If "New" Doesn’t Mean Improved, Why Do We Still Choose It?

Associate Professor Ye Li publishes paper on how chronological cues influence consumers
By Darin Estep |
Ye Li, Assistant Professor of Management, UCR School of Business
Associate Professor of Management Ye Li

Suppose you had a chance to bid on two identical boxes of chocolates, both with the same expiration date, both stored in the refrigerator. The only difference: One was purchased off the shelf a week ago, the other was purchased today.

If you’re like most people, you would be willing to pay more for the box purchased today. In fact, as Associate Professor of Management Ye Li reports in a recent paper published in the Journal of Retailing, you might be willing to pay 44% more for the “newer” box of chocolates.

In the paper, “Chronological cues and consumers’ preference for mere newness,” Li and his co-author (one of his former students at UCR, Yun Jie, now at the School of Tourism Management in Guangzhou, South China Normal University, Higher Education Mega Center) found ample evidence that consumers are willing to pay a “newness premium” – even when there is no substantial benefit. The findings have implications for retailers and consumers alike.

These were not cases of obvious advantage of newness, such as the freshness of food, or technological advances, or even novelty. In multiple studies that emphasized comparisons of equivalent products, the belief that “newer is better” showed up for otherwise-identical Post-it Notes, books, wireless headphones.

“We actually collected over a hundred studies, although only six made it into the paper,” Li said. “The main effect of people preferring the newer thing is incredibly robust. It shows up significantly every time. And what's more, it's actually really hard to get rid of.”

Lessons for sellers and consumers

One reason retailers might want to get rid of the newness label: Although “new” is one of the most common words used in marketing, it can pose a dilemma.

“Releasing a new product will always make an older product less valuable,” Li said. “If you have a box of something sitting there collecting dust, no one is going to buy it. You do want to advertise things as new, but every time you do that, something else is no longer new.”

In these cases, Li recommends alternative message strategies, such as promoting a “product of the day” – highlighting an item that may not be literally new but worth attention.

Similarly, consumers should be aware of how their preference for “mere newness” influences their decisions, even for products that offer no advantage.

“As a consumer, you really have to actively work against this feeling,” Li said. You really have to try hard to suppress the desire to get the newest thing just because it's new. Ask yourself: Are there actual features that I want?”

This can be a hard habit to break, as noted by an opening quotation in the paper: “Americans have been conditioned to respect newness, whatever it costs them.”

A nearly universal trait

Although the quotation, from John Updike’s 1975 novel, “A Month of Sundays,” specifies American habits, this preference is found in cultures around the world, Li said.

Other examples include people being willing to bet more on a coin toss that was made today over one that tossed yesterday. Or paying more for a lottery ticket that was purchased today over one that was bought a week ago.

“There's just some something powerful about the influence of time,” Li said. “A lot of my research is about the influence of time and its effect on decision making. This set of studies is all about the kind of improper influence of time when time doesn't matter.”