Consumer Behaviour,Marketing
• 6 minute read

When Do We Start Collecting? A Study on the Tipping Point of Collecting Behavior

Gao, Leilei(高蕾蕾)

From Happy Meal toys to Chinese antiques, collection is a popular consumer activity. Why do we collect and when do we start collecting?

By Tao Tao, PhD student, Department of Marketing, CUHK Business School

Many people have a habit of collecting things. Some collectors actively and passionately acquire things from the small-value McDonald’s Happy Meal toys and Snoopy figurines to the high-value paintings of Monet and Chinese antiques. While some have an intrinsic preference for the collectible objects, others may purposely decide to build a collection for a particular reason, such as gaining monetary values. For most of us, however, we may neither have a strong liking for something nor a prior commitment in collection at the beginning. So why are we collecting and when do we reach the tipping point when we decide to start building a collection of certain things?

Prof. Gao Leilei, Associate Professor of Marketing at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School and her coauthors, Prof. Huang Yanliu of Drexel University and Prof. Itamar Simonson of Stanford University, have proposed a ‘tipping point theory’ in regard to our collecting behavior.

In their recent study entitled The Influence of Initial Possession Level on Consumers’ Adoption of a Collection Goal: A Tipping Point Effect, they found that people may not always have an initial intention to collect, the authors found that people may not always have an initial intention to collect. However, if they have accidentally possessed several items which are part of a set, they would spontaneously start a collection on the set of items. Since people need to justify their excessive possessions, they generate the idea that collecting the items would be a good idea. The study further explains that the tipping point for collecting relatively inexpensive items begins with just two items.

Justification for Collection

We all have some experience of collection. At first, we may passively receive one or two Snoopy figurines from buying a McDonald’s Happy Meal. But later, we may find ourselves starting to buy those meal sets in order to get the same set of toys even though we may not really want those meals. But we just keep on doing it until we finally collect all the figurines.

From a rational perspective, people are unlikely to buy additional items of the same type because redundant possessions are wasteful. Therefore, after owing a product that satisfies our utilitarian needs, purchasing the second product of a similar function seems unjustifiable. For example, you may purchase a Starbucks City Mug in New York. And then the next time when you are in another city, Beijing, it would be unlikely for you to buy a second city mug because you would think why need another mug. However, let’s say you already have two city mugs for whatever reasons. What will you think now? The authors propose that possessing two or more objects of a similar function is perceived as a ‘neither here nor there’ situation, which is difficult to justify. In order to remedy this awkward situation, people would elicit a goal of building a collection by acquiring more products from the same series. So now you would perceive those two mugs as a step towards the goal of collecting the Starbucks City Mugs from the countries you will visit. From this point on, having a collection gives you the psychological benefits by making you believe owing more of these mugs is reasonable and meaningful.

Rather than a top-down process, meaning, for example, a person simply decides to start collecting stamps one day, the authors explain many collections actually happens in a more bottom-up process, ad hoc manner, as described above. In other words, people do not initially set a prior goal of collecting a set of objects, but rather have the commitment of collection at a later point after possessing several similar objects.

“The common tipping point happens when people have at least two objects as two is the smallest multiple number that can imply a ‘waste’ and so they have to find a way to justify their possession – by collecting more.” – Prof. Gao Leilei

The Tipping Point Effect

So at which point do people start thinking about building a collection? The authors find that the common tipping point happens when people have at least two objects as two is the smallest multiple number that can imply a ‘waste’ and so they have to find a way to justify their possession – by collecting more.

From seven studies with six of them with participants from Hong Kong and one study with American participants recruited on (an online survey platform hosted by Amazon), the authors tested the tipping point effect.

During the 2010 FIFA World Cup soccer game, the authors conducted a study in which they gave participants either one or two boxes of a collectible series of FIFA mints as a gift for taking part in a study. After that, participants were asked to make a choice between another box of FIFA mint and a pen of equivalent value. They found that participants were more likely to choose the FIFA mint box than the pen only when they possessed two boxes of FIFA mint.

The other Hong Kong studies including objects such as refrigerator magnets, Snoopy figurines, 2014 World Cup collectible pins, home decoration pieces, also replicated the tipping point effect that having two or more objects would lead to a higher likelihood for participants to collect for the same series.

In the study with American participants, some participants were assigned a rare and collective Coke can designed in 2007, which was only sold in a limited time in selected cities. The authors found that unlike other studies, when consumers’ first-owned collectible is rare and valuable, owning one item is enough to stimulate a desire to collect the series. That is, the tipping point for high-value collectible is one instead of two.

Implications for Marketers

In China, collection has a very long history. Chinese people perceive collection as a refined hobby and the Chinese collection market is huge and rapidly growing.

For the companies who sell collectable objects or those who use collectable objects in their consumer-loyalty programs in China or elsewhere, the findings of this research offer practical suggestions of how to increase their impact on consumer loyalty.

First, instead of highlighting on building a collection right from the start, marketers should instead spark interest among consumers in obtaining individual collectibles. As the study suggests, only after consumers already own a few items should the benefits of building a collection be emphasized.

Since offering a single relatively inexpensive item is not enough to generate loyalty, marketers could endow the first few collectibles as free premiums (e.g., give the first two collectible objects for free by making other purchases) or lower the threshold of obtaining the first few collectibles (e.g., lower the requirement of the first few stamps in a loyalty program). Doing so will make it easier for consumers to possess the first few collectable items and commit to collecting the rest of the items and the loyalty program.

The study has implications for other domains of consumer behavior, say the authors. It suggests that a key to motivating customers’ repeated engagement in an area of subject, such as forming hobbies and conducting long-term projects, lies in forging the first few trials which help consumers to identify an emerging pattern.


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