Last-Minute Valentine's Shoppers Spend More

So tomorrow is Valentine's Day, and chances are you still haven't picked up that pot of petunias for your favorite squeeze. Too bad, because now it's so late you're probably going to pay more than you would have a couple of weeks ago.

But you won't fork over those extra bucks to make yourself look great. Instead, you will pay more just to be sure you aren't going to look bad.

That's the gist of a new study out of three universities into how consumers' attitudes change as a deadline approaches. If we buy early, according to the researchers, we're more likely to feel confident and make a good purchase. But if we put it off until the last minute, our confidence wanes and we're more likely to pay a bundle just to be sure we haven't messed everything up.

That may be especially true when it comes to buying a gift for someone else because the wrong gift can backfire.

"People are willing to pay more to avoid making the other person mad, as opposed to paying more to make the person happy [if they wait until the last minute]," said Cassie Mogilner, lead author of the study in the current issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

Mogilner, a social psychologist and marketing researcher at Stanford University, carried out several experiments with Jennifer L. Aaker, University of California, Berkeley, and Ginger L. Pennington of the University of Chicago, to see how attitudes change over time.

Researchers found that as the deadline approaches, a little panic sets in.

The closer it gets, the greater the likelihood that the giver will pay more, "but only when it's a means of avoiding a negative outcome," Mogilner said. "It's not that they are willing to pay more for a fabulous gift right before [Valentine's Day], but they are willing to pay more to avoid a negative situation.

"That's kind of unfortunate because it takes away from the pleasure of giving the gift."

Since males are usually the dolts when it comes to buying a valentine for the wife, or girlfriend, or whatever, they need to put a little more effort into picking the right gift so the lady won't be, as Mogilner put it, "pissed off." And if they wait long enough, they will more likely fork over the extra cash.

Of course, Valentine's Day wasn't the primary focus of the research. The purpose was to help marketers understand how the passage of time, and the approach of a deadline, affects consumers. Hundreds of students participated in experiments at Stanford, and at the University of Chicago, where Pennington, a social psychologist, conducted previous research showing that students' confidence in their performance on an upcoming test decreased as the test approached.

The researchers wanted to know if a similar decline in confidence influenced consumer attitudes. They found that participants who were asked to plan a trip were more likely to respond to "Give yourself a memorable vacation" if the trip was still a long way off, but they reacted more to "Don't get ripped off" if the trip was imminent.

And they were willing to pay an average of $178 more to avoid a bad last-minute trip, and $165 more for a future trip that promised great things. In other words, if you plan ahead, a little zing is worth the price, but if you wait until the last minute, just be sure you haven't booked a loser.

But back to Valentine's Day. In their study, the researchers set the stage like this:

"With time closing in, the unpleasant possibility of waking up tomorrow morning empty-handed would probably weigh heavier on your mind than any grandiose notion of thrilling your sweetheart with the perfect present. With only one day to make the purchase, simply getting a gift that 'isn't bad' is suddenly of paramount concern."

Even if it costs more.

Romantic, eh?

Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.