The Sadder The Shopper, The More Impulsively They Buy

A University of California study has come up with a bizarre but intriguing finding: The sadder a shopper is, the more likely he or she will be to accept special offers that promise immediate returns. This is true "even when such urgency comes at financial cost" to the shopper, the study found. What makes this study persuasive is that it tested another negative emotion, in addition to neutral emotions, and found that those shoppers made much better financial decisions.

Before retailers start taking down the happy Santa videos and replacing them with films about dying puppies, let's drill down into what the study actually found. (OK, you can show one of the puppy videos, but not the one with the beagles.) The study, from the University of California Riverside's School of Business Administration, offered participants various levels of Amazon gift certificates, with some of the awards being given immediately and larger payments delivered later.

Sad participants wanted immediate gratification, even when it meant getting a lot less money. Those with another negative emotion—it happened to be disgust—along with neutral participants made much better financial decisions. "The median sad participant chose a mere $65 today rather than waiting three months to receive $100, (while) the median neutral or disgusted participant required $74 today," the report said. "Reasons for the immediate reward came to mind sooner and more frequently when participants had been made sad. The findings do not support the maxim that sadder is wiser, instead supporting the opposite: Sadness makes one myopic. Although sadness may make people more accurate in some contexts, it also makes them prefer immediate gratification—not an attribute associated with wisdom."

What's the value of all this for retailers? Social media is wonderful at giving hints about shoppers' emotions to determine the moods of specific shoppers and to send them different types of offers depending on their present mood.

The study didn't find that sadness causes bad financial decisions, per se. The result was limited to an issue of patience. Is $50 now necessarily a worse financial decision than $75 later? Not at all. There are going to be times when a discount—or outright cash—is worth more now than a larger amount would be later. Perhaps that shopper needs to buy a gift for an occasion the next day and is short on cash. It might really be the case that $50 off right then is in fact worth much more than getting $100 off in a month. It might not be an unwise decision at all.

The idea that sadness makes someone triply value immediate gratification is a powerful tool, especially given that mobile apps enable both immediacy and one-on-one customization. Would dollars-off promos be more effective when sent to those folks whose social media postings indicate massive moroseness?

Let's flip it the other way. If clues can indicate sad shoppers, who very much need some immediate rewards, is not focusing immediate incentives on them a positive customer service act?

The serious truth is that marketers now have access to far more information to give clues about shoppers and to the tools to instantly communicate. These types of studies offer insights as to which messages are most effective for the same consumers in different moods.

We're not quite suggesting that it's time to not show Frosty excerpts and to opt for the death scene of Bambi's mother or perhaps Old Yeller. But if Black Friday sales weren't what they should have been, maybe it's worth considering.