Arranged to Distraction: How Categorizing Products with Complements versus Substitutes Alters the Experience of Product Choice

E. van Herpen, K. Diehl, C. Poynor

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstract


Arranged to Distraction: How Categorizing Products with Complements versus Substitutes Alters the Experience of Product Choice Erica van Herpen (Wageningen University), Kristin Diehl (University of Southern California), Cait Poynor (University of Pittsburgh) Short abstract (98 words) Although much is known about how substitute products impact consumers¿ decision processes, little is known about how product displays involving complementary items affect decisions. If consumers shop for a single target product, complementary items are objectively irrelevant. Yet, our research finds that organizing products with complements distracts consumers, increasing decision time and perceived effort. This distraction occurs across different physical arrangements and is not due to detailed examination of complementary products. At the same time, complementary categorizations are perceived as attractive and inviting, suggesting that their negative effects may be offset by creating an engaging, affectively positive experience. Long abstract (824 words) Websites such as organize their assortment either by product type (i.e., dining tables) or by collection (i.e., full dining rooms with tables, chairs, sideboards, etc.). Likewise, clothing stores either present products in sets of substitutes or as part of entire outfits. These examples represent fundamentally different ways in which marketers organize products, in either taxonomic categories or consumption constellations. Although we know that consumers are influenced by the order and format in which alternatives are presented, prior research has mainly focused on sets of substitutes (e.g., Bettman, Luce, and Payne 1998) or on purchases of entire product bundles (Harris and Blair 2006). As a result, we know much about the influence of substitute products in an assortment, but relatively little about the influence of categorizing complementary products alongside the target item. Our research compares consumption constellations (Englis and Solomon 1996; Lai 1994) to more typical presentations of separating products by product types and identifies both drawbacks and benefits for consumers. Complementary products can distract consumers who plan to buy a single target product. They may complicate search, as the cluttered environment obscures rapid identification of specific target products (Bravo and Farid 2006). As such, complements may raise the effort involved in shopping simply because they compete for attention (Janiszewski 1998) and thereby increase the difficulty in remembering and comparing target products. For complements to act as distractors it is not necessary that consumers actually effortfully search complementary products or consider them at all relevant to their purchase goals (Perruchet, Rey and Hivert 2006). We predict that the mere presence of complementary items in a display will mentally distract consumers from their target product, therefore increasing decision time and difficulty but not necessarily time spent actively processing complements. However, presenting targets within consumption constellations may also generate positive outcomes. Compared to substitute-based organizations, consumption constellations may encourage greater visualization of product use (Dahl and Hoeffler 2004). Furthermore, consumption constellations may highlight new uses for the target product and its complements which a categorization with substitutes would not suggest. As a result, we predict that consumers¿ satisfaction with the assortment as a whole should be higher when items are externally categorized with complements rather than only with substitutes. In Experiment 1, 82 participants were randomly assigned to either a substitute or a complement organization, in a 2-group design. Stimuli were clothing brochures, with products from 8 taxonomic categories. Participants were asked to choose a shirt. In line with our predictions, participants in the complement condition experienced higher decision effort, more difficulty to grasp the selection, and more confusion than participants in the substitute condition. Still, consistent with our predictions, they thought that the assortment was more attractive. Experiment 2 examined whether increased effort in complement organizations could be attributed to greater physical distance between target products. Does the act of flipping pages to view different consumption constellations explain this increase in effort? 92 participants were asked to select a pair of pants from an online assortment containing 8 pairs of pants. Participants were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: substitutes together (the 8 pairs of pants all displayed on 1 screen), substitutes separated (one pair of pants on each of 8 screens), or complements (8 pairs of pants displayed on 8 screens surrounded by complementary products). The computer captured time measures as well as subjective responses. Our results suggest that the physical separation of items in complementary sets cannot explain the decision difficulty found in Experiment 1: Decision times were significantly longer in the 8-page complement than the 8-page substitute condition, where page distance was objectively equal and only the organization changed. Interestingly, differences in decision time were not driven by consumers actively examining complementary products, but rather by them spending more time looking at consumption constellations overall. As in Experiment 1, individuals shopping in complementary sets consistently took longer deciding and reported greater decision difficulty. Yet, such sets also generated greater assortment satisfaction and were seen as more inviting. A third study more closely investigates the effect of consumption constellations versus substitute presentations on information acquisition across. Using digital cameras as the target product described along product attribute and price info, we show that respondents take longer making a decision, but they acquire fewer individual pieces of information about these cameras. Yet, replicating findings from our previous study, they enjoy the experience more. As a whole, our research shows that even when consumers purchase products from a single, specified category, whether these products are immediately surrounded by complentary as opposed to supplementary products substantially changes the decision process. Marketers may want to create such complementary environments because they seem inviting and engaging to consumers. However, they should also be aware that although consumers spend more time deciding, they do not engage in more detailed examinations of either the target products or any complements.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 2009
EventACR Asia-Pacific Conference, Hyderabad, India -
Duration: 2 Jan 20094 Jan 2009


ConferenceACR Asia-Pacific Conference, Hyderabad, India


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