When Dilip Soman walks into a supermarket, shopping is often the last thing on his mind. A professor of marketing at the University of Toronto’s Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, Prof Soman is likely to be more interested in how other shoppers react to shelf layouts and types of packaging, and how much time they spend at in the check-out. queue.
“I think of the grocery store as a great laboratory,” he says. the 39-year old Prof Soman. “People have choices; they make decisions with real consequences.”
Much of Prof Soman’s research has focused on seemingly irrational and counter-intuitive patterns of consumer behaviour. His study of queues, for instance, suggests that the longer people wait line up at a cash register, a post-office counter or a photocopier, the less likely they are to give up. As the queue lengthens, the frustration of those who have waited longest diminishes. One reason, the 39-year-old Prof Soman suggests, is that they draw comfort from seeing those waiting behind them.
Donald Lichtenstein, a former colleague and marketing professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, describes Prof Soman as “a total superstar” in the three major areas of work at a business school – research, teaching and support roles.
The sentiment is echoed by James Gentry, marketing professor at the University of Nebraska, who says that Prof Soman is not only an “extremely good” researcher, but also “one of the nicest people I’ve met in academe”.
Rotman can thank the inefficiency of the US immigration service for the star professor’s Prof Soman’decision to move to Toronto.
Apart from four years at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, the Indian-born Prof Soman has spent most of his career in the US. He earned a PhD from the University of Chicago in 1997.
He accepted a position at Duke University in North Carolina in 2002, but was forced to cool his heels in Hong Kong while his wife, a paediatric neurologist, waited for her US visa. After 10 months and an offer from the Rotman school, the Somans changed plans and headed for Toronto. (The US authorities had lost the visa application.)
“It was literally one of those love-at-first-sight things,” Prof Soman says of his arrival in Canada in July 2003. Besides enjoying the vibrant cricket community, he finds the academic environment in Canada an appealing compromise between the US and Hong Kong. “Students are here to learn, rather than just to get a degree,” he says.
Prof Soman especially enjoys the multicultural make-up of his classes, which gives students different perspectives on corporate marketing decisions. About 40 per cent of the 265 students graduating from Rotman this year come from 28 countries outside Canada., ranging from Brazil to and Belarus., to Ghana and Guyana.
While studies of consumer behaviour abound, Prof Soman’s research has added a time dimension to price-related decisions.
In one project, Prof Soman and John Gourville, a collaborator at Harvard Business School, found a link between attendance at a YMCA health club and the time elapsed since members paid their dues. Consumers are more likely to consume an item or service that has been pre-paid because they feel the need to balance the pain of payment with the pleasure of consumption. However, Prof Soman’s research at the YMCA showed that as the pain of payment recedes, the urge to consume diminishes. Thus, a member who opts for an annual payment is less likely to work out regularly than one who pays monthly. As a result, the person on the monthly plan is more likely to renew membership at the end of the year.
Similarly, where one payment buys several items or services, the assignment of costs to each unit is less apparent. The pain of payment eases, and the consumer is less likely to use all the goods or services.
According to Profs Soman and Gourville, “Common pricing practices such as advance sales, season tickets and price bundling all serve to mask how much a buyer has spent on a given product, decreasing the likelihood that the buyer will actually use it.”
Observation of human behaviour is the mainspring of Prof Soman’s research. “A lot of folks in business schools have got lost trying to fine-tune the theoretical apparatus, and have lost sight of the big picture”, he says.
A recent project conducted by one of Prof Soman’s PhD students found a link between investment decisions and the presence of outside stimuli.
Participants who could smell popcorn or food were likely to be less patient in their investment choices preferring, for instance, to receive a fixed sum of money immediately, rather than wait a day or two to collect interest as well.
Prof Soman recently briefed managers at Procter & Gamble on how different types of packaging can alter consumption patterns.
According to his research, a single box of 24 biscuits tends to be eaten about three times more quickly than 24 individually wrapped biscuits. If the biscuits are divided into six packets of four each, the rate of consumption is somewhere in between.
Such findings, Prof Soman observes, “have phenomenal implications, both to encourage or to discourage consumption”.