The consumer buying process is a complex matter as many internal and external factors have an impact on the buying decisions of consumers. Consumers do not spend much time thinking about the purchase of low value products which are bought on impulse. Manufacturers of such products will need to implement strategies that encourage consumers to buy on impulse from them instead of their competitors. When consumers purchase high value products or non-impulse products, they often go through a set process. Research suggests that customers go through a five-stage decision-making process in any purchase. This is summarized in the diagram below:
This model is important for anyone making marketing decisions. It forces the marketer to consider the whole buying process rather than just the purchase decision (when it may be too late for a business to influence the choice!)
The model implies that customers pass through all stages in every purchase. However, in more routine purchases, customers often skip or reverse some of the stages.
For example, a student buying a favorite hamburger would recognize the need (hunger) and go right to the purchase decision, skipping information search and evaluation. However, the model is very useful when it comes to understanding any purchase that requires some thought and deliberation.
1. Need Recognition and Problem Awareness
The buying process starts with need recognition. Without recognition of a need, consumers have no reason to consider a purchase decision. At the first stage in consumer buying behavior, a person begins to recognize a problem or desire. At this stage, the buyer recognizes a problem or need (e.g. I am hungry, we need a new sofa, I have a headache) or responds to a marketing stimulus (e.g. you pass Starbucks and are attracted by the aroma of coffee and chocolate muffins).
Successful marketing often begins with need stimulation, whereby marketers attempt to create or help consumers recognize a need rather than waiting around for consumers to figure out they have one.
2. Information Search
An “aroused” customer then needs to decide how much information (if any) is required. If the need is strong and there is a product or service that meets the need close to hand, then a purchase decision is likely to be made there and then. If not, then the process of information search begins.
A customer can obtain information from several sources:
- Personal sources: family, friends, neighbors, etc…
- Commercial sources: advertising; salespeople; retailers; dealers; packaging; point-of-sale displays
- Public sources: newspapers, radio, television, consumer organizations; specialist magazines
- Experiential sources: handling, examining, using the product
The usefulness and influence of these sources of information will vary by product and by customer. Research suggests that customers value and respect personal sources more than commercial sources (the influence of “word of mouth”). The challenge for the marketing team is to identify which information sources are most influential in their target markets.
Each person uses different criteria and different importance weights for those criteria. Individual buyers can also change criteria for the same purchase in two different buying situations. Information searches include external research as well as internal research through memory recall of past purchases. Ultimately, you try to identify the best value for your money.
3. Evaluation of Alternatives
In the evaluation stage, the customer must choose between the alternative brands, products and services. Need to establish criteria for evaluation, features the buyer wants or does not want. Rank/weight alternatives or resume search. You may decide that you want to eat something spicy, Indian gets highest rank etc.
If not satisfied with your choice then, return to the search phase. Can you think of another restaurant? Look in the yellow pages etc. Information from different sources may be treated differently. Marketers try to influence by “framing” alternatives.
An important determinant of the extent of evaluation is whether the customer feels “involved” in the product. By involvement, we mean the degree of perceived relevance and personal importance that accompanies the choice.
After a comprehensive review of solutions and specific products and services, the consumer makes a purchase decision. At this point in the buying process, supporting information needs to be provided to reinforce the decision to buy.
High-involvement purchases include those involving high expenditure or personal risk – for example buying a house, a car or making investments.
Low involvement purchases (e.g. buying a soft drink, choosing some breakfast cereals in the supermarket) have very simple evaluation processes.
5. Post-purchase evaluation
The final stage is the post-purchase evaluation of the decision. It is common for customers to experience concerns after making a purchase decision. This arises from a concept that is known as “cognitive dissonance”. The customer, having bought a product, may feel that an alternative would have been preferable. In these circumstances that customer will not repurchase immediately, but is likely to switch brands next time.
To manage the post-purchase stage, it is the job of the marketing team to persuade the potential customer that the product will satisfy his or her needs. Then after having made a purchase, the customer should be encouraged that he or she has made the right decision.