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Dear Santa: Consumers Prefer DIY Products

As consumers increasingly expect to be able to customize the products they buy, giving them creative control over the assembly process makes them value a product more.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

Bottom Line: Consumers value a product more highly when they make it themselves—but only if the assembly procedure is structured in a way that allows them to make creative decisions throughout the process. 

Still looking for that special last-minute holiday gift for your friends or family members? You might want to give them something they can make themselves. A new study suggests that under the right conditions, consumers value a product more when they have customized and assembled it themselves. But this DIY favorability boost arises only when the assembly procedure emphasizes consumers’ autonomous, real-time decision making; when companies present the project as a long list of chores to be completed, consumers become daunted by the effort required and actually place a lower monetary value on the product.

In theory, consumers should want to put their own spin on a product but avoid the time-consuming process of actually making it. And yet, in a variety of contexts, consumers seem happy to open the instruction manual, pull up their sleeves, and get down to work. And they may even pay more for the privilege. Indeed, one recent study that examined this so-called Ikea effect found that people paid for more self-created products than for identical items that came ready-made, because of a psychological desire to show off their competence. (And anyone who’s put together an Ikea table knows some competence is definitely required.)

But as this new study shows, to really get consumers to love a DIY product, companies have to do a little more than just provide an instruction booklet and an Allen wrench. In three different holiday-themed experiments, the authors asked college students to assemble either a winter elf or an Easter bunny from a kit, using adornments such as ears, mittens, and shoes, along with colored decorations. Before and after the task, participants were also asked how much they would pay for the craft kit.

The analysis showed that the more creative effort people put into their elf or bunny, the more they would be willing to pay for the kit—but only when customization and assembly occurred simultaneously. For example, a person could select a style of elf shoe, then immediately cut it out and paste it on before moving to the next step. When creative choices were separated from the construction process, forcing people to plan the entire project before putting it all together, consumers’ outlook became sharply negative and they were willing to pay far less.

The more creative effort people put into a project, the more they are willing to pay for it.

The authors found that the only way to overcome this negativity was to encourage consumers to put themselves into a positive, creative mind-set before beginning the task—for example, by remembering a nostalgic art project or recalling other homespun gifts they had given to family members. Taken together, the authors write, the studies show that product customization and assembly can create value for companies, but the conditions have to be carefully manipulated to gain the approval of DIYers.

And the findings have implications far beyond the crafting industry. The authors encourage marketers and managers in any product category in which consumers have the ability to customize their options (think of coordinating clothing or purchasing electronics) to emphasize creative choices alongside practical considerations. And appealing to treasured memories or personal reflections can help ward off any negative effects of a tedious decision-making or assembly process.

Sectors that are normally associated with supreme effort rather than inspiration could especially benefit, the authors suggest. For example, gyms should allow members to incorporate their own choices into their live training sessions, a subtle way to let consumers creatively “build” their own experience. Indeed, research has shown that marriage counseling, tutoring, and rehabilitation are more successful when the effort people put into the program is augmented by their real-time decisions.

Even the cooking industry could learn something from these findings. At first glance, a cookbook might seem like a strange place for DIY projects. But choices in ingredients, cooking techniques, tools, and plating all give a consumer creative control over the process. Indeed, instruction manuals could be improved immediately if they were formatted to emphasize a consumer’s creative choices throughout the assembly procedure, and not just at the beginning, the authors suggest.

And if companies can appropriately structure consumers’ customized assembly tasks, they “should be able to charge consumers for the opportunity to assemble the customizable product,” the authors write. In other words, it’s a win-win. Companies can create less, charge more, and give consumers the satisfaction of a job well imagined and well done.

Source: A Lot of Work or a Work of Art: How the Structure of a Customized Assembly Task Determines the Utility Derived from Assembly Effort, Eva C. Buechel (University of Miami) and Chris Janiszewski (University of Florida), Journal of Consumer Research, Feb. 2014, vol. 40

Matt Palmquist

Matt Palmquist is a freelance business journalist based in Oakland, Calif.

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