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Freaking out and buying stuff: Why you should pay attention to consumer stress

Stress causes consumers to more likely act on impulse, which often involves habitual behavior. If you're trying to get consumers to try your product or service for the first time, or to switch brands or behavior, you need to know how much stress they're under.

On a recent trip, walking to my gate at the Houston airport, I turned a corner and nearly ran into a guy, hands up in aggravation, glaring at his kid. The boy was probably 7 or 8 and looked a combination of frantic and stunned.

The dad bent over so he was talking right into his kid’s face. “Where did you put it?!!” he said loudly.

Everyone turned to look. The kid froze in place while his eyes darted around.

“I don’t… I don’t know,” the son said.

The dad puffed. “THINK!,” he said, eyes piercing into his kid’s brain. “It’s VERY IMPORTANT!!”

I walked by and didn’t turn back to look. The kid was being publicly shamed enough, no doubt for something he didn’t intend to do. I didn’t want to add to his embarrassment.

But I also regretted quietly walking by because the dad was getting in his own way, while kind of scarring his son, and all unnecessarily so. I wish I had the nerve to pierce into his brain with my eyes, and say, “Dude, there is no way your son is going to remember where he put it. Not while you’re yelling at him like that. So take a few deep breaths, relax, give your son a hug, and wait. Wait until your son calms down enough to remember – if he ever does. Either way, if you calm yourself, you’ll dramatically increase the probability of getting what you want.”

Stress does wacky things to the way we think and act. Under stress, we make decisions contrary to our best interests. Under pressure, in public, eyes staring, dad yelling… a kid’s brain can short circuit. An adult’s brain can short circuit. If you don’t calm down, you can’t think straight.

And yet time and again, businesses create products, services, and marketing campaigns without thinking about whether the consumers they're targeting are stressed at the time of purchase.

Stress is such a pervasive part of life that, chances are, most purchase decisions are made under at least a mild amount of stress. According to one study, three out of four Americans reported having at least one stress symptom over a one-month period. According to another study, Americans are among the most stressed people in the world, with 55% saying they experience stress during “a lot of the day.” This is stress related to work, health, the state of our future.

Add to this the stress of buying a car or house, which involves dropping a lot of money on something you can’t really exchange and that you have to live with for a long time. Needing a lawyer or a doctor can be stressful, and if you hire the wrong one you could be in serious trouble.

Even less expensive purchases could be made under stressful conditions. Think of a parent at a drug store, choosing the right medicine to take home to their sick kid. Or a solo business owner whose laptop just got a virus, hunting down a replacement while fretting over all the files s/he may have lost. Even grocery shopping is stressful, especially if you shop during peak hours, exhausted from work, when lines are long, people are cramming up the aisles, and the store you’re at doesn’t have the same calming ambiance of that other cool grocery store that’s a bit further away. Just being faced with too many options can elevate your stress levels.

If you’re not paying attention to the stress your consumers are under as they make their purchasing decisions, you’re missing something. If you’re trying to break into a category, are creating a new category, or are trying to steal share from competitors by encouraging consumers to switch brands, you need your consumers to be open to trying something new.

And stress doesn’t make that likely. Under stress, consumers are more likely to act on impulse and make routine or habitual choices. Under stress, self-awareness and self-control may go out the window, leaving people unlikely to thoughtfully contemplate or consider new behaviors, even if those new behaviors could be optimal for them. Which means they may not try a new product, might not entertain a new category (a new way of solving old problems), and may not switch from another brand. They'll be inclined to do the usual, on impulse.

So if you want to win new consumers over to the business, be sure to do the following:

1. Conduct research on how your target consumers experience stress as they engage with your category. It’s not enough to assume that your consumers will make purchasing decisions stressed out. They may not. It depends on your consumers and what they happen to be shopping for. Different people experience stress differently, and for different reasons. Some shopping experiences are calming (think “retail therapy”). Also, stress may differ depending on the time of day, the day of week, or even the month of year.

2. Tailor your marketing efforts to address their stress. Consider reaching out to consumers with a sales call or email marketing campaign when you know their stress is at the lowest. (Is it in the morning? The evening? On a Wednesday or Friday? Research can help with that). Consider testing messaging that may induce calm along with your plea for them try something new.

3. Don’t forget the “packaging.” And by packaging I don’t just mean the bag or box. If you’re a client-based business, try creating a calm setting for your next business meeting. If you’ve a brick-and-mortar operation urging consumers to buy new things, create a calming ambiance (A hair salon with a relaxing ambiance and pleasant staff has a decent chance of selling me a hair product I’ve never tried before.) If you’re a website, consider design elements that produce a calming effect. And yes, if you’re selling a new brand of salty snack, consider grocers that create a low-stress environment for shopping.

Not all consumers experience stress, and not all stress is the same. Sometimes stress is good, and sometimes people have the right mindset for stress. So do your research, and understand exactly how much stress your target consumers are under, and what their mindsets about stress are. If you’re not speaking to their stress, you may not be getting through.


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