Color consumption

Background colors, whether on websites or walls of brick-and-mortar stores, can influence consumer shopping behavior, in particular, willingness to pay, new marketing research from Pamplin shows.

“Colors are ubiquitous in consumer contexts,” said marketing associate professor Rajesh Bagchi. “Identical products are often sold in different colors or with different colors of packaging. Shopping mall walls, aisles, and displays use multiple colors, as do website backgrounds and product displays. Colors are also an integral part of ads and company logos.”

Rajesh Bagchi
Rajesh Bagchi

Yet, most shopping studies have focused on consumers’ evaluation of stores and products, he said, and little is known about how color affects consumers’ willingness to pay. So Bagchi and co-researcher Amar Cheema, of the University of Virginia, set out to investigate how red and blue colors, in particular, influence willingness to pay and purchase likelihoods in different types of purchase settings: auctions, negotiations, and fixed-price (retail, for example) contexts.

“Our results suggest that incidental exposure to color on web page backgrounds or on walls in brick-and-mortar stores can affect willingness to pay,” Bagchi said, “and have important implications for website and store design.”

Purchase setting affects willingness to pay

The researchers found that at auctions and similar situations where consumers compete with one another to buy a scarce or a limited edition product, willingness to pay was strengthened through exposure to red rather than blue backgrounds.

In contrast, in situations that allowed negotiations — when a product is readily available, for example, and the consumer competes with the seller to get a lower price through haggling or an extended price search — willingness to pay was weakened by red backgrounds compared to blue. Consumers in fixed-price settings also behaved similarly, he said. “Because these consumers were also only competing with the seller, purchase likelihoods were lower with red backgrounds compared to blue, indicating that their willingness to pay may have been lower.”

Seeing red, spending aggressively

The findings were consistent across all three studies conducted, two of which used panel participants in lab experiments; the third used data from an actual eBay auction. “We show that red induces aggression relative to blue, and aggression causes individuals to make higher bid jumps in auctions but lower offers in negotiations,” Bagchi said.

“In auction situations, aggressive buyers want to ensure acquisition of the item by outbidding other buyers, so they offer higher bid jumps — aggression increases willingness to pay,” he said. “In negotiations, however, buyers negotiate one-on-one with sellers. Aggressive buyers want to get the best deal possible, so they make lower offers — aggression reduces willingness to pay. Similarly, in fixed-price settings, aggression lowers purchase likelihoods.”

Applications and future directions

Fortunately for retailers, it is fairly straightforward to change background colors, particularly on websites, Bagchi noted. “Firms could even customize colors based on the selling mechanism and product characteristics.”

Bagchi cautioned that his study results may not apply across cultures and that consumers may differ in their individual susceptibility to influence by background color. “Our research is a first step to better understand consumer behavior in these purchase contexts.”

“The Effect of Red Background Color on Willingness-to-pay: The Moderating Role of Selling Mechanism” is forthcoming in the Journal of Consumer Research.

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