You’re More Likely To Buy Food On A Plane If…

The Washington Post published an interesting piece today entitled “People around you control your mind: The latest evidence.”

This piece is about a study that was done to test how the actions of those around you impact your decisions. And since it’s such a controlled environment, they used buy on board airplane food purchases as the basis for the study:

After analyzing a confidential database of passenger and time-stamped purchase records, a Stanford professor discovered that if someone next to you buys something on the plane, you’re 30 percent more likely to buy something yourself.

By adding up thousands of these little experiments, Gardete, an assistant professor of marketing at Stanford, came up with an estimate. On average, people bought stuff 15 to 16 percent of the time. But if you saw someone next to you order something, your chances of buying something, too, jumped by 30 percent, or about four percentage points.

American-737-Economy-Class

This is a pretty extensive study they did:

In a recent working paper, Pedro Gardete looked at 65,525 transactions across 1,966 flights and more than 257,000 passengers.

And while I was skeptical at first, they did control for a lot of the variables that could traditionally impact peoples’ decisions:

Because he had reservation data, Gardete could exclude people flying together, and he controlled for all kinds of other factors such as seat choice. This is purely the effect of a stranger’s choice — not just that, but a stranger whom you might be resenting because he is sitting next to you, and this is a plane.

Now admittedly the study was done as a parallel to more pressing issues than airplane food sales, like the productivity of people based on who’s around them, etc. But as luck would have it for us, the buy on board food sale example might just be the most interesting thing to take away. 😉

Oh, and I guess now we know why American gives Executive Platinum members complimentary snacks in economy…

(Tip of the hat to HansMast)

Comments

  1. The reason I will buy food if someone sitting next to me is doing the same is because economy class flight attendants seem so bothered by any request. If someone else makes such a request first, I feel less “guilty” about doing the same. Sad state of affairs in steerage.

  2. It’s simple psychology… just like the bystander effect.. if you see someone on the street lying on the ground and no one is helping them, you will just pass by and not doing anything as well. In short, monkey see, monkey do.

  3. We don’t think it’s slightly skewed by the fact a “couple” might buy food next to each other? If I’m with my girlfriend and we want food?

  4. @ jon — Per the article:

    “Because he had reservation data, Gardete could exclude people flying together, and he controlled for all kinds of other factors such as seat choice. This is purely the effect of a stranger’s choice — not just that, but a stranger whom you might be resenting because he is sitting next to you, and this is a plane.”

  5. Ugh. The “bystander effect” is so much more complicated than that.

    @Jon: “As alluded to before, one of the potential biases in estimating social effects in the current
    dataset is the fact that some passengers may travel together even though they are flying in
    separate reservations. Despite our efforts on further analyzing card and purchase data, it
    is likely that some passengers are tagged as solo fliers incorrectly. In this case homophily can lead us to interpret mere correlation in tastes as social influence.”

  6. I wonder if he controlled for people bringing their own food onto the plane, or if it matters.

    Sometimes I buy food from the cart if the people sitting next to me have a giant bag of food from the terminal. I figure it’s already going to be smelly, and noisy as we unwrap everything, so why not.

    And granted I didn’t read the article, but it seems way more complex. Did I have time to eat before the airport? How long is the flight – I’d wait to get home to eat if it’s a quick flight, etc. Maybe the 30% is lower when no one is rushing to the gate, stuck behind people who don’t know why they’re in the TSA line, etc.

  7. Delta typically provides a complimentary drink coupon that prints on the boarding pass (I always print at home or hotel) if the flier is Platinum (actually, I think Gold or higher) and has not been upgraded to first class domestically at the time the boarding pass is printed.

    Of course I hope for an upgrade, but I find the drink coupon to be a decent gesture (Delta doesn’t have to do it). While it is not an extraordinary expense to start with, this study suggests it might help their sales with nearby passengers, which in essence further reduces the cost to the airline for providing the coupons. (I haven’t detected the “neighbor” effect, but it’s a small effect and not likely to be noticed by any single passenger.)

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