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The IKEA Effect: Do Companies Make Customers Do Too Much Work?

The IKEA Effect

In an era when marketing is everywhere, selling products and services should be much easier than it used to be. After all, if we can reach customers wherever they happen to be, whenever we want, we should be able to persuade people to buy, right? But even as digital marketing makes constant advertising possible, people have gained the tools to block and ignore us. And marketers are discovering that the effectiveness of digital marketing may be overrated.

So, you might think we would work harder to attract and retain customers the old-fashioned way, by making great products and convincing people to buy by focusing on a differentiating benefit—the reason to buy. Instead, we seem to be trending toward a different proposition… using artificial intelligence and digital tools to make the customer do our work for us. The marketer gains “efficiency”—i.e., they spend less. But they also convey a certain arrogance to customers, that the marketer or brand doesn’t have to work hard to win and keep their business. Should we be surprised that customers may be unhappy about that? 

Testing the IKEA Effect

The IKEA Effect is the idea that the act of investing our own labor can be sufficient to induce greater liking for the fruits of our labor. In marketing, the IKEA Effect is the idea that we can make consumers do some (even most) of the work, and actually have them be more satisfied than if we delivered a ready-to-use product. The effect was named by Michael Norton, Daniel Mochon and Dan Ariely in a 2011 paper for the Journal of Consumer Psychology,studying whether asking someone to participate in making something could change how they valued the final product.

Consider Betty Crocker, and other packaged cake mix brands. Cake mixes were once produced as complete-in-the-package. General Mills, parent company of Betty Crocker cake mixes, hired psychologist Ernest Dichter to find a way to sell more boxed cake mix. His studies led him to recommend that, rather than use powdered eggs in the box mix, the mix should require the baker to add fresh eggs. The complete mix required too little labor, devaluing the baker; giving the baker more “ownership” would enhance perceived value of the final product. (It didn’t hurt, notes Laura Shapiro, author of Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America, that fresh eggs also made better cakes.) Today, boxed cake mixes often require other fresh ingredients, like milk and butter.

There is a sweet spot, however—asking a person to do too much labor, to the point of their abandoning assembly in frustration, not only negates satisfaction but may result in very negative feelings about the product, brand or company. It definitely affects how much someone may be willing to pay for an item. Even IKEA has struggled with consumer complaints about poorly stated assembly instructions, missing parts or parts that don’t fit as intended.

Perceptions of Value

Wanting people to feel they have received great value for their dollars is a marketer’s or salesperson’s dream achievement. The assumption is that satisfied customers will buy more products, and recommend those products to others… making the salesperson’s job much easier. But the idea that modern consumers also want to be makers, not just consumers, is really coming to the fore today.

Consider ready-to-make meal kits like SunBasket, Hellofresh, Blue Apron and Plated. The purchaser orders a kit containing all ingredients in one box, plus a recipe for preparing a meal from those ingredients. Purchasers avoid the hassles of grocery shopping (and maybe not being able to get certain ingredients for a selected recipe), in exchange for which they can make a nice meal and take pride in their cooking skills. These combine convenience with just enough labor to give satisfaction to the buyer.

Sadly, this make-the-consumer-do-some-of-the-work trend is bleeding over into areas where consumers may resent being asked to do that work. For instance, there is a fairly widespread disdain for self-checkout aisles, where customers must scan and bag their own purchases. Many retailers testing this now have human attendants whose job is to steer people to self-checkout aisles, instead of opting to stand in long lines to get to a single human checkout clerk. Reasons for resistance range from a dislike of being asked to be the store’s checkout clerk while not being paid to do that job, to resenting the replacement of a human job by computers and forced-consumer labor. (It doesn’t help that self-scanners are often glitch-prone, and on-screen instructions vary wildly from store to store. Then there are the “cash only” Luddites who just don’t like having to use a touchscreen and a credit card…)

Automation is rapidly wiping out entire job categories, from manufacturing assembly lines to retail salespeople. Shoppers are starting to take note and push back. It’s increasingly important to recognize customer attitudes and receptiveness to automation, and to being asked to do more to access the product or service than customers believe they should. This is the value exchange: what are you asking customers to pay in exchange for their having to do work once done at the factory, or that an employee once did directly for the customer? 

These attitudes feed into everything from assembling products to filling out lengthy online forms. Researchers have learned that people need to get some enjoyment from doing some of the work, and the amount of effort required to complete the process must be in balance with the enjoyment earned. 

Customer Service or Customer Manipulation?

As someone who really dislikes grocery shopping, the added chore of self-checkout just makes my shopping experience that much more annoying. I am now in the category of being asked to do too much work against the amount of enjoyment I derive from the process. As someone remarked to me recently, they recall when every grocery had full-time checkout clerks in every aisle, PLUS baggers who put the groceries in bags for you (and even carried them to your car). 

Ah, the memories… service stations where the serviceperson pumped the gas for you—and checked your oil, your tire pressure and wiped off your windshield, thanks very much, ma’am, come again soon. Offices and customer service centers actually had people who answered the phone, instead of phone trees designed to prevent you from actually talking to a human being. Once upon a time, we could call the doctor’s office and actually talk to the doctor. Shocking. (I could go on, but you’re probably already thinking, “OK, Boomer…”)

What can ad agencies do to help clients avoid the negative effects of emphasizing efficiency and automation over customer satisfaction? Know your clients’ customers. Talk to them. Ask for feedback. What do they like? What do they dislike? How can you help the client make the customer’s life easier? At what point does “efficiency” start to harm the brand and depress sales? When does it begin to cost the company its best customers? What simple steps might the agency recommend to make customers feel they are not only getting the product or service they expected, but that the “value exchange” actually enhances their satisfaction? Agencies act as the voice of the customer. Speak up.

The best effect you can have on a customer is to make them feel valued and appreciated. Making them do some or all of the work may not be the best way to show appreciation. Always consider what the customer may feel about being asked to do more to complete a purchase or interaction. Help clients avoid the IKEA Effect backlash, and ensure your clients do not end up with re-assembly work of their own. 

See also: One-to-One Is More Than Marketing

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