More to a bargain than money, professor finds

by Stephen Forgacs

Staff writer

Retailers who think they can attract shoppers by simply promising savings might be surprised to hear that money alone is not necessarily enough to make a bargain hunter happy.

Peter Darke, an assistant professor of Marketing in UBC's Faculty of Commerce and Business Administration, recently completed a study that confirms that non-financial factors -- such as the concept of fairness -- play an important role in bargain hunting and consumer satisfaction.

"We found that shoppers are likely to be excited about having got a bargain, even if there is no personal financial gain involved," Darke said, adding that this may help explain why people will drive across town to buy something on sale even if the trip virtually eliminates any real savings.

"People derive pleasure or satisfaction from the idea that they are paying a fair price," he said.

In the study, Darke and Darren Dahl, a graduate student in Marketing, had subjects purchase videos in a store near UBC. The subjects, students from the Faculty of Commerce and Business Administration, were each given $10 to buy a video.

Some students were given a financial incentive to bargain hunt -- although they were not allowed to keep the video they purchased, they were told they could keep the change left over after their purchase. Other students were told in advance that they would have to hand over their video purchase and the change, removing any financial incentive.

In the video store, subjects received either no discount on their purchase, a moderate discount or a high discount.

Darke and Dahl found that students who received a discount when they made their purchase were excited about the fact that they got a bargain whether they had a financial incentive or not.

"When the students returned from making a bargain purchase we almost didn't need to ask them questions," Darke said. "Their faces would light up even if they didn't stand to gain financially. We could have rated their facial expressions."

The UBC study is Darke's third study in the area of non-financial motives and bargain hunting. It confirms his findings in the earlier studies which suggested that the motivation for bargain hunting extends beyond the prospect of financial gain or savings.

In another study of consumer behaviour at the University of Toronto, Darke found that shoppers tend to attribute good deals to fairness on the part of the retailer and to luck, rather than their own shopping prowess.

"The most surprising thing we've found, was that the people in our studies did not take credit for their success in getting a bargain," Darke said, adding that this finding is contrary to other research. "One of the most substantial claims in social psychology is that people bend over backwards to take credit for anything positive that happens to them, even when it is impossible that they are responsible for their achievement."

In the U of T study, Darke observed the reactions of research subjects who were given a hypothetical situation in which they had to buy a TV set for their office, with no financial incentives and knowing that the hypothetical boss would be indifferent to the outcome.

The results suggested that people derived pleasure or satisfaction from getting a good deal or "fair" price even when there was nothing at stake.

Darke said his studies also indicate that the percentage discount offered is another important factor in shopper satisfaction. Even if the amount of money involved in a discount is relatively small, a higher percentage discount, 40 per cent for example, leads people to infer that they are getting a fair price.

"This may be why people like bargains, because even if there isn't a lot of money involved, at least they feel they have been treated fairly. And that has positive meaning for people. It's nice to be treated fairly, it's terrible to be jerked around, even if there is little money involved."

Another finding in the UBC study was that even people identified in advance as marketing mavens -- shoppers who tend to be proud of their ability to find bargains and are likely to tell others about their finds -- attributed the discounts they received to luck rather than skill. And subjects in all of Darke's studies seemed to like bargains they stumbled across just as much as those they had figured out.