Judging a Book by its Cover: Packaging Perception Puts Pit in Purchasing

Judging a Book by its Cover: Packaging Perception Puts Pit in Purchasing

February 10, 2016

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You’re at the grocery store buying mayonnaise. It’s the last jar on the shelf and the label or flexible packaging is torn. What do you do?

Research recently published out of the University of B.C. suggests that, if you’re anything like the average busy shopper of today, you’ll likely dismiss the product due to its apparent flaw and perhaps shop somewhere else.

“If you wanted to make an evolutionary argument, it makes sense to avoid things that look like they’re damaged — they could be unhealthy, and you don’t want to have spoiled food,” said Kate White, chairwoman of the Marketing and Behavioural Science division at the Sauder School of Business.

She was the lead in a series of six experiments, conducted on students last year, that sought to prove the relationship between superficial damage to packaging on and consumer behaviour.

“There’s been a few news stories on consumers rejecting non-perfect produce — a cucumber that’s not straight or an apple that’s not the perfect shape — but they’re perfectly healthy,” White said on Tuesday.

It became clear this behaviour wasn’t restricted to products. Her team experimented with products ranging from BBQ sauce, soup, baking soda, and even non-food items like highlighters. In each case, the results showed if the flexible packaging was torn, the box was dented or looked like “a person might have touched it,” people were less likely to buy it.

Her research also looked into how simple labels — like calling something organic — can eliminate the negativity associated with dented boxes, ripped labels and the like.

“There’s an example of things called ‘vintage’ or ‘distressed’ — it’s not a food product … but it’s clothing or furniture, old and damaged because of some kind of contamination. But it gets viewed positively,” White said.

The findings also give argument in favour of overpackaging. It found where there were multiple layers, or additional “barriers” in the packaging, shoppers were more likely to overlook damage to the external wrapping.

“We didn’t find the effect when there was almost like two layers of packaging … there’s ways you can have the best of both worlds, using packaging that could either be recycled or compost in some way.”

Often, White said, many imperfect products are returned to the producer or discarded as they won’t sell.

Some things businesses could do is promote the damaged products through sales or other positive attributes. Consumers, meanwhile, should ask themselves whether the damage truly impacts quality.

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