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Your customers are irrational.

There’s no real point in asking customers why they decide to buy something.

That’s what Wenda Kielstra discovered in 2012 when Amsterdam Airport Schiphol hired the research company she worked for to study consumer behavior at the airport.

At the time, questionnaires formed the basis of consumer research. Researchers would simply ask people how price, quality, and other traditional factors influenced their intent to go ahead with a purchase. But Ms. Kielstra discovered that the answers she got were inconsequential and made little sense. Often, customers were unable to answer why they bought a product.

”I realized we were never getting the real answer. We had to discover the irrational reasons that drive shopping.”

Wenda Kielstra, Consumatics

The field of neuroscience has exploded in recent years, as has the insight that unconscious decisions drive behavior to a far greater extent than previously suspected.

Neuroscientist Dr. David Eagleman has described our mind as a transatlantic steamship. But while our conscious mind likes to think it's the captain at the wheel, it’s more like a stowaway hiding below deck, taking the credit for where the ship is going.

Our conscious minds simply don’t have access to the parts of the brain that make decisions. And so we remain blissfully unaware of why we buy things.

We are, however, good at inventing answers to rationalize our behavior. But these answers we make up don't help retailers sell more stuff. This means that asking consumers why they buy things is of limited use. This has huge implications for consumer research.

Welcome to the world of unconscious consumer behavior.


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One insight Ms. Kielstra found at the airport was that there was a very significant, but seemingly unconscious, difference in shopping behavior when the airport speakers played classical music and when they played pop.

When the airport played classical music, people would linger longer, spend a longer time saying their goodbyes, and buy more alcohol and chocolate. When the airport played pop music, people would act like they were in a hurry, buy cold beverages like coke and snacks on the go, like chicken sandwiches.

"By playing different music, we could influence visitors at the airport to buy different products.”

To learn more, Ms. Kielstra realized she needed to find a company that could look into how environmental cues subconsciously affects purchasing decisions.

Unable to find one, she decided to start her own company. Initially working out of her kitchen, she traveled widely, talked to leading academics in the field, and began using high-tech equipment, like MRI scanners, to study how factors like scent, music, and the amount of sunlight affected shopping.

“It turns out that all these environmental cues can be tested much more efficiently, especially through A/B testing," Ms. Kielstra said.

In the beginning, she had some convincing to do to warm clients up to the idea of the importance of irrational decision-making.

“People were skeptical at first, especially when I started talking about the subconscious.“

But once she could convince clients that shoppers are indeed irrational and often can’t explain what they do, she started winning business. Three years later, clients are much more on board from the outset.

”It turns out that all these environmental cues can be tested much more efficiently, especially through A/B testing.”

Wenda Kielstra, Consumatics

Her company, Consumatics, has grown and now serves big international clients like Shell, Nestle, and Heineken. The advance of technology has made the work more precise.

In the beginning, her field researchers would use their eyes to make observations. Now they use cameras and heat maps.

Despite her research and subject knowledge, Ms. Kleistra isn’t immune to subconscious marketing, she says.

Her colleagues tested two yogurts on her, one colored orange and one colored pink. Ms. Kleistra was sure that the pink yogurt was strawberry flavored, and the orange yogurt tasted orange. But her colleagues had switched the colors, and it was, in fact, the other way around.

“Of course, when I see a TV ad that says, ‘Hurry now, before the stock runs out,’ then I think ‘scarcity’. So those very obvious tricks don’t work on me. But the less obvious ones do. Sometimes I’ll have bought clothes only later to come to realize that the sunlight was right, the music was right, and that other customers were buying the same clothing items. At the end of the day, I’m just an ordinary consumer."


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