K-State marketing instructor studies consumer behavior during Internet purchasing

April 09, 2003

MANHATTAN, KAN. -- With just a click of a mouse you can build that 2004 convertible you might be looking to purchase on the Internet.

This type of customization is only one example of what occurs everyday online as consumers transform computers, cars, toys, vitamins, engagement rings, clothes and many other products into exactly what they want.

Janis Crow, Kansas State University instructor of marketing, has been researching what happens when consumers build their own products on the Internet.

"It's amazing to be able to create a product to specifically suit your needs," Crow said. "I wanted to find out how we use this technology to make decisions and whether the technology is helping or hurting the decision-making process."

Crow's research involved an experiment where K-State students visited a Web site and customized their own pizza, pair of shoes or personal digital assistant. Participants could choose either to create their own product from scratch or use the computer's suggestions. All of the products were both brand and price neutral to avoid any preconceived judgments.

Crow wanted to see how students created products, with the number of attributes that students wanted to choose from. She also investigated if when participants were given a default or starting value to begin with, how that influenced their choices.

Crow found that many times students relied on the defaults, even though they could choose what they wanted. She said the students preferred to buy products with many attributes to choose from, but they also found it more difficult to customize their product this way.

"Overall, I found that students enjoyed the process," she said.

Crow said the technique she used to conduct the study and accumulate her research was unique. Each Web page was a new product to customize. As students completed Crow's experiment at her Web site, the results were sent to a server where the data was collected. She was able to track each participant and their responses and demographic information. Crow's computer program was created with the help of John Casey, a December 2000 K-State graduate in computer science and management. A journal article describing the program will be published in the May issue of Behavior Research Methods, Instruments and Computers.

"The way the information was gathered is an interesting thing about my research," Crow said. "I was able to record the students' activity and analyze the data immediately."

Crow's ongoing research began three years ago and will be published in a chapter of the book "Understanding Online Consumer Behavior." It also was presented in May 2001 at a conference of the Society of Consumer Psychologists.

One aspect of the research Crow finds interesting is learning the factors that influence the customization process. Building on this research for her doctoral dissertation, she is investigating the strategies consumers use to make decisions when customizing a product. Crow said she hopes to identify decision aids that will help consumers interface with technology.

"We have technology that allows us to do things we could never do before," she said. "I am interested to see how it affects our daily lives."

Kansas State University

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