Consumer Behavior 28
Photo by: Mikael Damkier

A consumer is the ultimate user of a product or service. The overall consumer market consists of all buyers of goods and services for personal or family use, more than 270 million people (including children) spending trillions of dollars in the United States as of the late 1990s.

Consumer behavior essentially refers to how and why people make the purchase decisions they do. Marketers strive to understand this behavior so they can better formulate appropriate marketing stimuli that will result in increased sales and brand loyalty. There are a vast number of goods available for purchase, but consumers tend to attribute this volume to the industrial world's massive production capacity. Rather, the giant known as the marketing profession is responsible for the variety of goods on the market. The science of evaluating and influencing consumer behavior is foremost in determining which marketing efforts will be used and when.

To understand consumer behavior, experts examine purchase decision processes, especially any particular triggers that compel consumers to buy a certain product. For example, one study revealed that the average shopper took less than 21 minutes to purchase groceries and covered only 23 percent of the store, giving marketers a very limited amount of time to influence consumers. And 59 percent of all supermarket purchases were unplanned. Marketers spend a great deal of time and money discovering what compels consumers to make such on-the-spot purchases. Market researchers obtain some of the best information through in-store research, and will often launch new products only in select small venues where they expect a reasonable test of the product's success can be executed. In this manner, they can determine whether a product's success is likely before investing excessive company resources to introduce that product nationally or even internationally.


Consumers adjust purchasing behavior based on their individual needs and interpersonal factors. In order to understand these influences, researchers try to ascertain what happens inside consumers' minds and to identify physical and social exterior influences on purchase decisions.

On some levels, consumer choice can appear to be quite random. However, each decision that is made has some meaning behind it, even if that choice does not always appear to be rational. Purchase decisions depend on personal emotions, social situations, goals, and values.

People buy to satisfy all types of needs, not just for utilitarian purposes. These needs, as identified by Abraham Maslow in the early 1940s, may be physical or biological, for safety and security, for love and affiliation, to obtain prestige and esteem, or for self-fulfillment. For example, connecting products with love or belonging has been a success for several wildly popular campaigns such as "Reach Out and Touch Someone," "Fly the Friendly Skies," and "Gentlemen Prefer Hanes." This type of focus might link products either to the attainment of love and belonging, or by linking those products with people similar to those with whom people would like to associate.

Prestige is another intangible need, and those concerned with status will pay for it. However, goods appealing to this type of need must be viewed as high-profile products that others will see in use. One benefit of targeting this type of market is that the demand curve for luxury products is typically the reverse of the standard; high-status products sell better with higher prices.

Some equate the type of need to be met with certain classes of goods. For instance, a need for achievement might drive people to perform difficult tasks, to exercise skills and talents, and to invest in products such as tools, do-it-yourself materials, and self-improvement programs, among others. The need to nurture or for nurturing leads consumers to buy products associated with things such as parenthood, cooking, pets, houseplants, and charitable service appeals.

Personality traits and characteristics are also important to establish how consumers meet their needs. Pragmatists will buy what is practical or useful, and they make purchases based more on quality and durability than on physical beauty. The aesthetically inclined consumer, on the other hand, is drawn to objects that project symmetry, harmony, and beauty. Intellectuals are more interested in obtaining knowledge and truth and tend to be more critical. They also like to compare and contrast similar products before making the decision to buy. Politically motivated people seek out products and services that will give them an "edge," enhancing power and social position. And people who are more social can best be motivated by appealing to their fondness for humanity with advertising that suggests empathy, kindness, and nurturing behavior. One successful way an insurance company targeted this market was through its "You're in good hands with Allstate" campaign.

Consumers also vary in how they determine whose needs they want to satisfy when purchasing products and services. Are they more concerned with meeting their own needs and buying what they want to, for their own happiness? Or do they rely on the opinions of others to determine what products and services they should be using? This determines, for example, whether or not they will make a purchase just because it's the newest, most popular item available or because it is truly what they need and/or want.

This also influences the way marketers will advertise products. For example, a wine distributor trying to appeal to people looking to satisfy their personal taste will emphasize its superior vintage and fine bouquet; that same distributor, marketing to those who want to please others, will emphasize how sharing the wine can improve gatherings with friends and family.

Cultural and social values also play large roles in determining what products will be successful in a given market. If great value is placed on characteristics such as activity, hard work, and materialism, then companies who suggest their products represent those values are more likely to be successful. Social values are equally important. If a manufacturer suggests their product will make the consumer appear more romantic or competitive in a place where those values are highly regarded, it is more likely consumers will respond.


While all of this information might be helpful to marketers, it is equally important to understand what compels the consumer to actually make a purchase, as opposed to just generating interest. For example, some consumers respond based on how they are feeling, or more emotionally, while some are focused on making the wisest economic decision. Knowing the different elements that stimulate consumer purchase activity can help marketers design appropriate sales techniques and responses.

A study conducted by Susan Powell Mantel focused on analyzing the roles of "attribute-based processing" and "attitude-based processing" when analyzing consumer preference. According to the study, product attributes (qualities such as price, size, nutritional value, durability, etc.) are often compared disproportionately, i.e., one is the more focal subject of comparison, thus eliciting more consideration when the consumer decides which brand is the "best." The order of brand presentation in these cases is particularly important.

Adding to the complexity of the issue is the fact that purchase decisions are not always made on the basis of an "attribute-by-attribute" comparison (attribute-based processing). Consumers also make decisions based on an overall evaluation of their impressions, intuition, and knowledge based on past experience, or attitude-based processing. Learned attitudes also influence these decisions. For example, parents who drank Kool-Aid as children often buy it for their kids, either because they associate it with fond memories or just because of brand familiarity or loyalty.

There is time and effort associated with each of these strategies, though attribute-based processing requires significantly more effort on the consumer's part. To dedicate the time required for an attribute-by-attribute comparison, consumers need the combination of motivation and the time or opportunity to use such a strategy.

Other contributing factors were discussed in Mantel's study, such as personality differences and each individual's "need for cognition." Need for cognition reflects to what extent individuals "engage in and enjoy thinking." People with a high need for cognition tend to evaluate more and make more optimal in-store purchase decisions. This is in part because they do not react to displays and in-store promotions unless significant price reductions are offered. Low-need cognition people react easily when a product is put on promotion regardless of the discount offered.

Consumers are also affected by their perceived roles, which are acquired through social processes. These roles create individuals' needs for things that will enable them to perform those roles, improve their performance in those roles, facilitate reaching their goals, or symbolize a role/relationship, much in the way a woman's engagement ring symbolizes her taking on the role of a wife.

Other factors that influence purchase decisions include the importance attributed to the decision. People are not likely to take as much time doing brand comparisons of mouthwash as they are a new car. The importance of the purchase, as well as the risk involved, adds to how much time and effort will be spent evaluating the merits of each product or service under consideration. In cases of importance such as the purchase of a car or home appliance, consumers are more likely to use rational, attribute-based comparisons, in order to make the most informed decision possible.

In some cases, consumers make very little effort to evaluate product choices. "Habitual evaluation" refers to a state in which the consumer disregards marketing materials placed in a store, whether because of brand loyalty, lack of time, or some other reason. Indeed, evaluating all relevant marketing information can become time consuming if it is done every time a person shops.

On the opposite side of the coin, "extensive evaluation" is the state in which consumers consider the prices and promotions of all brands before making a choice. There are also in-between states of evaluation, depending again on the importance of the purchase and the time available to make a decision (some consumers, usually those who earn higher incomes, value their time more than the cost savings they would incur). Decisions on whether to compare various products at any given time may be a factor of the anticipated economic returns, search costs or time constraints, and individual household purchasing patterns.

When it comes time to actually make purchases, however, one person in the family often acts as an "information filter" for the family, depending on what type of purchase is being made and that person's expertise and interest. The information filter passes along information he or she considers most relevant when making a purchase decision, filtering out what is considered unimportant and regulating the flow of information. For example, men are more often the family members who evaluate which tools to purchase, while children pass along what they consider to be seminal information about toys. At times, family members may take on additional roles such as an "influencer," contributing to the overall evaluation of goods being considered for purchase. Or one person may act as the "decider," or the final decision-maker. Ultimately, purchase decisions are not made until consumers feel they know enough about the product, they feel good about what they're buying, and they want it enough to act on the decision.


When market researchers begin evaluating the behavior of consumers, it is a mistake to rely on conventional wisdom, especially when it is possible to study the actual activity in which consumers are engaged when using a product or service. Where are they when they buy certain items? When do they use it? Who is with them when they make the purchase? Why do they buy under certain circumstances and not others? Researchers need to determine the major needs being satisfied by that good or service in order to effectively sell it.

There are two principal ways to evaluate the motivation behind consumer purchases. These are by direction (what they want) and intensity (how much they want it). Direction refers to what the customer wants from a product. For example, if a customer is selecting pain reliever, they may like the idea is one pain reliever is cheaper than another, but what they really want is fast pain relief, and will probably pay more if they think the more expensive brand can do that more effectively. Marketers need to understand the principal motivation behind each type of product to correctly target potential customers.

The other way to evaluate consumer behavior, intensity, refers to whether a customer's interest in a product is compelling enough that they will go out and make the purchase. Good marketing can create that kind of intensity. A successful example of such a campaign was Burger King's "Aren't You Hungry?" campaign, which aired on late-night television and was compelling enough for people to leave their homes late at night to go out and buy hamburgers. Understanding consumer motivation is the best way to learn how to increase buyer incentive, as well as a better alternative to the easy incentive-decreasing the price.

While it is easy to speculate on all these elements of consumer motivation, it is much harder to actively research motivating factors for any given product. It is rare that a consumer's reasons for buying a product or service can be accurately determined through direct questioning. Researchers have had to develop other ways to get real responses. These include asking consumers "How do you think a friend of yours would react to this marketing material?" While consumers do not like to admit that marketing affects them at all, they are often willing to speculate on how it would affect someone else. And most often they answer with what would be their own responses.

Another tactic that has proven successful is to ask consumers "What kind of person would use this type of product?" By asking this question, market researchers can determine what the consumer believes buying the product would say about them, as well as whether or not they would want to be seen as that type of person.


One of the best ways to influence consumer behavior is to give buyers an acceptable motive. This is somewhat related to the idea of asking what type of person would buy a certain product in evaluating consumer behavior. Consumers want to feel they're doing something good, being a good person, eating healthy, making contacts, keeping up appearances, or that they just deserve to be spoiled a little bit. If marketers can convince consumers that they need a product or service for some "legitimate" reason, customers will be more likely to make a purchase.

In addition, sensory stimuli are important to marketing. When food packages are appealing or associated with other positive qualities, people often find that they "taste" better. For example, people often "taste" with their eyes, discerning differences in products where they do not see any difference during a blind taste test. One of the best examples of this was a test of loyal Coca-Cola customers who were totally unwilling to concede that any other soda was its equal. While able to see what they were drinking, they maintained this position. But during blind testing, some were unable to tell the difference between Coke and root beer.

Finally, another alternative for influencing customer behavior is by offering specialized goods. While commonality was once popular, more and more people are seeking diversity in taste, personal preferences, and lifestyle. Some successful campaigns touting the way their products stand out from the crowd include Dodge's "The Rules Have Changed" and Arby's "This is different. Different is good."

In fact, marketers are quite successful at targeting "rebels" and the "counterculture," as it is referred to in Commodify Your Dissent. As Thomas Frank writes, "Consumerism is no longer about 'conformity' but about difference. It counsels not rigid adherence to the taste of the herd but vigilant and constantly updated individualism. We consume not to fit in, but to prove, on the surface at least, that we are rock 'n' roll rebels, each one of use as rule-breaking and hierarchy-defying as our heroes of the 60s, who now pitch cars, shoes, and beer. This imperative of endless difference is today the genius at the heart of American capitalism, an eternal fleeing from 'sameness' that satiates our thirst for the New with such achievements of civilization as the infinite brands of identical cola, the myriad colors and irrepressible variety of the cigarette rack at 7-Eleven."

Wendy. H. Mason

Revised by Deborah Hausler


Frank, Thomas. "Why Johnny Can't Dissent." In Commodify Your Dissent: Salvos from The Baffler. edited by Thomas Frank and Matt Weiland. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1997.

Hawkins, Delbert, Best, Roger, Coney, Kenneth. Consumer Behavior: Building Marketing Strategy. New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin 9th Edition, March 2003.

Lack, Jennifer. "Meet You in Aisle Three." American Demographics, April 1999.

Mantel, Susan Powell, and Frank R. Kardes. "The Role of Direction of Comparison, Attribute-Based Processing, and Attitude-Based Processing in Consumer Preference." Journal of Consumer Research, March 1999.

Murthi, B.P.S., and Kannan Srinivasan. "Consumers' Extent of Evaluation in Brand Choice." Journal of Business, April 1999.

Solomon, Michael R. Consumer Behavior. New York: Prentice Hall 6th Edition, September 2003.

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