Nostalgia, a sentimental longing for the past, can put one in a wonderful state of mind. It increases one’s sense of being loved and protected; it can counteract loneliness or enhance self-esteem and induce optimism about the future. Nostalgia as a psychological state has also been used to increase pro-social behaviour, and decrease anti-social acts.

Retailers, recognising its power, have long used nostalgia as a marketing tool. You may remember recent promotions when McDonald’s and Coca-Cola jointly gave away old-style Coca-Cola glass bottles, which became popular as collectors’ items among Singaporeans.

Many restaurants now offer free Wi-fi to make waiting times seem shorter, and self-service options which allow customers to place their orders while queueing create the impression they have already been seated.

It is notable that these are effects driven by the content of nostalgia and leverages on the “feel good” effect that nostalgic memories evoke.

But can the process of reminiscing affect (increase) consumer patience?

Recent studies, engaging a total of 1,227 US and Asian participants, suggest it can.

In one experiment, patrons who had been waiting between ten and 20 minutes to be seated were broken into two groups. One was given a folder containing a questionnaire and a sheet of grey paper with the phrase “Nostalgia – Memories of our good old days”. The other control group received a blank piece of grey paper without the visual stimuli of nostalgia. The group with the nostalgia stimulation perceived that their waiting time was 5.8 minutes shorter than the patrons who had not been exposed to the nostalgia phrase (8.33 minutes).

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In another study, one group was asked to recall an experience they were nostalgic for, the other a neutral experience. Both groups were then asked to choose between a smaller cash reward that was available immediately or a larger reward that was available only a month later. Results showed that those in the group who recalled nostalgic experiences were more willing to take the option of the delayed cash reward (93 per cent) versus the group that had recalled a neutral experience (65 per cent).

In other studies, participants who had been exposed to a nostalgic event (versus those placed in a non-nostalgic control event) rated the waiting time for a webpage to load as being shorter and signalled their increased willingness for an item they had bought online to be delivered via standard shipping rather than expedited shipping.

Studies confirmed that the effects of nostalgia on consumer patience are not a consequence of the emotional or social content of nostalgic experiences, but rather, result from the influence of nostalgia on how this content is processed.

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But why does feeling nostalgic make customers more patient?

One argument is that the slow processing style generated from recalling a cherished event or an experience with a favourite person activates a general disposition to prolong and enjoy the reminiscence, which in turn disposes participants to be more tolerant in prolonging experiences in their current situation.

That is, nostalgia conditions participants to become more patient.

The studies highlight another important finding: both events – the nostalgic stimuli and the current event it affected – were unrelated. That is, the nostalgia that is activated in one domain has the ability to influence consumer behaviour in an unrelated domain. This understanding means retailers have a much wider berth in creating the nostalgia stimuli as they do not necessarily have to create a stimuli within the same domain.

These results have important implications for retailers. From a marketing point of view, waiting time is negatively correlated with customer satisfaction. Yet it is often required, whether a customer is waiting to be seated, or in today’s digital age, waiting for web pages to be downloaded, or for a product to be delivered after an online purchase.

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Retailers can introduce nostalgic stimuli as a strategy to make the consumer more patient and tolerant of a longer waiting time or delayed gratification.

For example, a restaurant with long lines of customers waiting may benefit from playing nostalgic background music.

A telecommunications company that takes a long time to deliver new models of mobile phones may also benefit from using nostalgic themes in its promotion campaign.

Customers put in a nostalgic mood are more likely to prefer large delayed options to small options that are immediately available. Thus, marketers can benefit from using a nostalgic theme if they wish to encourage the purchase of options that are not available at that time. Supermarkets that want to keep customers in the aisles for longer can play nostalgic music or put up decorations that instil nostalgia.

In a nutshell, nostalgia is good for increasing the sense of self, for promoting social connectivity; it can also be very good for business.

Xun (Irene) Huang is an assistant professor of marketing at Nanyang Business School, NTU