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Get inside the buyer’s brain to boost ecommerce sales

How you can apply scientific psychological principles to influence consumer behavior on your site.

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As with any online experience, you need to keep your customers at the forefront of your mind as you architect your ecommerce site and landing pages. Your goal should be to present prospects with the information they’re looking for at the right time, whether they’re researching a purchase or they’re wondering about your shipping and return policies. 

While you should always analyze all the available data and perform tests to improve conversion rates, you must also put yourself in your customers’ shoes and use that human insight to anticipate what a person needs to make a purchase decision and check out. To do that, it helps to have an understanding of the psychology of human decision-making and purchase behavior. 

For many years, researchers have been working to understand the human brain and its functions, and you can apply their learnings to developing your ecommerce site and user experience. 

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Sometimes our mind plays tricks on us as it tries to make sense of the world. The lines (not including the arrows) appear to be of different lengths, but, as you can see, when the vertical lines are added, they are actually the same length. 

Visual priming

For example, you may not realize that the background pictures and colors on web pages can influence the product choices people make in ecommerce situations. This effect is known as “visual priming” because the background, in this case, acts as a visual cue to “prime” a person’s mind to focus on a certain product feature. 

Researchers Naomi Mandel and Eric J. Johnson explained their study in a 2002 article in the Journal of Consumer Research. For each experiment, subjects began by viewing an introductory web page with a certain background — to “prime” them for certain thought processes. In the part of the experiment related to furniture purchasing, the initial screen either showed a sky blue background with fluffy clouds, which was meant to evoke comfort, or a green background with pennies embedded, to get people thinking about price. 

When the subjects moved on to an apparent ecommerce site (which had no priming backgrounds), the images that the subjects had seen earlier seemed to influence what information they sought out and what purchase decision they made. Those primed on a price background chose the cheaper but less comfortable sofa, while those who’d seen the comfort-themed background preferred the more expensive, more comfortable one. 

How you apply this learning will depend on your product category and value proposition, but you’ll want to use visuals to lean into your strengths. For example, a discount retailer can use subtle currency-related imagery to refer to the values to be had on their site, while an upscale mattress seller can employ fluffy clouds to evoke a feeling of comfort and luxury.    

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The two orange circles are the same size, but the blue circles nearby influence how you see the orange circles. 

Choice overload

You’re probably familiar with choice overload — the idea that consumers faced with too many choices can easily get overwhelmed and even be less satisfied with their ultimate selection. Consider the tasks of evaluating health insurance options or choosing a mobile phone (plus, voice and data plans to go with it) as two obvious examples. 

A recent meta-analysis of the research in this area found that certain circumstances contribute to the likelihood of people feeling choice overload, which means you can design your ecommerce site to avoid this phenomenon. 

These circumstances include:

  1. Choice set complexity (How many different pieces of data must a person evaluate when deciding?)
  2. Decision task difficulty (How much pressure is the person under to make a decision quickly?)
  3. Preference uncertainty (How much does a person already know about what they like and dislike in a certain category?)
  4. Decision goal (Is the person seeking information to make a purchase decision right away or just gathering data to use later.) 

The main thing you can control here is the first variable. Specifically, you can structure your site in such a way that lets people narrow down their choices. Faceted navigation, search narrowing/refinement and product comparison features can all help structure the way products are presented and make the choice less burdensome. 


Anchoring refers to the tendency we have to frame ideas based upon the first piece of information we get. If you’re researching the purchase of a couch, for example, and the first price you come across is $4,000, you’ll tend to view every subsequent price through the lens of that first data point. 

In a classic 1987 study, researchers asked a set of business school students, along with a volunteer group of real estate agents, to visit a piece of real estate, peruse various pieces of information about the property (including the listing price), and estimate the likely selling price. The trick was that different subsets of the groups were provided with different listing prices from $119,900 to $149,900. 

In every case, even when real estate experts were involved, the listing prices they were given influenced the expected selling price. They had “anchored” their pricing expectations based upon what they were told about the listing price. 

In ecommerce, pricing is much more transparent than in the real estate market, but you can still give users a frame of reference to judge whether something is “cheap” or “expensive.” A pricing table like the one pictured here has become a standard feature of many software offerings because of the efficacy of this technique. 

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Social proof

While parents may sarcastically ask their teens whether they’d jump off a bridge just because “everyone was doing it,” they might be surprised to find how much social proof — or informational social influence — affects their own purchase decisions. 

You can see how social proof works by looking through a list of local businesses on Facebook. As you do so, you’ll no doubt take note of the number of your “friends” — and who among them — who have “liked” a particular business. The more you see your friends as similar to you, the more likely you are to consider becoming a customer of a business they’ve recommended. 

On your ecommerce site, social proof will likely take the form of product reviews and testimonials. To provide the “like me” factor, some sites append information about a person to their review. For example, Rent The Runway lets site registrants filter reviews by “Women Like Me,” which encompasses things like “size worn,” “age,” “body type,” “bust size,” as well as height, weight, and the occasion for which the rental took place.

In summary 

It won’t make up for substandard products, unrealistic pricing or shipping, and return policies outside of industry standards, but developing your ecommerce site to be in tune with the way people make their purchase decisions will go a long way toward convincing prospects to convert. 

To learn more about ecommerce and marketing, along with business and leadership skills that will move your career forward, consider pursuing an  online MBA at Concordia University, St. Paul. Our online MBA program is designed for busy adult students who want the flexibility of attending class on their schedule. 

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