How customer reviews have shaped buying habits over time

Vocal Video compiled a list of eight ways that customer reviews have shaped how people shop for products online and how they help consumers make decisions about what to buy.

Shopping habits have changed dramatically over the last several decades.

In the '80s and '90s, shopping malls and big-box retailers reigned supreme. Outside of catalog and mail-order shopping options, consumers had little choice but to venture out to stores to complete their purchases—and it wasn’t unusual for teenagers, couples, and families to spend their weekends browsing the chain stores at the local mall. Without competition from online retailers, brick-and-mortar shops were able to readily (and repeatedly) attract the coveted foot traffic they needed to turn a profit.

That is hardly the case these days. Widespread, affordable access to the internet has had a massive impact on how—and where—people shop. There are now countless shopping options at everyone’s fingertips, whether they’re looking for groceries, a new pair of jeans, or the latest beauty products. All it takes is a tap of a smartphone or the click of a keyboard to complete a purchase, no in-person shopping trip required.

The widespread availability of the web hasn’t just impacted how customers shop. It’s also had an impact on what they shop for and how they determine what products to buy. That’s because customer reviews are now readily accessible to shoppers on a wide range of websites and platforms and have become essential elements of completing online purchases.

But how, exactly, are these customer reviews impacting shopping decisions and why? To find out, Vocal Video compiled a list of eight ways that customer reviews have shaped how people shop for products online and how they help consumers make decisions about what to buy, using data from consumer surveys and e-commerce news releases.

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Customer reviews are the third-most popular way products are discovered

Finding the best new products can be tough, but all it takes is the right hashtag or keyword on a social media site to be inundated with information on the products that other people are using. Take, for example, the massive popularity that beauty influencers have on TikTok. These influencers, who post their opinions on makeup or skin care products, have introduced millions of followers to new products and, in turn, steered their followers’ opinions on buying them.

User reviews on other social media sites such as YouTube have been just as successful at driving the discovery of new products, whether the niche is makeup, home goods, tools, or something else entirely. As such, one post can make or break the popularity of a new product and, in turn, can have a big impact on which new products shoppers choose to spend their money on.

Two men are drinking coffee while browsing the internet on their laptop.

More than 99% of consumers read product reviews while shopping online

Real customer feedback can be a gold mine of information, which is why the feedback posts from verified buyers on e-commerce sites matter so much. Nearly 100% of buyers will dig into product reviews to get the bigger picture about an item before completing a purchase. By reading the product reviews, buyers can find out whether other people have had issues with the product, or learn what they think are the upsides and potential drawbacks of the product. The reason product reviews can be so heavily relied on is because other buyers have no stake in the game—unlike the brands themselves. The people who write product reviews aren’t profiting off the sale of the product, which means that their reviews are seen as unbiased, genuine, and—most importantly—trustworthy.

A woman is sitting on the couch with two boxes in her lap while taking a photo of her new headphones with her cell phone.

User-generated videos and photos are five times more likely to convert customers

Scrolling through image-heavy social media sites like Instagram can lead to impulse purchases, and it’s not the shiny advertisements that do it. What tends to drive shoppers from mindless browsing to actively shopping are the user-generated videos or photos of regular people using a brand’s products or wearing a brand’s clothing while doing everyday things, like traveling or working out. That’s because these types of posts put the focus on the person, not the product—and it feels more authentic than other types of brand campaigns.

Most people feel they can connect to regular people on social media—a lot more than they can connect to a model on a glossy magazine page, anyway—and they tend to seem more trustworthy, too. But user-generated content is not just a more genuine way for brands to pedal merchandise; it’s also extremely effective and can lead to significantly more purchases.

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Reviews are more powerful than price points

Before there was easy access to customer reviews via the internet, a product’s price point often had a significant bearing on sales. Without unbiased user feedback to help form their opinions, many shoppers chose the cheapest option—even if it ended up being subpar to the alternatives. That is no longer the case, however, because price tags have taken a back seat to customer reviews.

These days, what other people think of a product or item is often more important than finding the item with the cheapest price, in large part because the value of a product can be weighed based on that unbiased user feedback. If a product has excellent feedback but a higher price tag, it’s more likely to be chosen over a cheaper product with poor feedback because the higher cost of the better item can be justified.

A woman is online shopping at her desk.

Consumers care more about reviews than free shipping

Customer reviews aren’t just more important than the cost of an item, either. They’re also more important than other perks, such as free shipping—which will no longer justify the purchase of a subpar item. Companies once relied on free shipping to entice buyers to purchase items from their sites; with price no longer being the main driver of buying decisions, it makes sense that free shipping would now matter less, too.

An example of what reviews typically look like on a cell phone.

Instead of saving a few extra bucks on shipping, it’s better to know that a product is going to do what it claims and that it’s worth the money spent on it. If the user reviews are negative or point out problems with the merchandise, adding in free shipping isn’t enough to overcome distrust of the product. And it’s not just negative reviews that are problematic: If the website doesn’t offer any access to user reviews, most shoppers will steer clear of the website entirely, even if they have to pay for shipping when using another site for their purchases.

The Yelp website is displayed up on a laptop screen.

Reviews carry more weight than recommendations

Whether looking for a new vacuum or a new TV, a product recommendation from a friend or family member will no longer cut it for most people.

Having access to websites with user reviews now carries more weight than recommendations from trusted friends. Shoppers want to know how a wider pool of buyers feels about the product—not just the opinion of a best friend or great aunt. Having more opinions available provides the needed trust and knowledge that a product is worth purchasing—and a website with a handful of reviews won’t do the trick. Nearly 70% of shoppers think that the ideal scenario is for a product to have 26 or more reviews—and the more recent the reviews are, the more trust in them, too.

A woman is sitting at a desk frustrated with her shopping results.

Consumers can be suspicious of all five-star reviews

User reviews clearly have a big impact on the products chosen to buy or steer clear of, but positive reviews can actually be a double-edged sword. About 46% of shoppers are suspicious when a product has an average star rating of five out of five—and that percentage is even higher among Generation Z, which is arguably one of the most digitally savvy generations.

When a product only has perfect reviews, it can be viewed as untrustworthy for appearing fake. No shopper wants to be duped by sellers, so if a product has user reviews that are both good and not-so-good, the process usually can be better trusted. In fact, 96% of consumers specifically look for negative user reviews—at least sometimes—and over half go so far as to seek out the one-star reviews in the mix. So, while companies may prefer to see only five-star product reviews, a few not-so-great reviews here or there can help bolster trust in the review process.

A woman holds a cell phone with 2 out of 5 stars appearing on the right-hand side.

Angry reviews are also highly influential for shoppers

Reliance on customer reviews has led to looking for juicy details regarding other people’s bad experiences on shopping platforms or products. What that means is that angry reviews can also steer shopping habits, leading consumers to be more hesitant to complete a transaction—even if they don’t perceive the review as being particularly helpful overall.

But it’s not just the angry reviews that drive shopping habits—it’s also the way that the company or seller responds to it. If it’s seen that the seller has reached out to the customer to address the issue in an adequate manner, less trust is lost. If the angry reviews aren’t addressed by the seller, shoppers may be wary of making a purchase because it could lead to a situation where they experience similar frustration or anger.

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