'The Last Name Effect' -- Study Says Your Name Affects Your Buying Habits

When your e-mail inbox lights up with a new message advertising "Get it while supplies last!" how do you respond? Do you delete it, save it for later or jump at the chance to get the deal before it's gone?

Your reaction depends on the first letter of your last name, according to a recent study co-authored by Kurt Carlson, assistant professor of marketing at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business.

"As a scientist it is surprising, but as someone who's collected all the data, I'm convinced," Carlson said of the study's results.

Carlson's study found that children with last names falling late in the alphabet - the Wilsons and Zimmermans of the world - are more likely to grow up into adults who are compelled to buy early.

In one of the four experiments conducted for the study, Carlson sent out an email to 1,200 MBA students advertising free tickets to a college basketball game. In order to get the tickets, students were encouraged to reply as quickly as possible because there was a limited supply.

On average, it took students 22.7 minutes to respond. The average time it took respondents with last names beginning with letters late in the alphabet, R-Z, was slightly more than three minutes faster than the overall average. Students with last names beginning with the first nine letters of the alphabet, A-I, took slightly more than two minutes longer than the overall average to respond.

The reason, Carlson argues, boils down to the long-held practice of teachers lining their students up in alphabetical order. Kids who are often at the end of the line feel like the ones at the beginning get treated advantageously.

"In reaction to this mistreatment," Carlson said, these children develop a "general tendency toward expediency."

This tendency to act with self-interest plays out in the marketplace later on in life.

"There are certain consumer promotions that look a lot like lining up - limited time offers, limited availability, limited supply deals - people near the end of the alphabet find these offers more appealing and are more likely to respond to them," Carlson said.

In comparison, children with last names at the beginning of the alphabet are so accustomed to being first that opportunities to make a purchase early don't matter to them much. According to the study, these adults buy later.

While this information is valuable to marketers, Carlson said it can also help consumers take control of when they buy.

"The first step to empowerment as an adult is to recognize these subtle drivers of our behavior that happen with out our awareness and steal back control over our behavior from the child within us," he said.

Being a first-in-liner child, Carlson has grown into an adult who thinks lines are silly.

Previous research into how names impact academic success found that economists, all else being equal, with last names falling earlier in the alphabet were more likely to gain tenure at a top university. The reasoning for this is economists often publish articles together and authors with surnames falling at the beginning of the alphabet come first in the citation.

The paper discussing the study's results, "The Last Name Effect: How Last Name Influences Acquisition Timing," is published online in the Journal of Consumer Research. The hard copy version will be released in August 2011.