- Shoppers have both hedonic (fun) and utilitarian (useful) motives
- Serious Christmas shoppers are more concerned with usefulness than flow
- Be wary of tests conducted over the festive season; those buying gifts for others may well not be your usual customers
Just like for bricks-and-mortar shops, the Christmas season is a particularly crucial time of the year for ecommerce. It’s also a confusing time. For the remainder of the year, you probably have a pretty good idea of who your customer is, and how to push his or her buttons (or, more importantly, how to get them to click yours). But for many sites, this all goes out of the window at Christmas, when a large proportion of visitors are shopping for others (or at least, telling themselves that’s what they’re doing).
Hedonic or Utilitarian
Back in June, we saw that – for the rest of the year – a key principle is maximising “flow”: the feeling that athletes and artists get when they’re lost in their work, at the top of their game, when the rest of the world just melts away; a feeling that the less-gifted of us can enjoy by taking part in any absorbing activity that we’re experts in, including online shopping. Indeed, one recent study1 found that flow was more important than usefulness when predicting which customers would spend the most – and the most often – online.
But the participants in this study were not Christmas shoppers. A classic study of (offline) Christmas shoppers2 found that they fall into two groups. Hedonic shoppers are there for the flow: they enjoy the act of Christmas shopping itself. In fact, they often admit that many of the gifts they buy are at least partly for themselves (e.g., Dads who buy Star Wars toys “for their kids”). It may or may not surprise you to learn that quite a few men – and fewer women – fall into this category. Utilitarian shoppers, while they might enjoy Christmas shopping, nevertheless see it as a job to be done: They have a list of people to buy for, and, usually, a good idea of what each person would like.
Let’s fast-forward now to the era of eCommerce, and an experiment which investigated the importance of flow on hedonic and utilitarian online shopping3. The study showed that ratings of enjoyment, concentration and challenge all predicted the hedonic aspect of the participants’ shopping experience; i.e., how much they enjoyed it. However, none of these ratings predicted the utilitarian aspect of their experience; i.e., shoppers didn’t find them useful. The lesson is that if you have a site that is joy to navigate, serving up a generous portion of flow on each visit, it will probably do very well for the rest of the year. But it may well fall down when a stressed-out shopper needs a green kettle for Uncle Joe, and has only three minutes before the start of the school nativity play.
Features of your site that are there solely for hedonic reasons may actually have an adverse effect on conversions during the festive season, at least for some shoppers. The researchers recommend the use of features that are there for more utilitarian reasons, such as quick check-out options and intuitive search facilities.
So, what should you do? In an ideal world, you would conduct extensive testing during the Christmas shopping season, and use these results to design a special seasonal site, which differs from your regular site in a way, designed to cater specifically to the increased proportion of utilitarian versus hedonic shoppers. Of course, for many smaller sites, this may be prohibitively expensive.
But one lesson that everyone can learn is this: Don’t use the findings of “regular” tests conducted during the festive season to inform changes that will stay in place for the rest of the year, as a large proportion of visitors may not be typical of your usual customer.