06/25/2014 11:50 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

When Neurotic Behavior Is Actually Good for You


If you find yourself agonizing over purchase decisions like where to go on vacation, what headphones to buy or choosing between brand and private-label products on the shelf, you are not abnormal. If you spend hours online pouring over destination reviews until it's impossible to book a hotel or if you put off purchasing electronics or appliances "because you need to research more" then rest easy. You are not crazy. In fact, you are like most shoppers today.

We have all become incredibly neurotic when it comes to making decisions as to how we spend our money. Funny enough, it has less to do with cost and much more to do with the power of information. When I began researching shopper behavior in 2008, shoppers were using an average of 5.4 sources of information before making a purchase. Since then, that number has grown to more than 12 sources, on average.

It turns out, as the Internet and technology have given us constant, infinite and ubiquitous access to information, the way we shop has changed -- permanently. Barry Schwartz's oft cited TEDTalk on the subject of how too many choices can lead to paralysis is only part of the equation. Our research shows that the rise in shopping reviews, expert and amateur commentary, and comparison shopping has not paralyzed us -- it's just made us into compulsive researchers.

Of course, there have always been planners among us -- those studious types who subscribed to Consumer Reports, ordered informational CDs and insisted on visiting numerous stores to make sure they were getting the best deal. Their "old school" style of shopping was hard work. It took a lot of time and typically required a great deal of driving around.

In this new information era, even grocery shopping has changed. In what those in the industry refer to as "low consideration" categories, (soda, frozen meals, cookies, etc.) we are seeing a great deal of pre-purchase activity. A large percentage of shoppers, on a very consistent basis, actively look for information on upcoming sales (64 percent), digitally clip a coupon (55 percent), look at images of the product online (61 percent) and read independent reviews from strangers (54 percent). Seeing, firsthand, the effort some shoppers put in for a bag of frozen peas or a microwaveable dinner, I think retiring the term "low consideration" should be given some serious consideration.

In the tech, entertainment, travel, automotive and health categories the intensity of research is much greater, still. A recent study I led that focused on a particular pharmaceutical category revealed shoppers were using more than 20 sources before even visiting their doctor. Of course, many of the sources used were online. (Google searches now being the "go to" for speculative self-diagnosis.)

Another recent study we conducted, this one among Hispanics, showed that 90 percent of shoppers in this demographic were using technology to find information about their prescriptions. Ninety percent of shoppers doing anything is ubiquity in my book -- it means a fundamental and total adoption of a behavior that did not exist just a few years ago.

I call this shopper behavior "neurotic" but I don't mean it in a bad way. Thought process in the brain and shopping activity in today's multi-channel marketplace mirror each other. Branches, conduits, dead ends and smart pathways form at the speed of light. All that jumping around from idea to source to product to store -- though seemingly a form of neurotic indecisiveness -- is, when hyper accelerated through media technology, ultimately a highly efficient from of decision-making.

Another way to describe all this effort is "thoughtful." And, thoughtful is good. It means informed, educated, savvy, less-snookerable. But, it doesn't fully capture the unique essence of the shopping experience that is a kind of permanent paranoia: that if we had just read a few more reviews, done a little more research, asked a few more people then we would have gotten a better deal, found a better hotel or lived a better life.

Still, there are those on another path. One young woman I interviewed during a recent consumer panel said, "I don't look for deals. I let deals come to me." I anticipate this mindset will grow among consumers, and already we're seeing technology like Google Now increasingly surface only the relevant information we need -- and coming to us effortlessly. Until then, if you've just spent three hours researching which travel bag to buy, know that you're not alone.