A snapshot of the American consumer in 2015 would be incomplete without a smartphone or mobile device, accompanied by the moniker “constantly connected.” According to Mintel flagship report American Lifestyles 2015, a comprehensive look at American consumerism, Americans not only use the internet to stay connected to work, family and friends, but 69 percent seek out advice and opinions on goods and services before purchasing. Of those who seek out advice, shoppers are equally likely to visit user review sites or independent review sites before making a purchase (70 percent), while 57 percent use social media networks for recommendations. In addition to sharing photos and commenting on a status, people are looking for answers – and providing opinions – on everything from where to eat dinner and which auto dealership gives the best service, to how to score a discount at a local retailer. The collective intelligence of online review sites and social media has allowed consumers to get a second opinion and validate their choices. Others are using their networks as a starting point in their buying process for bigger ticket items or in areas for which they lack expertise. For example, 63 percent of technology review seekers use independent review sites and 61 percent of vacation destinations review seekers consult user review sites.
As Americans seek input from others before buying and offer their own opinions to online communities, the buying process is less individualized, and purchases may ultimately reflect collective input from a variety of sources. In this way, the connected collective may have a stronger influence than individual preference. “Americans have what feels like an endless number of choices to make on a daily basis and even the simple act of buying staple household products can be overwhelming to those who have yet to build brand loyalties or those who prefer to try out the latest products,” said Fiona O’Donnell, lifestyles category manager at Mintel. “In a never-ending quest to buy the ‘best,’ consumers are looking to others, peers and strangers alike, to glean from their opinions and experiences in order to validate the choices they’ve made and to avoid feelings of buyer's remorse.”
Americans agree online reviews drive decisions
For many Americans, the internet has become a lifeline. When faced with a difficult question, or product choice, the internet is often the first place many Americans turn to for research and opinions. The majority of respondents (69 percent), including 81 percent of 18-34 year-olds, seek out opinions from others before purchasing. Online user review sites are the most popular resource for opinion-seekers in this age range while seekers aged 35+ are more likely to put their trust in independent review sites. However, social media contact recommendations hold weight for many demographics, including 72 percent of opinion-seekers age 25-34 and nearly half of those age 45-54 (46 percent). Consumers view online review content with some skepticism, however, as only 59 percent trust recommendations if there are a large number of reviews and 57 percent are suspicious of products with only positive reviews.
Although online reviews can be influential, personal recommendations from friends and family still trump reviews from unknown contacts. Over half of respondents (54 percent) agree that they would try a product with negative online reviews, if recommended by someone they know, though consumers remain skeptical of those that look too good to be true. Unsurprisingly, online reviews are the most impactful for consumers age 25-34, likely the most tech-savvy age group. However, overall, data shows that the majority of respondents age 18-54 agree that online reviews help in their decision making process.
Opinion seekers do their homework
Research shows that there appears to be some correlation between agreement that online reviews help in the decision making process and agreement that opinions posted to review pages are from “people like me.” When asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement, 63 percent of consumers age 25-44 agreed that opinions posted to company review pages are from people like them. Consumers are likely more trusting of reviews when they believe that they share similar qualities with the reviewer. Consumers who seek opinions from others before making a purchase (69 percent) appear to be more confident in their spending this year. Opinion seeking is correlated with a higher household income and these consumers are therefore able to consider other factors beyond price in their purchase decision. When compared to the average consumer, opinion seekers - those who visit user review sites, independent review sites, or social media to research a product in advance of purchase - are more likely to agree that they are spending more this year compared to prior years, across all categories. The technology category boasts the largest number of opinion seekers at 43 percent. This is likely due to the rapidly changing nature of the category and expertise required to thoroughly understand the products, driving consumers to do research before making a purchase. The vacation (41 percent) and dining out (33 percent) categories also have high percentages of opinion seekers attributed to the experiential aspects of dining and travel. These categories lend themselves to online reviews because they engage all of the senses, providing a wealth of information to discuss and critique when writing or reading a review.
“Opinion seekers are likely trading up in some product categories as a result of online influence. These consumers may be engaging in research that is persuading them to pay more than they typically would. For beverage categories, in particular, we see opinion seekers about three times more likely than the average to be spending more,” continued O’Donnell. “Our data shows that useful and positive review content is important to drive awareness, interest, and sales – specifically for products that may be higher priced than others in the same category. Consumers are looking for well received, highly-rated products, and some will pay a premium for a product that best suit their needs.”
Who do Americans trust to give them advice?
In terms of getting the most value out of online resources, independent review sites are considered the most useful (34 percent) and the most trustworthy (38 percent) of the sources evaluated. User review sites are perceived to be nearly as useful as independent review sites (33 percent) – but not nearly as trustworthy (24 percent). Interestingly, social media contacts are thought to be more trustworthy (31 percent) than useful (25 percent). “Many review platforms have attempted to combine social networks and user reviews by enabling users to connect with social contacts on the review platform, thus strengthening both the usefulness and trustworthiness of the site as a whole,” said O’Donnell. She went on to say:
“As Mintel Trend Prove It details, consumers are doing their homework before purchasing and have become part skeptic and part sleuth. While the abundance of review sites available has made research easier to conduct, knowing who to trust is a whole other matter. User reviews may be helpful, but consumers could be of the impression that reviewers might have biases, and are therefore putting greater trust in the independent sites. Overall, social media sites do not rank highly for usefulness or trustworthiness, indicating that review sites add a layer of credibility to an unknown contact’s opinions.”