If your favorite chocolate brownie ice cream were on sale, then surely buying a few containers to stock in your freezer would makes sense, right? Surprisingly, the answer may be no, according to recent research from Wharton marketing professor Barbara Kahn, who also serves as director of the school’s Jay H. Baker Retailing Center. In a paper titled “Anticipation of Future Variety Reduces Satiation from Current Experiences,” Kahn and her co-authors — Julio Sevilla from the University of Georgia and Jiao Zhang from the University of Oregon — debunk the notion that consumers respond positively to an endless supply of the exact same product. Through controlled lab experiments, Kahn and her team found that when consumers are offered more variety for future consumption, their perception of present satisfaction changes. The paper was published in the Journal of Marketing Research. Kahn spoke with Knowledge at Wharton about what the research means for marketers.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: Could you give us a summary of your research?
Barbara Kahn: What the research shows is that if you anticipate consuming a variety of things in the future, you will satiate slowly on what you’re consuming now.
Knowledge at Wharton: This sort of sounds like the reason why we all overeat at the buffet.
Kahn: Except overeating is consumption, and this is about eating the same thing over time, how fast you get bored with it or how fast you satiate with it. The reason it’s interesting to marketers is, of course, that marketers want you to consume as much as possible of their product. But the problem is when you consume a lot over time, you get bored, or satiate. This is not just for food; it could be for music or for anything else that you consume over time. Is there a way to reduce the boredom so that you’ll enjoy what you’re consuming for a longer period of time?
What we found was that some of that boredom and satiation is cognitive. It’s not all physical. If we can encourage you to think about something in the future that’s related to what you’re consuming now, and that will offer more variety, then you’ll satiate more slowly.
Knowledge at Wharton: In an article you wrote for the American Marketing Association on this research, you introduced the example of yogurt, which I think helps to clarify this. Could you explain that example?
Kahn: Say you’re eating vanilla yogurt every single day for lunch for a week, two weeks, three weeks. You could imagine over time that you’d get bored with vanilla yogurt. What can we do to make you less bored?
If you went to Costco or BJs or some warehouse and bought a whole pallet of yogurt, and it was all different flavors or some flavor different from vanilla, and you knew in the future you would consume that, it would make you satiate more slowly with the vanilla yogurt you’re eating over time today. That’s the idea.
Knowledge at Wharton: What are the implications for retailers like Costco, for example?
Kahn: It’s that selling a variety of things has a benefit over and above what you might think. Just having the variety in the refrigerator will make the enjoyment of a single flavor more pleasurable.
Knowledge at Wharton: What is the biggest surprise that came out of this research?
Kahn: We’ve always known a lot about anticipation; a lot of past research has shown that you should savor the anticipation of something good. There’s an advantage in planning for a vacation or a wedding or something that’s really fun. You might actually enjoy the anticipation of the event more than the event itself. That’s something that’s been shown before.
But what’s different about this research is that we show that anticipating variety in the future affects your current consumption. That’s somewhat surprising because you wouldn’t think that just thinking about something in the future could affect how you’re enjoying something today.
Knowledge at Wharton: One of the other interesting examples you brought up in your AMA article was the idea that maybe it’s not always best to keep a surprise gift a secret from a significant other. Could you explain that?
“You wouldn’t think that just thinking about something in the future could affect how you’re enjoying something today.”
Kahn: The point is that if people can anticipate something that’s going to happen in the future, not only do you savor the excitement of the future, but it also can affect your current consumption, so that’s a little counter-intuitive.
Knowledge at Wharton: If someone’s going to give you a surprise vacation, for example, knowing about it earlier helps you to anticipate and actually enjoy something else in the present, correct?
Kahn: Right. You know you’re going to have a lot of varied activities — you’re going to go skiing and mountain climbing or whatever you’re going to do in the future — so maybe you won’t be as bored with what you’re doing right now.
Knowledge at Wharton: There are all sorts of implications for this. What are you going to look at next?
Kahn: It’s interesting to think about how consuming variety can affect things besides the actual utility you have for the variety. One of the projects I’m working on with a doctoral student at Drexel University is how consuming variety can make you feel less guilty or more fulfilled when you’re in a self-regulatory mode — like when you’re trying to like control your weight or eat more healthily. Sometimes, using variety as a cue for doing more of a good thing or less of a bad thing can alleviate guilt. That’s kind of an interesting thing — that variety in and of itself can affect these other kinds of feelings or emotions.