The Consumer Decision Process
Figure 1, below, outlines the process a consumer goes through in making a purchase decision. Once the process is started, a potential buyer can withdraw at any stage before making the actual purchase. This six-stage process represents the steps people undergo when they make a conscious effort to learn about the options and select a product–the first time they purchase a product, for instance, or when buying high-priced, long-lasting items they don’t purchase frequently. This is called complex decision making.
For many products, the purchasing behavior is routine: you notice a need and you satisfy that need according to your habit of repurchasing the same brand or the cheapest brand or the most convenient alternative, depending on your personal assessment of trade-offs and value. In these situations, you have learned from your past experiences what will best satisfy your need, so you can bypass the second and third stages of the process. This is called simple decision making. However, if something changes appreciably (price, product, availability, services), then you may re-enter the full decision process and consider alternative brands.
The following section discusses each step of the consumer decision-making process.
The first step of the consumer decision process is recognizing that there is a problem–or unmet need–and that this need warrants some action. Whether we act to resolve a particular problem depends upon two factors: (1) the magnitude of the difference between what we have and what we need, and (2) the importance of the problem. A man may desire a new Lexus and own a five-year-old Ford Focus. The discrepancy may be fairly large but relatively unimportant compared to the other problems he faces. Conversely, a woman may own a two-year-old car that is running well, but for various reasons she considers it extremely important to purchase another car this year. Consumers do not move on to the next step until they have confirmed that their specific needs are important enough to act on.
After recognizing a need, the prospective consumer may seek information to help identify and evaluate alternative products, services, experiences, and outlets that will meet that need. Information may come from any number of sources: family and friends, search engines, Yelp reviews, personal observation, Consumer Reports, salespeople, product samples, and so forth. Which sources are most important depends on the individual and the type of purchase he or she is considering.
The information-search process can also identify new needs. As a tire shopper looks for information, she may decide that the tires are not the real problem, but instead she needs a new car. At this point, her newly perceived need may trigger a new information search.
Evaluation of Alternatives
As a consumer finds and processes information about the problem she is trying to solve, she identifies the alternative products, services, and outlets that are viable options. The next step is to evaluate these alternatives and make a choice, assuming a choice is possible that meets the consumer’s financial and psychological requirements. Evaluation criteria vary from consumer to consumer and from purchase to purchase, just as the needs and information sources vary. One consumer may consider price most important while another puts more weight on quality or convenience.
Consider a situation in which you are buying a new vacuum cleaner. During your information search process, you identified five leading models in online reviews, as well as a set of evaluation criteria that are most important to you: 1) price, 2) suction power, 3) warranty, 4) weight, 5) noise level, and 6) ease of using attachments. After visiting Sears and Home Depot to check out all the options in person, you’re torn between two models you short-listed. Finally you make the agonizing choice, and the salesperson heads to the warehouse to get one for you. He returns with bad news: The vacuum cleaner is out of stock, but a new shipment is expected in three days. Strangely relieved, you take that as a sign to go for the other model, which happens to be in stock. Although convenience wasn’t on your original list of selection criteria, you need the vacuum cleaner before the party you’re having the next day. You pick the number-two choice and never look back.
The Purchase Decision
After much searching and evaluating (or perhaps very little), consumers at some point have to decide whether they are going to buy. Anything marketers can do to simplify purchasing will be attractive to buyers. For example, in advertising, marketers might suggest the best size of product for a particular use or the right wine to drink with a particular food. Sometimes several decision situations can be combined and marketed as one package. For example, travel agents often package travel tours, and stores that sell appliances try to sell them with add-on warranties.
All the behavior determinants and the steps of the buying process up to this point take place before or during the time a purchase is made. However, a consumer’s feelings and evaluations after the sale are also significant to a marketer, because they can influence repeat sales and what the customer tells others about the product or brand.
Marketing is all about keeping the customer happy at every stage of the decision-making process, including postpurchase. It is normal for consumers to experience some postpurchase anxiety after any significant or nonroutine purchase. This anxiety reflects a phenomenon called cognitive dissonance. According to this theory, people strive for consistency among their cognitions (knowledge, attitudes, beliefs, and values). When there are inconsistencies, dissonance arises, which people try to eliminate.
Marketers may take specific steps to reduce postpurchase dissonance. One obvious way is to help ensure delivery of a quality solution that will satisfy customers. Another step is to develop advertising and new-customer communications that stress the many positive attributes or confirm the popularity of the product. Providing personal reinforcement has proven effective with big-ticket items such as automobiles and major appliances. Salespeople in these areas may send cards or even make personal calls in order to reassure customers about their purchase.