3 Ways to Hack the Mind of the Online Shopper

By October 25, 2016E-Commerce Marketing

The key to understanding the online shopping experience is to start with a realization:

The device your shopper is using to buy things is not the thing they’re holding in their hands: it’s the thing between their ears.

Dr. Jennie Wong, author of 7 Ways to Hack the Mind of the Online Shopper, makes the case that the real hardware of eCommerce is the human brain. We had the chance to interview her and hear 3 of the 7 steps in her book to truly understand the mind of your online shoppers.

Jennie is CEO and Founder of Shopping Quizzes, and she has a Ph.D in this stuff. She learned all the information in the book over the course of three decades of work as a social scientist and, most recently, an eCommerce entrepreneur. She wanted to synthesize her eclectic background so it would be useful and actionable to online retailers.

Below are three of the central concepts of her research; they go a long way in helping you jump into the mindsets of the people who live on the cusp of purchasing what you have to offer online.

1) Chapter One: “The Paradox of Choice”

The very first thing you can do to understand how to sell more online is understand the paradox of choice and how it’s affecting your shoppers. I’m talking about the ones on your website right this minute.

Fundamentally, the paradox of choice is this: the more overwhelmed we get as human beings with choices and information, the more likely we are to shut down and not do anything. In an eCommerce setting, this means we don’t buy anything.

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For online retailers, your main competition is not the other retailer—it’s inertia. The default choice is to click away and go do something else. The last thing you want to do is overwhelm your shoppers with endless scrolling pages and tons of data about the price.

Instead, you want to make your selection—even if it’s a big selection—feel manageable. There are a lot of ways to do that. One is to get your site visitors to start going down a funnel as quickly as possible.

Instead of showing countless pages of thumbnails of dresses in general, maybe you want to construct your category pages to only show two or three dresses of each type. Invite and prompt the shopper to click on something that says, “See more.” Now you’ve triggered a different type of priming.

There are all kinds of ways you can slice and dice the problem of not having well-defined categories. But really, the simple solution is just to try.

Retailers often have the opposite mindset. They want to look abundant. And of course, there is an expectation from the modern shopper that the selection be large enough.

But selection doesn’t make the sale. It might get the eyeballs there, but once they’re there, you almost have to switch hats.

You have to say, “Not only do we have what you want: we’ll also help you find it. We’ll reveal the needle in the haystack.” If you don’t, they will feel far too lost to ever even consider pulling out their card.

One of the best things you can do is offer interactive funneling. Pose a question and prompt your shoppers to start self-selecting. “Are you looking for casual or formal?”

Another best practice is deep linking. An example from the book: if you’ve got a message on your homepage that says, “Hey, we’ve got a sale on wireless bras,” don’t take them to the high-level page of all bras. Take them to a filtered page that’s the appropriate deep link for wireless.

2) Micro-Commitments

One of the ways you can facilitate a conversion is to offer a smaller conversion, short of taking a credit card.

One of Jennie’s favorite eCommerce sites is a skin-care line. They give you the opportunity to purchase a sample for as little as $0.80. She doesn’t have to dish out $60 for a new bottle of skin cream, but she’ll order samples all day long. It’s unintimidating.

Then, once she gets the sample and loves it, she’s ready to convert.

Here’s another example: an app developer asked her, “How do I give a micro-commitment when my app is already free?” For some people, downloading something is a big commitment because of how cluttered their device is. You can get creative and make an even smaller commitment, which might be to watch a 15-second video of your app in action.

You can almost always do this if you think things through creatively.

3) Reactance Theory (or Reverse Psychology)

A lot of websites want to profile you, have you answer a long survey, then put a label on you (shabby chic, preppy, etc.).

Be cautious, though. Reactance theory is where we rebel against being labeled and we don’t want our options taken away. We don’t want to be pigeon-holed.

Think about the ability of the shopper to have free will. This doesn’t mean offering an overwhelming set of options, but giving them the ability to back out of a commitment. This principle applies to many areas: return policies, labeling, and on and on.

There are a lot of customers that won’t finish a lengthy inventory to begin with, so you’re getting a lot of drop-off there. Then, if you claim to know someone’s style after a lot of questions, you have to be careful because what if you don’t meet expectations?

Recently Jennie did all the work of answering a website’s questions. They had set high expectations for the products they would tailor to her, and then they missed the mar. The result? She canceled her subscription without batting an eye.

A better outlook is to think about what the shopper wants to accomplish that day. On a certain day, she may need a sleeveless dress; on another, one with sleeves.

So ask about the shopper’s agenda on that particular trip.


Very thankful to Jennie for teasing us with a few of her tips for understanding online shoppers. But her book, 7 Ways to Hack the Mind of the Online Shopper, offers so much more. Check it out on Amazon: it’s a fast, visual read with plenty of screenshots from real eCommerce sites.

This episode is based on an interview with Jennie Wong, CEO and Founder of Shopping Quizzes. To hear this episode, and many more like it, you can subscribe to the Hawke Media Podcast.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.


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