attitudes toward environmentally-friendly offerings. However, their actual behavior does not mirror these attitudes. Do you think it would be possible to change customer behavior to make them greener?

In a market research study carried out in the U.S., 67% of surveyed respondents claimed they were considering a shift toward buying more eco-labeled offerings. In a similar study from Sweden, nearly half of the respondents claimed they thought eco-labeled products were important. These attitudes were reported to be fairly similar across the European Union (EU).

However, as consistently found in years of studies in social psychology, attitudes are a poor predictor of actual (market) behavior. For example, in the EU the actual purchases of environmentally-friendly offerings are approximately 2%. Similarly, sustainable initiatives like eco-labeled products and services often show disappointing market shares of approximately 1%. This means customers’ positive attitudes toward environmentally-friendly offerings are not translating into corresponding behaviors. The question is: Would it be possible to close this gap and shift customer behavior toward sustainability?

In one of our studies, real-time sales data, collected in collaboration with a large grocery store that is a market leader in Sweden, confirmed the attitude-behavior gap. Only 20% of the store’s customers actually chose eco-labeled offerings instead of non-eco-labeled competitive brands.

As a consequence, our goal was to try to change the behavior of the typical grocery store customer. In a series of field experiments, conducted in close collaboration with the leading grocery store in Sweden, we attempted to influence people to choose environmentally-friendly offerings instead of similar non-eco-labeled competing brands.

In one of the more prominent field experiments we set up, a front-line employee was instructed to verbally use any of the four different influence strategies. The influence strategies were derived from research previously carried out at the W.P. Carey School of Business. The basic implication of this research is that you, with very little input, can change how people behave. The employee used the influence strategy whenever a customer approached the fruit desk where bananas of both ecological and regular brands where displayed. In our table below the four influence strategies are shown along with the results. Note that all of the percentages given in the table should be compared with the base-line data of 20% (i.e. the share of people choosing eco-labeled offerings prior to our experiment).

Front-line first step

Front-line employee second step: influence communication

Results

(control group 20 out of 100 purchases)

Approach a customer and ask if s/he is planning to buy bananas. If yes, then >>> “Many customers are currently buying eco-labeled bananas right now.”

65%

(71 out of 109 purchases)

Approach a customer and ask if s/he is planning to buy bananas. If yes, then >>> “Our eco-labeled bananas are situated right next to our employee standing over there.” (pointing toward eco-labeled bananas)

76%

(77 out of 101 purchases)

Approach a customer and ask if s/he is planning to buy bananas. If yes, then >>> “You seem interested in eco-labeled products – you can find them here.” (pointing toward eco-labeled bananas)

76%

(86 out of 114 purchases)

Approach a customer and ask if s/he is planning to buy bananas. If yes, then >>> “Our eco-labeled bananas are priced no higher than any competing brands without labels.”

68%

(71 out of 105 purchases)

As illustrated by the increased number of eco-labeled purchases, the results show an impact made by the influence strategies. Therefore, the implication of our research is that customer behavior, in fact, can be a rather easy thing to change. When front-line employees use influence strategies in their interactions with customers, behavioral change is instigated. Next time you are trying to encourage customers to go green, consider the impact of a few well-placed words from front-line staff.

Dr. Per Kristensson is Professor at the Service Research Center, at Karlstad University – in Karlstad, Sweden. He earned his Ph.D. from University of Gothenburg. Dr. Kristensson is also a Professor II at Norwegian School of Economics (NHH) in Bergen and guest professor at Mälardalen University in Västerås/Eskilstuna, in Sweden. Dr. Kristensson’s research mostly focuses on service management, service innovation and customer experience and typically uses a psychological perspective. Further, Dr. Kristensson has published in the Journal of Service Research, Journal of Services Marketing, Journal of Service Management, Managing Service Quality, Journal of Product Innovation Management, Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, Technovation, European Journal of Innovation Management, as well as at several international scientific conferences

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