It’s that time of year again where we start to buy gifts for others that we may not know all that much about. So what do you do? One option is to just click and hope, but an often optimal strategy is to use reviews. But this comes with its own unique drawbacks in not knowing what’s accurate and what’s a potential problematic product or review. We have all heard at least one story about how Amazon deleting thousands of reviews after determining they were fake or entire brands removing their products because of issues with counterfeits and fake reviews. This is not just a problem with Amazon as we have seen these issues with other major retailers such as Walmart.
The other issue you will run in to is that our brains are quite efficient (read: lazy) when it comes to making decisions and you will need to battle your own brain when making choices. We only have a finite set of resources and we have to know what our hang-ups will be before the mental battle.
So, what can a customer do when faced with these issues?
Reviews: Information is Everywhere
The most useful tool is knowing where there is information available and learning how to use it. One of the greatest benefits of the internet is the ability to gather information in the simplest way possible, so multiple searches are often a benefit. This could be as simple as a generic search that will provide a broad overview about a product and the availability across multiple locations. If you spot a deal that is well below that of other locations, then that should throw an immediate red flag. It is not impossible, but it is reasonably rare for one retailer to have a discount that isn’t available to other retailers (with the exception of exclusives).
Also, note the differences in the ratings across different retailers. If you notice that there is an extreme difference in the ratings, there is a potential that there are some problems with the products from that particular seller or retailer. It would be no different from someone walking up to you on the street and offering to sell you a brand name designer handbag and charging 10% of the listed price. You would automatically assume that this was a counterfeit, so the digital space shouldn’t stop this red flag from flying.
There is also the potential to use additional services where fake reviews are spotted by plug-ins or other applications. Though not an endorsement from me, I have heard positives about fakespot’s plug-in for most browsers. If you are wanting to focus on using a particular retailer and don’t want to do too much more searching, one thing that is recommended is not only to focus on the review but also on the reviewers themselves. If the username is suspect, such as an incomplete profile, consistent reviews of only one brand of products, only high ranking reviews, or other items that just pass a face-validity test, then it would be advisable not to focus too much on those reviews in particular.
But That’s A Lot of Extra Steps
That is true, and you will be constantly battling your internal functions to stop looking. Our brains are limited in their capacity to make decisions, particularly when we are making them constantly. To change the vernacular up a bit, we have limited decision “resources” and those resources get depleted over time. For an example of this, think about when you have decided to diet and when you make the worst food decisions. It is generally at the end of your day when you make the “right decision” not to get donuts on the way to work, make the “right decision” to skip the cake from the office birthday party, the decision not to snack, the decision not to have happy hour after work, then finally you have no more “no’s” left when you see that leftover Thanksgiving pie in the refrigerator and you go ahead and take the whole thing down.
Because of this shortage of “no” we generally use heuristics, which are little mental shortcuts, but these are not present when doing something new or different. An example of a heuristic is a purchase you would make for yourself. I have purchased and liked my experiences with Brand X before so, even with only a little information, I will rely heavily on my experiences with Brand X to guide my decision.
You will also run in to the issue of the burden of choice where there are so many options that it can be overwhelming. If you go to the grocery store and look at the cereal, then you can see what I mean. Is there really a need to have Cereal X, Cereal X with marshmallows, Cereal X with only the circle marshmallows, Cereal X with marshmallows added and then removed, Cereal X with fiber, Cereal X with…, Cereal X with…, Cereal X with… ad infinitum ad nauseam.
If this becomes overbearing, you might fall in to a category called a “maximizer” that, overarchingly, is a person who wants to have the most optimal outcome. The converse of this is a satisficer who is looking more for a satisfactory outcome and not necessarily the best possible outcome. A satisficer may see a review that allows them to say, “that seems good enough for me” and make their decision. A maximizer would be more apt to read all reviews to make sure that the most optimal outcome is achieved. It probably doesn’t need to be stated, but the latter certainly takes a lot more resources and can often lead to throwing up one’s hands and just picking something out of frustration.
Paid, Endorsed, or Official Reviews
So, you know that you will potentially be manipulated and that your brain is actively trying to do the easy route. Got it. But, what about people I trust that I follow on my special platforms. They wouldn’t tell me tales, would they? While not suspect outright, it is good to understand the incentives involved in reviews that are not malicious, but also may not be completely without some bias. These would include reviews that are provided after a payment, be given a reimbursement after a review (sometimes only with a positive review), or one that comes with some level of clout for giving the review.
While the incentives to write a quality review are present for one reason or another, it is advisable to take a little time to verify how valid an individual’s reviews are as a whole to see how much credit needs to be applied to their opinions. If an individual only reviews a select set of items and does a good job of writing high-quality information, then they are probably reliable. If they only write positive reviews, even on things that are not great, then that is probably less than ideal. Be aware that humans are an interesting creature in that we put a lot more emphasis on negatives than positives (negativity bias). If you need an example of this, think about a time someone gave you ten compliments and one criticism. I imagine you can recite the criticism with much more clarity than any of the ten compliments.
While it is a much larger topic, we could throw the concept of an influencer in this discussion. This is a much larger discussion, but what would be a good recommendation is finding an individual whom you like and use their reviews, as they are generally trustworthy. This would be a great reference for Vincent’s picks from Seinfeld, but that is a copyrighted picture, so you’ll need to imagine this here.
Do Your Homework with Online Reviews
Make sure to do your homework when looking at reviews online and know that your brain is often working against you because we have limited decision-making resources. There are many blockers than can lead to issues, but by taking a couple extra steps and having a skeptic’s lens, you should be able to navigate any purchase.