You can certainly learn a lot about consumer behavior on a cruise ship. When I boarded Royal Caribbean International's M/S Enchantment of the Seas for a four-night getaway to the Bahamas a few weeks ago, I had no idea what I was in for. Sure, there was fun and sun and all that good stuff.
But as a first-time cruiser, I was unprepared for the spectacle of excess and live-for-the-moment thinking that marked our adventure on the high seas.
You think Las Vegas is the epicenter of self-indulgence? Our brief cruise to Nassau and back made Las Vegas look like a Boy Scout Jamboree.
Clearly, eating and drinking are a big part of the cruising culture. No sooner had our cruise gotten under way than the pina coladas and daiquiris started flowing.
A prepaid drinks package assured many cruisers access to unlimited amounts of booze. Younger, or more temperate, cruisers had access to unlimited amounts of sugary soda, thanks to a soda fountain package.
And forget about the food.
In reality, we weren't on a ship at all. It was basically a floating food court, with almost 24/7 access to cookies, cake, ice cream, cheeseburgers, pasta and almost anything else imaginable.
It wasn't at all uncommon to see passengers walking around the dining room with plates stacked high with bacon or pastries. At lunch one day, I watched a guy grab four cheeseburgers and consolidate all the meat and cheese into one bun, creating a monster burger.
“I hope you have life insurance,” I joked.
“Hey, it's all free,” he replied with a smile.
Of course, it wasn't free. Nothing on the M/S Enchantment of the Seas was free — in any sense of the word.
Goods and services purchased on the ship — and I am talking everything from a $25 bottle of shaving cream to a $20 spinning class — only felt free because they were paid for using a “sea pass,” which is a plastic card linked to passengers' credit cards.
It is well-known in the field of behavioral finance that people who use credit cards tend to spend more than people who pay with cash. In fact, the propensity to buy bigger-ticket luxury items and leave more-generous tips at restaurants when using plastic even has a name: the “credit card premium.”
It makes sense, right? Paying for items with hard-earned cash definitely triggers a financial gut check that is absent — or at least numbed — when paying with plastic.
By linking passengers' wallets to a sea pass, the cruise ship industry has done a fantastic job of ramping up consumers' propensity to spend without thinking of the financial consequences. How else to explain peoples' somber — even ashen — faces, on the last day of the cruise when they received itemized bills of their expenses on the ship?
FOLLOW THE HERD
Being on a ship in the middle of the ocean with a couple thousand people from all walks of life also highlights another facet of consumer psychology. That is the propensity we all have for herding, or following the crowd.
Herding helps explain all kinds of investor behavior — everything from the technology bubble in the late 1990s to the sudden popularity of Bitcoins.
Trust me, I know of what I speak.
Before boarding the ship, I promised myself that I would be fairly disciplined about eating. Knowing that it isn't uncommon to gain 10 to 12 pounds on a cruise, I vowed to stick to three meals a day and avoid all desserts.
Well, that promise went out the porthole as soon as I heard about the midnight buffet.
Every time word came down of another meal being served on this deck or that deck, I found myself racing up the stairs to beat my fellow passengers to the buffet line.
So why was I eating when I clearly wasn't hungry? It is simple: because everyone else was.
For better or worse, human beings are hard-wired to follow the crowd. As sociable beings, we want to be accepted, and what better way to do that than following the crowd?
We also are prone to thinking that the crowd must be right — that it knows something we don't.
In my case, it was that the pecan sticky rolls were to die for.