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Perception vs. Reality

Paco Underhill, author of several books on why consumers buy and consultant to large retailers, knows as much as any author I’ve read about where to place items on shelves, how consumers make buying decisions and specifically what drives female consumer choices. His work warrants your study and this weekly fax does not offer enough real estate to properly review the body of evidence his research has unearthed. I will, however, point you to one interesting aspect of Underhill’s research:

When Underhill observes consumers during a shopping trip to Target or Wal-Mart, and then follows them to their car to ask them questions about what just happened, he’s often amazed at the consumer’s inability to properly perceive total time spent in the store. We, as consumers, have a notorious habit of overestimating the amount of time we just spent in a store. Some guess an hour when they only spent 20 or 30 minutes shopping. When asked what they just bought, consumers have a knack for forgetting all of the impulse purchases that were thrown in the cart, but not on the shopping list.

What can we learn from Underhill’s research?

First, that perception is not reality for the consumer in many ways when the business owner or marketer is the one observing. What consumers tell you and what you actually observe are often worlds apart. In fact, perception is often not reality for the consumer as well. A consumer who does not perceive extra spending on impulse purchases cannot simply explain those purchases away to their credit card statement, they actually have to pay for them. The reality of purchase behavior and the consumer’s perception are therefore often irrelevant.

It’s why so many retailers have continued to stock the isles full with merchandise as high and wide as the eye can see, because data prove it necessary to increase sales. When Wal-Mart tried to de-clutter their stores in 2012, they lost over $1 billion in sales. JC Penney did the same thing under ex-CEO Johnson’s rule which cost him his job when sales slipped 25%. Regardless of consumer surveys that report overwhelming support of de-cluttering stores, the consumer’s purchase behavior simply doesn’t support this approach.

Where in your practice do your patients tell you one thing, either directly or in survey, but their behavior is exactly the opposite? We’ve seen it in our practices with the consumption of convenience items like our latte machines, hand lotions, chapstick, gifting and referral contest prizes. Patients will frequently report on surveys that these things are “nice but not necessary” while their behavior indicates an entirely different set of data. Try taking the coffee machine away or putting one-ply toilet paper in your patient restrooms and see what happens after your customers have come to expect a higher standard of service. What they say and how they actually feel and behave are completely different. Late hours, expanded locations, ease of use of patient services like on-line bill pay and insurance filing are other areas that deserve your investigation. What people claim as unimportant to them when choosing a healthcare provider is often the exact opposite of how they actually choose your office versus a competitor.

The consumer’s perception is not always their reality, nor yours. In God we trust, all others bring data.

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