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IMPACT OF VERTICAL SEQUENCE ON CONSUMERS' CHOICE BETWEEN HEDONIC AND UTILITARIAN PRODUCTS.

Imagine entering a restaurant and deciding to choose from the options presented on the first page of the menu. In one scenario, a vegetable salad is placed at the top of the page, above French fries; however, in another scenario, the French fries are displayed above and the salad below. Would you make the same choice in these two scenarios?

According to prior researchers, the display sequence of products has an essential influence on consumers' product evaluations, including the product salience, attention paid to product information, and weighing of product attributes (Page & Norris, 1998). Additionally, the presentation sequence has an important impact on consumers' evaluation criteria, which, in turn, affect the choice of certain products (Bruine de Bruin & Keren, 2003; Meyers-Levy & Peracchio, 1995; Sundar & Noseworthy, 2014; van Rompay, de Vries, Bontekoe, & Tanja-Dijkstra, 2012). For example, Sundar and Noseworthy (2014) found that consumers preferred more powerful (less powerful) brands when the brand logo was featured high (low) rather than low (high) on the brand's packaging. Further, past researchers have shown that consumers are more likely to choose hedonic (vs. utilitarian) products when they evaluate products separately (vs. jointly; Bazerman, Tenbrunsel, & Wade-Benzoni, 1998; Okada, 2005). For example, Romero and Biswas (2016) demonstrated that displaying healthy items to the left (vs. right) of unhealthy items increased the preference for the healthy options. Valenzuela, Wongkitrungrueng, and Sen (2014) also illustrated that the shelf height on which a product is placed (i.e., a high or low position) cues a sense of power or lack thereof; thus, high- (vs. low-) power participants have been found to choose indulgent products placed in the low-shelf position more often than they do indulgent products placed in the high-shelf position.

However, previous researchers have not examined the impact of the vertical sequence of products on consumers' choice between hedonic and utilitarian products. Therefore, we investigated whether or not, and how, vertical display patterns of products influence consumers' self-control decisions, focusing in particular on the choice between hedonic and utilitarian options.

Literature Review

Hedonic Versus Utilitarian Consumption

Past researchers have analyzed product categories in terms of their hedonic versus utilitarian properties. By their definitions, "hedonic consumption is typically motivated by the desire for fun, excitement, and sensual pleasure, and often involves products or services that are frivolous or luxurious; in contrast, utilitarian consumption is typically motivated by fundamental needs, and often involves products or services that are practical or necessary" (Chen, Lee, & Yap, 2017, p. 1034). Whereas hedonic products are selected for sensory pleasure and enjoyment, utilitarian products are typically purchased for instrumental purposes (Nenkov & Scott, 2014). Although utilitarian consumption is supported by the social norms that people should focus more on fundamental needs and spend more resources on necessary needs for long-time survival, hedonic consumption is inherently more tempting (Okada, 2005).

In studies conducted in the self-control domain, scholars have shown that many factors influence consumers' choice between hedonic and utilitarian products, for instance, prior behavior (Kivetz & Zheng, 2006) and environmental factors (Biswas, Szocs, Chacko, & Wansink, 2017; Chae & Zhu, 2014; Tong, Zheng, & Zhao, 2013). Among these factors, the influence of product display patterns on consumer choices has received continual research attention. Bazerman et al. (1998) suggested that consumers care more about long-term versus short-term benefits under joint (vs. separate) evaluation/separate presentation conditions and are, thus, more likely to choose virtue (vs. vice); by definition, vice (vs. virtue) gives a consumer more (vs. fewer) immediate benefits and fewer (vs. more) delayed benefits (see also Wertenbroch, 1998). In a similar vein, Okada (2005) observed that displaying hedonic and utilitarian products separately makes it difficult for consumers to compare these two types of products, and allows consumers to more easily justify their hedonic consumption; however, presenting hedonic and utilitarian products together makes the comparison more salient, so that the utilitarian options seem to be a more reasonable choice. Romero and Biswas (2016) found that consumers' natural tendency entails mentally organizing healthy items (lower in calories) to the left of unhealthy items (higher in calories). When mental presentations are congruent with display patterns, ease of processing is superior, so consumers prefer healthy (vs. unhealthy) items when they are displayed on the left (vs. right). However, in daily life, companies have other ways of displaying products, such as vertical patterns. Thus, we examined whether or not, and how, a vertical presentation sequence of hedonic and utilitarian products influences product choice.

Display Patterns and the Choice Between Hedonic and Utilitarian Products

Another line of research that pertains to this study is how sequential order and vertical sequence display patterns influence consumers' product choices. Some researchers have examined the impact of sequential order on product choices; however, two opposite effects have emerged. The first is the primacy effect, whereby people are more likely to form an impression of the first option presented, and to use this option as the standard to evaluate other options; hence, they are more likely to prefer or choose the first option (Dean, 1980). The other is the recency effect: because people are more likely to memorize the last option when many options are presented, the last option is more likely to be chosen (Cameron, Brown-Iannuzzi, & Payne, 2012). Moreover, researchers have shown that customers' previous experiences with a sequence influences current sequential evaluations. Specifically, there is assimilation to the first score within a sequence and contrast with the immediate predecessor, as well as with extremes experienced earlier in the sequence (Ghoshal, Yorkston, Nunes, & Boatwright, 2014). Nevertheless, in past research on sequential ordering, there has been a significant time gap for product presentation between the first and second options. For example, Mantonakis, Rodero, Lesschaeve, and Hastie (2009) used a time gap of 10 seconds between different trials. In contrast, we chose to present product options on the same page to avoid having a significant time gap; therefore, existing theories of sequential order may not apply to our research design.

In more recent work on embodied cognition, researchers have discussed the metaphor of vertical sequencing. For example, for historical and social reasons, people feel more positive about "top" because it is associated with power, and more negative about "down" because it is associated with powerlessness (Meier & Dionne, 2009). Similarly, people with more connections with the top are perceived to be more moral and competitive (Meier, Sellbom, & Wygant, 2007; Sun, Wang, & Li, 2011). In summary, compared to options displayed below, options displayed at the top are more likely to elicit positive associations and feelings. As noted above, hedonic and utilitarian products offer different benefits to the consumer, the former primarily in the form of experiential enjoyment and the latter in terms of practical functionality (Hirschman & Holbrook, 1982). By nature, consumers prefer experiential enjoyment to functional benefits and, thus, have more positive associations with, and feelings about, hedonic (vs. utilitarian) alternatives. For example, when a hedonic option and a utilitarian option are each presented individually for evaluation, consumers give higher ratings to the hedonic alternative (Okada, 2005). Because the top is more positive in nature, most individuals should mentally associate hedonic alternatives with the top presentation sequence.

At the same time, consumers weigh the extent to which the product holds symbolic human values that are congruent with the consumer's own values (Allen, 2002; Allen, Ng, & Wilson, 2002). Therefore, mental presentations of the products that are situated in the context congruent with values of consumers increase the speed of comprehension, which enhances processing fluency (Reber, Winkielman, & Schwarz, 1998). For example, scholars have shown that when mental presentations are congruent (vs. incongruent) with display patterns, consumers process the information more easily (Chae & Hoegg, 2013). Hence, product displays that are congruent (vs. incongruent) with consumers' mental presentation should facilitate processing, leading to a more positive evaluation of, and greater likelihood of choosing, the superior (in this case, hedonic) option. Accordingly, we formed the following hypothesis:

Hypothesis 1: When hedonic and utilitarian products are presented jointly and a hedonic (vs. utilitarian) product is placed at the top of (vs. further down) a display, consumers will be more likely to choose the hedonic (vs. utilitarian) product.

We examined this hypothesis in a pretest and two formal studies. In the pretest, we investigated whether or not the vertical display sequence influences product preference when the products presented belong to the same category. In Study 1, we tested the basic effect of the vertical sequence on the choice between hedonic and utilitarian products. In Study 2, we shed light on the underlying mechanism of the impact of vertical sequencing on the choice between hedonic and utilitarian products.

Pretest

In the pretest, we aimed to establish the basic relationship between vertical display sequencing and product/brand preference.

Method

Participants. We randomly assigned 111 undergraduate students (45% men, [M.sub.age] = 20.21 years, SD = 1.23) from a university in China to a two-cell design: Cake A-top or Cake B-top.

Procedure. Upon arrival, the participants were presented with pictures of two pieces of cake (Cake A and Cake B) and were required to use a 7-point Likert scale to state their preference ratings (1 = do not like it at all, 7 = like it very much).

Materials. In the Cake A-top condition, the picture of Cake A was displayed above the picture of Cake B; in the Cake B-top condition, the picture of Cake B was presented at the top of the page, with Cake A below. After the participants indicated their preference ratings, they were asked to guess the true purpose of the study.

Results and Discussion

None of the participants correctly guessed the true purpose of the study.

Brand preference. As predicted, participants in the Cake A-top (vs. Cake B-top) condition gave significantly higher preference ratings for Cake A, [MCake A-top] = 5.44 vs. [MCake B-top] = 4.96, t(109) = 2.20, p < .05. In contrast, participants in the Cake B-top (vs. Cake A-top) condition had a significantly higher preference for Cake B, [MCake A-top] = 5.04 vs. [MCake B-top] = 5.43, t(109) = 1.87, p < .05.

The pretest results provided initial evidence that when two products are of the same nature, options displayed at the top (vs. below) are more likely to elicit positive associations. In Study 1, we examined the impact of the vertical sequence of products on consumers' choice of hedonic versus utilitarian products.

Study 1

Method

Participants. We randomly assigned 102 undergraduate students (38% men, [M.sub.age] = 20.23 years, SD = 1.28) from a large Chinese university to a three-cell design: hedonic top, utilitarian top, and horizontal.

Procedure. After the participants completed some tasks that were not related to our research (e.g., they wrote about their life during the past week), they were given an ostensibly different task in which they were asked to indicate which of two gifts they wanted to receive after the experiment. They could choose from two alternatives of the same price (a pen vs. a piece of chocolate) that were displayed on one page. After the participants indicated their preference, they were asked to rate how hedonic or utilitarian they perceived the chocolate and pen to be on a 7-point Likert scale (1 = very hedonic, 7 = very utilitarian). At the end of the study they were asked to guess the true purpose of the research.

Materials. In the hedonic-top condition, the picture of the chocolate was displayed above the pen picture; in the utilitarian-top condition, the picture of the pen was presented at the top of the page; in the horizontal condition, the pictures of the chocolate and pen were placed horizontally without any vertical difference.

Results and Discussion

None of the participants correctly guessed the true purpose of the study.

Manipulation check. Participants indeed perceived the chocolate to be significantly more hedonic than the pen, [Mchocolate] = 2.78 vs. [Mpen] = 5.63, t(101) = 15.10, p < .01.

Product preference. Each participant's product choice was coded as 1 (chocolate) or 0 (pen). Using this choice measure as the dependent variable and the vertical sequence as the independent variable, we ran a binary logistic regression. Results revealed that there was a significant main effect of the vertical sequence, Wald(1) = 4.28, p < .05. As we predicted, participants in the hedonic-top condition were significantly more likely to choose the hedonic (vs. utilitarian) product, [M.sup.hedonic-top] = 59% vs. [Mutilitarian-top] = 34%, [chi square](1) = 4.18, p < .05. Compared to the horizontal condition, a significantly higher percentage of participants in the hedonic-top condition chose the hedonic (vs. utilitarian) product, [M.sup.hedonic-top] = 59% vs. [Mutilitarian-top] = 33%, [chi square](1) = 4.38, p < .05. However, there were no significant differences between participants in the utilitarian-top and horizontal conditions, [chi square](1) = 0.01, p > .50. These results provide convergent evidence for Hypothesis 1.

In the next study, we tested the underlying mechanism of the effect of the vertical sequence. According to prior researchers, the way in which a display sequence influences product evaluation and choice can be categorized into four types of mechanisms: biased search from memory, biased search from the environment, biased weighting of information, and distorted information evaluation (Bond, Carlson, Meloy, Russo, & Tanner, 2007). Because the Study 1 participants were familiar with the product alternatives and the choices were simple, they did not need to memorize and process a large amount of information or seek other information. Thus, the explanations of biased search from memory and biased search from the environment may not be relevant in the Study 1 situation. At the same time, as discussed above, by nature, people are motivated to enjoy themselves, so the greater experiential benefits of hedonic products increases their attractiveness when compared to utilitarian products (Okada, 2005). Because options located at the top of (vs. lower down) a display are more likely to elicit positive associations and feelings, a hedonic (vs. utilitarian) product displayed at the top is perceived as congruent with consumers' mental presentation. Therefore, according to processing fluency theory (Reber et al., 1998), in the hedonic-top condition, consumers will link more positive associations to, more easily/fluently process experiential information about, and have a greater likelihood of choosing the hedonic (vs. utilitarian) products. In other words, the vertical sequence changes the information evaluation process, highlighting the experiential benefits of the hedonic product and leading to a preference for hedonic products. However, when a utilitarian (vs. hedonic) product is placed at the top of a display, it contradicts consumers' mental presentation, so the processing of utilitarian benefits is not enhanced, and the positive associations of the top position will no longer exist. Accordingly, we formed the following hypothesis:

Hypothesis 2: When hedonic and utilitarian products are jointly presented and the hedonic (vs. utilitarian) product is displayed at the top, consumers will be more likely to realize the difference in experiential benefits between them, leading to a higher likelihood of choosing the hedonic product.

Study 2

Method

Participants. We recruited 116 participants (42% men, age range = 26-40 years) online and randomly assigned them to either the hedonic-top or utilitarian-top condition.

Procedure. Participants in both conditions were given a reward choice task with a cover story that the researchers were considering using other rewards in addition to money as incentives for future studies. The participants were then asked to choose between two equally priced rewards (a coupon for toothpaste vs. a coupon for chocolate cake). After completing the choice task, the participants answered questions assessing their perception of the experiential and functional benefits of the two products, rating on a 7-point Likert scale to what degree they agreed that "Eating chocolate cake/using toothpaste will make me feel happy" or "Eating chocolate cake/using toothpaste will give me functional benefits." At the end of the study, participants in both conditions were asked to rate how hedonic or utilitarian they perceived the two reward items as being, using a 7-point Likert scale (1 = very hedonic, 7 = very utilitarian).

Materials. Similar to Study 1, in the hedonic-top condition, the picture of the cake was displayed above the toothpaste picture, and in the utilitarian-top condition, the picture of the toothpaste was presented above the cake picture.

Results and Discussion

Manipulation check. Participants indeed perceived the cake to be significantly more hedonic than the toothpaste, [M.sup.cake] = 3.16 vs. [M.sup.toothpaste] = 5.98, t(115) =16.66, p < .01.

Product preference. Each participant's product choice was coded as 1 (cake) or 0 (toothpaste). Using this choice measure as the dependent variable and vertical sequence as the independent variable, we ran a binary logistic regression. Results revealed that there was a significant main effect of the vertical sequence, Wald(1) = 6.20, p < .01. As we predicted, participants in the hedonic-top condition were significantly more likely to choose the hedonic (vs. utilitarian) product, [M.sup.hedonic-top] = 76% vs. [M.sup.utilitarian-top] = 53%, [chi square](1) = 6.38, p < .01.

Mediation via differences in experiential benefits. We calculated the difference in ratings for experiential (vs. functional) benefits between the hedonic and utilitarian products and found that the vertical sequence significantly influenced the rating difference in the experiential benefits evaluation between the hedonic and utilitarian options, [M.sup.hedonic-top] = 2.41 vs. [Mutilitarian-top] = 1.91, t(114) = 2.18, p < .05; however, for the functional benefits, the rating difference between the hedonic and utilitarian options did not vary significantly across the different sequencing conditions, [M.sup.hedonic-top] = 2.55 vs. [Mutilitarian-top] = 2.17, t(114) = 1.03, p > .15.

The mediation analysis results and bootstrapping estimates (based on 5,000 resamples; Zhao, Lynch, & Chen, 2010) indicated that the total effect of the vertical sequence was not significant, Wald(1) = 2.64, p > .10, when the difference in experiential benefits was included in the model. Furthermore, as shown in Figure 1, the indirect effect through the difference in experiential benefits was significant, with a point estimate of -.76 and a 95% confidence interval that excluded zero [-1.24, -0.06]. This pattern of results indicates the presence of a mediating effect as per Zhao et al. (2010). Thus, the results again support Hypothesis 2.

General Discussion

In daily life, consumers encounter various product display patterns that significantly influence their evaluations and, ultimately, choices of products. In the current research, we examined the effects of vertical display positions on the choice between hedonic and utilitarian products. We found that when hedonic and utilitarian products are jointly presented and the hedonic product is displayed at the top (vs. lower down), consumers are more likely to choose the hedonic alternative (Study 1). The hedonic-top, utilitarian-down presentation position is congruent with consumers' mental presentation of these two types of products, which facilitates the processing of the difference in benefits between hedonic and utilitarian products, and especially the experiential benefits; as a result, consumers prefer and choose hedonic alternatives (Study 2).

Our findings have important conceptual implications. First, whereas in past studies on the effect of display formats on consumers' self-control researchers have emphasized separate product evaluations (Bazerman et al., 1998; Okada, 2005) or lateral display patterns (Romero & Biswas, 2016), none have examined the effects of joint display using a vertical sequence on consumers' self-control decisions. We have taken an important step in this direction, extending understanding of the influence of display format on consumers' product choice. Second, although results from past studies on embodied cognition give some insight into the mental presentations of vertical sequencing (Meier & Dionne, 2009), few scholars have investigated how mental presentations play a role in the marketing domain. In particular, we explored whether or not, and how, mental presentations of vertical sequence alter consumers' evaluation of, and final choice between, hedonic and utilitarian products. Third, we shed light on the underlying mechanism of the effect of vertical sequence, deepening understanding of how display sequences influence product evaluation and choice (Bond et al., 2007). Whereas most past researchers have focused on illustrating the influence of vertical sequence on consumers' product evaluation, we found that the vertical sequence affects consumers' choice between hedonic and utilitarian products by changing the information evaluation process through highlighting the experiential benefits of hedonic products.

Our research also has practical implications for companies and consumers. For example, companies using retail product displays and menu designs must usually decide on the optimal positions for products. According to our findings, companies wanting to prompt the sale of hedonic options should list these products above the utilitarian products; conversely, companies wanting to enhance the evaluation and choice of the utilitarian options should avoid presenting these products below hedonic alternatives. In a similar vein, if consumers want to regulate their consumption, they should implement the vertical placement of products in their daily life, for example, placing hedonic food below utilitarian food in their refrigerator to avoid overconsumption of the hedonic food. Further, the government could encourage consumers to form healthier consumption habits by suggesting that companies and consumers place hedonic options below utilitarian choices in displays, providing greater control over product preferences and consumption.

We also note several directions for further research. First, we examined only the choice between one hedonic alternative and one utilitarian alternative; however, consumers may also need to choose from many hedonic and utilitarian options. If the number of options increases, will the effect of vertical sequence hold, be replaced by primacy and recency effects (Mantonakis et al., 2009), or disappear? For example, when the length of time required to make a choice increases because of increased difficulty, will consumers choose options that can be justified more easily (e.g., utilitarian products), so that the vertical influence no longer exists? Furthermore, because the products we used in our research were simple and inexpensive in nature, participants may have been more easily affected by environmental factors; however, when consumers must make important and complex decisions, will the influence of vertical sequence still exist? We hope that future researchers will address these questions.

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LUQIONG TONG AND SONG SU

Beijing Normal University

Luqiong Tong and Song Su, Marketing Department, Business School, Beijing Normal University. This research was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (71302024 and 71572018).

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Song Su, Marketing Department, Business School, Beijing Normal University, No. 19, XinJieKouWai Street, Haidian District, Beijing 100875, People's Republic of China. Email: sus@bnu.edu.cn

https://doi.org/10.2224/sbp.6970
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Author:Tong, Luqiong; Su, Song
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Date:Mar 1, 2018
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