Postpartum Pain: New Parents Cope With Choice Overload

It’s not only the limitless options but the pressure to make the most culturally-appropriate decision that bedevils new parent-consumers. Can marketers help them?

The essentials

New parents must navigate a “culture of choice overload” in the consumer market that is further complicated by the pressure to make perfect decisions. Tandy Thomas, assistant professor of marketing at Queen’s School of Business, says the decision-making process for new parents is driven by three kinds of issues: “absent discourses” where there are no guidelines to help determine the best choice (example: choosing a car seat); “entrenched discourses” that offer established arguments for or against a particular action; and “evolving discourses” that are constantly in flux (example: cloth diapers versus disposable diapers). By knowing how parents are experiencing choice overload, firms can help improve the consumer experience. Thomas is studying new-parent decision making with Amber Epp of University of Wisconsin Madison’s School of Business.

When Tandy Thomas was preparing to become a first-time parent, she was faced with a multitude of options while making purchasing and medical-related decisions. She wasn't the only one. 

“I was spending a lot of time with new moms and listening to them tell their stories about trying to figure out what to do and what to buy and how to make all these decisions," says Thomas, assistant professor of marketing at Queen's School of Business.

Thomas and colleague Amber Epp of University of Wisconsin Madison’s School of Business are part way through a study on new-parent decision-making in a “culture of choice overload."

According to their preliminary results, choice overload is about more than the vast quantity of product and service options. "It's really about the pressure that's coming from cultural discourses which makes the decisions more complicated but also plays a key role in the decision making process," says Thomas. 

She refers to the three kinds of issues or "discourses" driving the decision-making process as “absent,” “evolving,” and “entrenched.” 

Choosing a car seat is an example of an absent discourse as there are no guidelines to help determine the best choice. On the other hand, entrenched discourses offer established arguments for or against a particular action. Evolving discourses are constantly in flux, such as the decision to use cloth diapers versus disposable diapers or opting for cord blood banking — where the blood found in the umbilical cord is stored for future use. "This is a very new technology and it's a very new industry so there are arguments for it, there are arguments against it, but there is no clear route as to which way to go."

These findings are based on the first two phases of the study made up of interviews with 25 families at six to eight months pregnant and two to three months postpartum. The final part of the study will be a series of interviews when the child is six to eight months old.

Six Decision-Making Strategies

In their study, Thomas and Epp found that cultural discourses are highly important in the decision-making process — they can either help or hinder a decision process, dictate the type of strategy used by parents, and play a role in parents’ satisfaction with their decisions and how they may “correct course” if a decision does not play out as intended.

The research also found new parents' information overload is compounded by social sources, such as friends and family offering opinions, institutional sources such as doctors and midwives, and marketplace sources, such as advertisements and information provided by companies. 

"They're overwhelmed by all the choice but are confounded by this feeling that everything is hugely, hugely important because everything plays into the happiness of their precious child," adds Thomas. 

Thomas and Epp identify six decision-making strategies utilized by parents that take into account the dynamic nature and influence of cultural discourses and other influences: search bias and intuition (which involve gathering information that confirms entrenched views); “elaborate research” (for when the best decision is unclear); “favorite source” (advice from a trusted friend or family member); “flexibility” (in which new parents hedge their bets); and bridging (when parents develop a hybrid solution based on multiple sides of an issue). 

To combat the anxiety from choice overload, Thomas suggests parents try not to be influenced by discourses that do not match their values and to enjoy the experience.

How Marketers Can Help

For marketers working in the area of products and services aimed at new parents, the results are particularly relevant. 

This research can offer a better understanding of why these decisions are so complicated for new parents, says Thomas. "How parents are experiencing this can help firms provide better services, better information to help parents navigate it and make this a better experience for them," says Thomas.

As well, because of the study's longitudinal design, researchers were able to track how decisions unfolded. 

"We see how discourses don't just play out in the first stage of purchase but also throughout the product usage as well," she explains. "That is really interesting information for firms to have because they actually get to see what happens after the purchase and what that means for satisfaction…and what it means for what they can do to help this customer navigate through the marketplace."

Vanessa Santilli

Smith School of Business
Goodes Hall, Queen's University
Kingston, Ontario
Canada K7L 3N6

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