Product Lineups: The More You Search, The Less You Find

Consumers often search for a product that matches a previously encountered option, without knowing its exact name. Whether we watch an advertisement but fail to register the product’s name, see admired others using a product but are reluctant or unable to ask for details, or briefly experience a high quality product, we often later find ourselves looking, either online or in the store, for the specific product we encountered before. In the process, we typically browse through a sequence of similar products, guided only by a fuzzy recollection of what we saw earlier – an experience to which we refer as a product lineup. Although more than 90% of consumers surveyed said that they had had similar experiences, little prior research has investigated them directly.

Warrington marketing faculty Aner Sela and Sang Kyu Park (PhD ’21) examined how consumers’ ability to accurately identify the product for which they are looking in a product lineup is influenced by the inner dynamics of the search process itself. Across multiple experiments, they found that the more people screen through similar-looking products, the more conservative – but, ironically, less accurate – they become in their identification judgments. That is, the mere location of the target product in the sequence of similar-looking items can determine the likelihood that they will recognize the product for which they are looking.

The psychological mechanism responsible for this phenomenon is also interesting: each time consumers evaluate a “lure” and judge it to be incorrect, they seem to draw an implicit inference that the true target must feel even more familiar or “right” than the screened option. That is, each time consumers dismiss an option that does not feel sufficiently “right” or similar to the representation they hold in memory, their inner threshold for how right the correct target should feel is ratcheted-up. Consequently, wading through a longer sequence of lures often results in more conservative but less accurate judgments where people fail to recognize the product for which they have been looking when it finally appears in the lineup.

Park and Sela’s research makes several contributions to the literature on product search and recognition. Managerially, the findings provide yet another reason for marketers to make sure their products appear at the top of the search results, especially when consumers are looking for that specific option. The practical implication of this finding is that sellers must develop a precise understanding of the keywords consumers use when initiating a visual search, so that they can bid correctly and make sure the right product shows up first.