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Warning: Avoid Comparison Shopping

Do you comparison shop before you buy a new laptop, camera or car? Perhaps you shouldn’t.

When evaluating multiple options, we have three types of attributes:

  • Baseline Attributes
    Attributes that are common between all the items being compared. For instance, all laptops now have wireless and all cameras have a base resolution of at least 5 megapixels.
  • Comparison Attributes
    Attributes that differ between your options that can be easily compared. For instance, the mileage of your car or the resolution on your camera.
  • Unique Attributes
    Attributes that are unique to a given option or subset of options. For instance, which OS you should pick for your phone, or whether your car has a sunroof.

Comparison shopping focuses your attention on the comparison options, minimizing the value you place on baseline and unique attributes.

And yet, the success of your decision lies on how well all the attributes of what you buy match your needs. Focusing too much on attributes that can be compared between options causes us to overvalue these attributes and potentially make a worse decision than if we focused solely on finding an option that matched our needs.

Determine Your Needs First

The solution: determine your needs first.

Identify which attributes are important to you and what your minimum needs are for those attributes. Then filter your options to only those that meet these minimum needs.

At this point, you can either randomly pick one option, start looking at secondary considerations such as cost, or start comparison shopping so you can optimize your comparison attributes in the knowledge that any option you choose will be good enough.

This has the advantage of minimizing the time you spend comparison shopping too, since you can eliminate most of your options up-front and focus on what’s important.

Has comparison shopping ever caused you to buy something more than you needed to? Tell your story below.


  1. Hey Trevor, interesting piece for day-to-day use 🙂 I guess comparison shopping at some point leads to confusion and somehow the real objective gets clouded. When it comes to buying techie gadgets, more often, we already know what we will buy and somehow just for the point of contention, we try to compare and ‘confirm’ our initial decision. I guess the most important thing is not to forget the ‘why’ of buying.

    • Absolutely. If it’s an emotional buy, we do comparison shopping to look for justifications. But if you know what you want from the outset, this just wastes time.

      Even if we don’t know what we want, too often we get caught up in the comparison process and forget the “why”, as you said. We focus too much on the concrete aspects that we can compare and forget about the ephemeral qualities that are hard to quantify.

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