Using Behavioral Economics, Psychology, and Neuroeconomics to Maximize Sales

When it comes to developing a smart ecommerce pricing strategy, there are very important lessons to be learned from behavioral economics, psychology, and neuroeconomics. 
Researchers in these fields have rigorously tested consumer behavior and have learned how we react to different forms of pricing. These learnings will give you insights into your customer's minds on a large scale, and will show you similar patterns and habits that you can leverage to your benefit. Some people may find these disciplines intimidating, but applying their principles to your ecommerce store is easy. 
Here we go:  

1. Price Anchoring & Premium Options

What if there was a way to increase your ecommerce sales without changing the fundamentals of the products you offer in your online store? That would be awesome, right? The thing is, you can use price anchoring to accomplish this without the hassle of changing your product. 
According to research by cognitive and mathematical psychologist Amos Tversky and Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, when we have any uncertainty about the price of a product, we often look for information from surrounding offerings. With this in mind, their research (and more recent studies) have revealed one important thing about this process: we are willing to pay higher prices when they are "anchored" by an even higher price. 
Take a look at the packages offered by Basecamp:
1. Price Anchoring & Premium Options
That $150/month package sure makes the $50 and $20/month packages look like a good deal. 
Restaurants use price anchoring to subconsciously encourage diners to buy more expensive items. Take a look at the menu below and notice the $145 seafood plate. William Poundstone claims "By putting high-profit items next to the extremely expensive anchor, they seem cheap by comparison. So, the triple-figure price here is probably to induce customers to go for the {$95} Le Grand plate to the left of it, or the more modest seafood orders below it." 

1. Price Anchoring & Premium Options
Here's another example. It's from one of my favorite books, Priceless, where the author reveals a study on the pricing of beer. In the first test, only two beers were offered, one for $1.80 and another premium beer for $2.50. Around 80% of people bought the premium beer at this price. In the next example, a super-cheap beer was introduced for $1.60 and included in the mix. When these 3 options were available, 80% of people chose the middle option instead, and only 20% bought the $2.50 beer (nobody bought the cheapest option). In the last test, a super-premium beer was introduced for $3.40 and the super-cheap beer was removed. With these 3 beers in place, most people chose the $2.50 beer again, and although a few people chose the cheapest option, now 10% of people were choosing the most expensive option.
There are always people who want a premium option (in a huge majority of industries), and offering an expensive option will not only allow for those interested in spending more the ability to do so, but it's also a lot safer than introducing a cheaper option. 

2. How to Sell to "Tightwads"

In nearly every industry that you can sell in (minus ultra-luxury goods), you're going to have to deal with customers that neuroscientists have labeled as "tightwads". Don't worry, it's not an insulting term. It has to deal with how much "buying pain" these people receive versus the average consumer. Considering the fact that neuroscientists have labeled our spending habits as, literally, "spend 'til it hurts," it's important to understand what makes these customers respond the way they do. According to research, there are 3 customer types that ecommerce merchants should be aware of:

  1. Tightwads (24%): These customers spend less on average before they hit their pain limits.
  2. Unconflicted (60%): These are your average spenders.
  3. Spendthrifts (15%): These customers spend more on average before they hit their pain limits.
With nearly a quarter of your typical customers falling into the "tightwad" category, it pays to know how to sell to these people in a manner that doesn't effect your other buyers. Fortunately, research in this area has revealed 3 fool-proof tactics:

A) Changing 1 Word Can Make a HUGE Difference 

When it comes to selling to tightwads, it seems that you should "sweat" the small stuff: it could have a huge impact. In a study from Carnegie Mellon University, researchers tested the difference that a single word might play in response rates. In this case, they tested the copy used to describe the fee associated with joining an otherwise free DVD trial offer. The two versions they tested were:

  • "a $5 fee"
  • "a small $5 fee"
Seems somewhat silly, right? As it turns out, the impact was deadly serious: by using the second option ("a small $5 fee"), the researchers saw response rates improve by 20%! That's a monumental improvement as a result of a single added word. Try playing with the language on your ecommerce website and track the results. Sometimes the smallest change will help you convince those on the edge into making a purchase. 

B) Re-frame the Value: It's Not $1,000/year, It's $84/month

When it comes to larger purchases, we all struggle in evaluating value. With some awesome neuroimaging studies that tested price perceptions, ecommerce merchants have a way to entice buyers into purchasing more expensive options.
One easy way to do this is to re-frame the product's value. This strategy eases the buying pain for everybody, but especially for tightwad customers. If, for instance, I tried to sell you on my product that costs $1,000 a year, you'd be a bit hesitant right? That's because $1,000 isn't peanuts, and it's a large enough number that it makes you hesitant to buy, even if the offering is very valuable to you.
Now what if I offered a service for $84/month? It's a lot easier to gauge how much value you'd get out of that. If you can justify 30 days worth of value for $84, the purchase seems like a no-brainer. The thing is, $84 a month is $1,000 a year! 
You can see this in practice on all sorts of SAAS (software as a service) pricing pages. Most services are offered for a yearly fee, but almost all companies prefer to showcase the lower monthly price. Here's an example from GitHub:
B) Re-frame the Value: It's Not $1,000/year, It's $84/month
The research has shown that when prices are broken down into smaller, "bite-sized" increments, our brains are just better at processesing the potential value, rather than having to deal with larger numbers (even if they are the same overall price). If your product is a large purchase that will be used over an extended period of time, be sure to remind customers of the daily/monthly value that they will be getting out of the product, it makes it much easier to rationalize a purchase. 

C) Reduce Multiple Pain Points with Bundling 

When it comes to the pain of buying, the less it has to happen, the better. This is why neuroeconomic experts like George Loewenstein have conducted research that shows ALL customers favor bundling if it allows them to avoid multiple purchases. He's asserted that his findings show we prefer to pay MORE for bundled items if it helps us reduce the amount of individual purchases, showing how averse we are to those multiple pain points. 
One of the most well known examples of bundling is how car dealerships offer various upgrade packages. Below you'll see the packages available on a Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupe:
C) Reduce Multiple Pain Points with Bundling 
We can justify getting an upgrade package, but it would be harder to justify individual upgrades of leather seats... and navigation... and 18" AMG 7-Double Spoke Wheels. Ecommerce store owners should bundle products with often purchased accessories. You'll be preventing multiple pain points and allow people to solve their problems in one efficient buy. Sales will rise.

3. Selling Time Over Money

This is one of the more interesting pricing studies out there, because it shows that chest-thumping about having the lowest prices isn't always optimal for many brands. According to research from Stanford University, there is definitely a reason that big brands like Miller Brewing Company have slogans like, "It's Miller Time!" rather than focusing on the low prices of their bargain beers. 
3. Selling Time Over Money
In research conducted by Jennifer Aaker and her colleagues, a lemonade stand was set up with multiple signs (and actual kids to seem legitimate) in order to test the effectiveness of each sign's message. The 3 different signs used in the study were as follows:

  1. “Spend a little time and enjoy C&D’s lemonade” (focus on time)
  2. “Spend a little money and enjoy C&D’s lemonade” (focus on money)
  3. “Enjoy C&D’s lemonade” (neutral sign)
With such subtle changes, you wouldn't expect huge a difference, but there was. The first sign not only attracted twice the amount of customers, but they were willing to pay twice as much for lemonade as well. 
There's a theory that says money will always be thought of in a negative way, because consumers are reminded of the cost of acquiring a product rather than the pleasure of consuming it. Aaker and her fellow researchers conducted a follow-up study where they took a poll at a concert. Although the concert was free, people had to wait in long lineups to get good seats. 
Aaker asked the individuals one of two questions: "How much time will you have spent to see the concert today?" or "How much money will you have spent to see the concert today?" In most cases, asking specifically about time increased participants' favorable attitudes toward the concert. In fact, those who had incurred the most "cost" (standing in line the longest) rated the concert best of all. 
3. Selling Time Over Money
So what are the implications of this research? According to Aaker:
One explanation is that our relationship with time is much more personal than our relationship with money. Ultimately, time is a more scarce resource—once it’s gone, it’s gone—and therefore more meaningful to us. How we spend our time says so much more about who we are than does how we spend our money.
Specifically discussing the concert study Aaker noted:
Even though waiting is presumably a bad thing, it somehow made people concentrate on the overall experience.
So how do you apply the findings of their study to your ecommerce store? When a product is already a bargain, placing an emphasis on the time you'll enjoy with it (or the time it will save you) is likely more effective than parading the fact that your product is inexpensive.
Will this strategy ever not work? As noted by the research, there is one area where this method could fall flat: luxury purchases. According to professor Mogilner:
With such ‘prestige’ purchases, consumers feel that possessing the products reflect important aspects of themselves, and get more satisfaction from merely owning the product rather than spending time with it.
Premium goods with premium prices should emphasize their quality. On the other hand, if you're selling goods in a bargain oriented area, you should try to get your customers to imagine the great times they've had (or will have) with your products, rather than putting all the focus on the price.