Buyer's remorse in ecommerce: Interview with psychologist Graham Jones

by Kristof Maletzke, 15.07.19

Have you ever experienced the sense of regret or guilt after having made a purchase? In psychology, this phenomenon is called buyer’s remorse. Since this feeling may trigger your customers to send back the goods they’ve purchased from you, it can have a direct impact on your revenues. In our interview, web psychologist Graham Jones explains how buyer’s remorse develops and which measures shop owners can take to reduce it.

Mr Jones, could you explain what buyer’s remorse is?

Buyer’s remorse is when someone regrets purchasing something. It is mostly associated with people wishing they had bought something different, or that they wish they hadn’t spent so much money.

Do you know of any statistics how often this happens?

The incidence of buyer’s remorse is high. Around eight in ten people say they regret buying something. However, we tend to have less buyer’s remorse as we get older – probably because we have learned from our mistakes over the years.

What is the psychological background of this phenomenon?

The reason for the buyer’s remorse is something called “cognitive dissonance”. Essentially the brain is expecting one outcome but gets another. So, for instance, someone buys an item of clothing because they like the colour, but when they get it home and try it on, they don’t think it suits them. So their brain is expecting a positive emotional response but gets a negative one – that’s cognitive dissonance. There are other kinds of cognitive dissonance which happen that cause buyer’s remorse. For instance, someone sees something they want to buy and expect it will cost them a certain amount of money based on their previous experiences. But they find out it is priced more expensively. They buy it because they want it but their brain is expecting a higher value from the item because of the extra cost. When that higher value is not perceived, the individual has cognitive dissonance and so they regret making the purchase.

Internet psychologist Graham Jones

Internet psychologist Graham Jones

Which specific thoughts might customers have then?

The thoughts that we have are conscious activities, but the remorse starts with the subconscious. Usually, the buyer’s remorse is an emotional response so we feel as though we have made a mistake due to the cognitive dissonance. Once we feel that, we then start to rationalise it and say to ourselves things like “I knew it was too expensive” or “I wondered if it wouldn’t suit me” and so on.

Are there any kinds of products where buyer’s remorse appears more frequently than with other products?

Studies show that buyer’s remorse is common for high priced items, for clothing and for takeaway food. For high priced items the remorse is due to the fact that we regret spending so much money because the perceived value is lower than we were expecting. For clothing, the remorse is due to the fact that we are less emotionally impressed with the item once we wear it compared with how it looked in the store or online. For takeaway food the remorse is likely to be due to the realisation that it might be unhealthy or we could have cooked it ourselves at a lower cost.

In what way can online merchants prevent that their customers experience buyer’s remorse?

Online merchants certainly can help people reduce buyer’s remorse. Firstly, the more information about a product or service they provide the better. In-depth information can help reduce the risk of purchasing the wrong thing. Many merchants believe they should only provide short, summary information because everyone wants everything fast online. However, when it comes to spending money, the more information a merchant provides, the better. Very long descriptions that have obvious sub-sections with additional headings for each extra element of detail, detailed product pictures, product videos and so on, will all help improve the purchasing decision making. Merchants can also offer chat support to guide people towards making the right purchasing choice, rather like a sales assistant in a real-world store. And what you might call “educational guides” such as documents about the products, usage guides and so on, will all help people gain a better understanding, reducing the chances they will think they are buying the wrong thing. One other and very important factor is to truly understand customers. Online merchants have lots of data about shoppers but that does not get to the information they really need to know, which is how purchasers perceive the value in what they are buying. When a business matches the actual value with the perceived value, cognitive dissonance falls and therefore buyer’s remorse doesn’t happen. But the only way online merchants will understand the perceived value of what they sell is by talking to customers. Online merchants do not have the benefit of real-world stores where they can talk to customers every day. Shop owners need to get closer to their customers, for instance through events and focus groups. These will be particularly helpful in reducing buyer’s remorse.

Summary of tips

  • Write detailed product descriptions. For a better overview, you can create individual sections with headings.
  • In the product descriptions, link documents such as instructions.
  • Offer multiple product photos showing all relevant details.
  • Show your product in videos.
  • Add a page of frequently asked questions to your shop.
  • Support your customers before they buy – by phone, email or chat.
  • Talk to your customers and find out what is important to them.

About Graham Jones

Graham Jones is a web psychologist who focuses on how people behave online – in particular how customers use the internet. As a result, he can help merchants understand their customer’s behaviour so that they can engage with them better and make more money. He helps shop owners do this with consultancy, seminars, workshops, webinars, mastermind groups, masterclasses and through various books he has written. He is an award-winning writer having written 29 books since he started his own business back in 1984. Visit his website

About the author

was Communications Manager at ePages.

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