Time – the temporal aspects of consumer behavior

If we only had a machine that allowed us to effortlessly travel back and forward in time. The concept of time is as important to marketers as it is scientists. The company that is late to the market will indeed miss the sales opportunity.

This brings up the question of how do we ask survey participants about time? How this measure is approached will have a direct impact on data validity. The exhibit below asks survey participants to estimate the likelihood they will be purchasing a new vehicle in the next year. This type of forward-looking purchase intention question is commonplace.

Note that the scaling offers a neutral position for those who are unsure about their future purchases. This is extremely important in large scale purchase decisions, e.g. a home, car, European vacation or a wedding dress. This is a valid use of the middle-point on a scale. As for the time window, major purchases usually follow a significant process that can take weeks, months or longer to carry out.

The timeframe for less significant purchases should be shorter. Asking someone if they plan to purchase a consumable item, like batteries, in the coming year will lead to near 100% agreement. Shorten the time window, e.g. likelihood of purchase of product X in the next month or next trip to the market.

Looking through the rearview mirror of time is just as reasonable, but comes with a few caveats of its own. A common use case is to ask consumers how much of something they have consumed over a defined period – How many times have you gone to the gas station in the last three months? – is an excellent example. Rear-view questions should also be tailored to the significance of the behavior.

Respondents can provide a reasonable account of their behaviors for the last week and in some cases up to a month. Beyond that, their ability to recall accurately fades with time. Large scale events, like those mentioned previously, would be an exception. In short, keep the timeframe consistent with the magnitude of the behavior.

Understand that major purchase or life decisions are linked to a series of actual events. These events should be captured in your survey. For example if your interest is in the likelihood to buy a new home then you should also ask “behavioral” questions such as:

  • Have they consulted a realtor
  • Do they have at least 10% available for a down payment?
  • Have they begun comparing lenders?
  • Can they rank the importance of key attributes (e.g. number of bedrooms, the age of neighborhood, etc.)?

Evidence of these behaviors gives more credence to their response toward purchase intent. If your survey includes purchasers then ask them to estimate the amount of time it took them to complete the process. This will allow you to create norms which can be tracked over time.

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