In a study on this phenomenon, researchers at the University of Chester presented participants with pictures of objects and asked them to indicate which object they preferred. Each picture consisted of 5 objects placed horizontally in a line, and each were similar versions of the same item. The results showed that participants preferred the objects that were located in the centre, versus those that were located at the extreme ends.
In a follow-up study in which participants had to choose between an array of real items, i.e. identical white socks that were displayed vertically, the effect still persisted. Therefore they found that the center stage effect worked for images of items that differed minimally from one another, as well as for real items that were identical in nature.
One explanation for this effect proposed by researchers Valenzuela & Raghubir (2009), is that we tend to think that products are more popular when placed in the middle of an array. Across a series of five experiments, they found that consumers often assume that retailers place the most popular product options in the middle of an array, and this contributes to a belief that the product placed in the middle is more popular and well-liked by other consumers. This belief then serves as a social cue and motivates consumers to “follow the herd” and pick this option. A self-fulfilling prophecy, if you will…
It was also found that the Centre-Stage Effect is stronger when consumers are making purchase decisions for others (e.g. buying a gift, or food for a dinner you’re hosting).
Takeaways for Decision-Makers:
- It’s all about the middle, man. The Centre-Stage Effect has strong implications for brands advertising in magazines and newspapers. Magazines such as Vogue often present seasonal collections, in a horizontal array with each advertised product being of a similar design (e.g. clutch bags) but being sold by a different brand. This bias suggests that the bag that is located in the middle of the array may be perceived as being the more popular and commonly-chosen one. It’s therefore essential for your brand to ensure that it’s your bag that is enjoying that middle position.
- New product? Put it in the middle. This insight can also be used by the same brand trying to promote a selected product. For example, if trying to increase sales of a new version of your brand’s washing powder, placing it in the centre of an array of the other varieties of washing soap you offer has the potential to increase sales. However, based on the findings of this study, a marketer must make sure that the other varieties are similar overall, with only one or two distinctions. For example, this may work if you want to sell a newly released lily scent soap as opposed to your previous scents: rose and lavender.
- Think about the Digital ‘Shelf’. This bias also has strong implications for brands that advertise digitally. It suggests that advertisers can charge brands a premium for ensuring that their products take the central position online (Rodway, Schepman & Lambert, 2012). This may be particularly true for sites such as Amazon that display a vast variety of products in both vertical and horizontal arrays.
- The Gift-buyer booster. As the bias is found to be stronger when consumers are shopping for others, identifying exactly when consumers are in this state, and for what items they are likely to be in this state, can help marketers capitalize on this bias. For example, this bias can be used by gift and party shops selling different brands of products.