Human Recall is Not Perfect: A Quantified View of Self-Reported vs. Behavioral Data

Marketers have long relied on consumers’ memories to measure and predict shopper behavior through online surveys. Yet, it is no secret that human recall is far from perfect. Think about your own shopping experiences. Can you remember all of the products you looked at or bought when you bought them, and what price you paid?human_recall

An independent market research firm put shopper recall to the test. The key objective was to help determine when we can best apply a standalone survey-driven methodology, and when it’s preferable to leverage observed behavioral data instead. When does recall really start to break down?

The Study

To achieve this, they asked consumers shopping-related questions via survey, while also tracking their digital activity using proprietary technology. They quantified the “recall gap”, defined as the difference between what consumers recalled and their corresponding behavioral data. This enabled them to begin to measure where the largest gaps exist and consider why.

The research methodology entailed surveying approximately 700 consumers. Research participants were asked about their past 30-day shopping for Electronics and Personal Care products on Amazon and

Panelists responded as they would to any traditional online survey. The consumers in the study were validated shoppers in specific categories of interest, eliminating the potential for inaccurate survey-based screening.

The Results

The findings validate that, in most cases, there is a divergence between what consumers recalled doing online and their corresponding behavioral data. However, the accuracy of consumers’ recall varies by the type of shopping behavior being measured. While recall of general online behaviors is better, recall significantly breaks down with specific behaviors.

Consumers accurately recalled shopping for Electronics on Amazon or in the past 30 days – respondents thought they shopped less than their behavioral data demonstrates by 4 percentage points – certainly nothing to be concerned about.

The difference between consumers’ recall and actual behavior for the Personal Care category is 12%. Yes, that’s a larger recall gap than Electronics, but relatively small compared to more specific categories.

For example, within Electronics subcategories, consumers thought they shopped significantly more than their behavior suggests. Respondents over reported their shopping behavior for all three subcategories included in the research, TV/Media Players, Cell Phones/Accessories and Computers/Accessories, by at least 22 percentage points. The same pattern is seen for the three subcategories measured for Personal Care (Hair Care, Skin Care, and Oral Care).

Consumers also had trouble accurately remembering if they shopped on Amazon or Walmart for Electronics and Personal Care products in the last 30 days. However, Amazon fared better than Walmart in this assessment for both categories in terms of respondents’ recall.

A recall gap exists when looking at actual purchase activity and comparing what price consumers paid for products using behavioral vs. survey data. The difference between the price recalled and the actual price was as high as 15 percentage points.

The MaCorr Team;

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