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How your last name affects shopping decisions

Paul Sakuma / AP

Shopping behavior patterns are set early in life, a new study finds.

Linda Carroll writes: Remember back in elementary school where everything from lining up to being called for attendance was done in alphabetical order, based on your last name? It turns out that experience may have had long-lasting effects on the way you shop.

If your last name begins with a letter near the end of the alphabet you’re more likely to have a twitchy finger anxious to hit the buy button, whether for clothes or concert tickets, a new study shows. People with names closer to the beginning of the alphabet tend to have more patience and may even pass up good deals as they weigh their options, researchers reported in the Journal of Consumer Research.

When you have been forced to wait at the end of the line throughout your childhood, you tend to jump at the opportunity to be first when you grow up, said lead author Kurt A. Carlson, assistant professor of marketing at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University.

Carlson and his colleagues reported on several experiments looking into the impact of people’s last names. In one study, e-mails were sent out offering a chance at $500 in exchange for completing a survey. Responses zipped in from people with surnames near the end of the alphabet. Those from people with names from the  beginning trickled in much later.

In another study, researchers sent out an offer for free basketball tickets, noting that supplies were limited. Sure enough, people with names starting late in the alphabet were the first to answer.

To see if the effect truly traced back to childhood, Carlson and his colleagues looked at women who had changed their names upon marriage.

The researchers found no correlation between a woman’s married name and her purchasing behavior. But when they looked instead at maiden names, the link between buying behavior and last name showed up again. 

The study shows how our behaviors can be affected by things we never think about, experts said.

“What’s so interesting is that experiences that are so tiny that we don’t think they mean anything, do actually shape our behavior,” said Kit Yarrow, a consumer psychologist and chair of the psychology department at Golden Gate University in San Francisco. “It’s like the notion that small drops of water can create a groove in a rock. Repetition is clearly the key in establishing some of these behaviors.”

Carlson’s co-author, Jacqueline Conard, recognized the power of the last name even before the two researchers came up with their study. She began life as a Yates and assumed her husband’s surname when she got married. When she got divorced, she got rid of the man but kept the new last name. “Being at the beginning of the alphabet is MUCH better,” said Conard, an assistant professor of marketing at the Massey Graduate School of Business at Belmont University in Nashville.