Schroedinger’s Cart

As a blogger, I try to cover a lot of ground in marketing and marketing data.  My posts range from how-tos to POVs to the occasional bit of humor.  And then everyone once in a while, I like to go completely “out there” and tackle a marketing issue with a decidedly off-kilter approach.  This will be one of those times.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how people shop, both in-store and online, and it’s given me some potential insight into how marketers might be able to develop more appealing experiences for customers.

Behold, Schroedinger’s Cart:

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No cats were harmed in the creation of this extremely arduous pun

Physics Nobel Laureate Erwin Schroedinger (or Schrödinger, if you must have the umlaut) famously posited a thought experiment about a cat in a box.  Schroedinger asked the reader to imagine that a a random event inside the box would release a poison gas and kill the cat but that the outside observer would have no idea whether that random event occurred.  He famously asserted that the cat was both alive and dead until the observer opens the box.

This is ridiculous, of course.  Except this thought experiment perfectly describes how we often shop.

Wait, what?

I want you to imagine another thought experiment, this one much less threatening to theoretical cats.  Imagine yourself at age eight, or whatever age you were when you first had your own spending money and the freedom to make your own choices.  Imagine that you have enough money to buy one candy bar.

If you were anything like 8-year-old Ben with a quarter in his little hand, you put an awful lot of thought into what you’d buy since you didn’t get this opportunity often.  You thought about biting off the ridged edges of a Reese’s, or breaking off the squares of a Hershey’s or sorting the colors of the M&Ms.  You thought about the whole rack at the counter.  Much in the way of the quantum-doomed cat, you had no candy yet, but at the same time, you had all of them.  You could imagine every treat and what they tasted and felt like.

I think we never completely outgrow this behavior.  Certainly, for some products, we buy without thinking.  However, for anything that we enjoy buying, whether it be something as simple as an article of clothing or something as major as a new home, we take some time to imagine ourselves having taken all of our choices.

Let’s call this experience Schroedinger’s Cart, as in shopping cart.

“Who would I be,” we think, “if I owned that car?”  Even if we ultimately choose between the Camry and the Accord, until we sign the check, we can potentially imagine ourselves in the Audi (maybe if we ate peanut butter for a year).

Very possibly, this kind of thinking has no value in the real world of marketing.  However, I suspect it does.

I suspect that in many purchase categories, a certain “dream time” exists.  Shoppers need a certain time to try on our brands mentally (“Is this me?  What would my friends think?”).  Moreover, I think that we can measure dream time and learn from it.

In an online store, marketers can measure time on site.  I would imagine it instructive to measure total time on site and see what impact it has on sales but also overall satisfaction.  I would expect that there’s some ideal length for “dream time” and that shoppers who purchase under that length may feel that they have made a poor choice or that shoppers who go beyond that length are less likely to purchase.

Even further, we could experiment with tactics to increase or decrease “dream time” and determine what impact it would have on sales and satisfaction.  Would constructing pages on a site (or displays in a store, for that matter) to increase the amount of timer required to digest them help overall?  Would more aggressive cross-shopping elements (“customers who bought this item also looked at…”) help?

If you’ve got some experience with these kinds of experiments, I’d like to hear your findings.  Until then, I’m going to run a theoretical can opener and see if any cats turn up.

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