Consumer Buying Behavior Tutorial

Possibly the most challenging concept in marketing deals with understanding why buyers do what they do (or don’t do). But such knowledge is critical for marketers since having a strong understanding of buyer behavior will help shed light on what is important to the customer and also suggest the important influences on customer decision-making. Using this information, marketers can create marketing programs that they believe will be of interest to customers.

As you might guess, factors affecting how customers make decisions are extremely complex. Buyer behavior is deeply rooted in psychology with dashes of sociology thrown in just to make things more interesting. Since every person in the world is different, it is impossible to have simple rules that explain how buying decisions are made. But those who have spent many years analyzing customer activity have presented us with useful “guidelines” in how someone decides whether or not to make a purchase.

In fact, pick up any textbook that examines customer behavior and each seems to approach it from a different angle. The perspective we take is to touch on just the basic concepts that appear to be commonly accepted as influencing customer behavior. We will devote two sections of the Principles of Marketing Tutorials to customer behavior. In this section we will examine the buying behavior of consumers (i.e., when people buy for personal reasons) while in the Business Buying Behavior tutorial we will examine factors that influence buyer’s decisions in the business market.

As we discussed in the What is Marketing? tutorial, customers make purchases in order to satisfy needs. Some of these needs are basic and must be filled by everyone on the planet (e.g., food, shelter) while others are not required for basic survival and vary depending on the person. It probably makes more sense to classify needs that are not a necessity as wants or desires. In fact, in many countries where the standard of living is very high, a large portion of the population’s income is spent on wants and desires rather than on basic needs.

In this tutorial when we mention the consumer we are referring to the actual buyer, the person spending the money. But is should also be pointed out that the one who does the buying is not necessarily the user of what is bought and that others may be involved in the buying decision in addition to the actual buyer. While the purchasing process in the consumer market is not as complex as the business market, having multiple people involved in a purchase decision is not unusual. For example, in planning for a family vacation the mother may make the hotel reservations but others in the family may have input on the hotel choice. Similarly, a father may purchase snacks at the grocery store but his young child may be the one who selected it from the store shelf.

So understanding consumer purchase behavior involves not only understanding how decisions are made but also understanding the dynamics that influence purchases.

Perception is how we see ourselves and the world we live in. However, what ends up being stored inside us doesn’t always get there in a direct manner. Often our mental makeup results from information that has been consciously or subconsciously filtered as we experience it, a process we refer to as a perceptual filter. To us this is our reality, though it does not mean it is an accurate reflection on what is real. Thus, perception is the way we filter stimuli (e.g., someone talking to us, reading a newspaper story) and then make sense out of it.

Perception has several steps.

  • Exposure – sensing a stimuli (e.g. seeing an ad)
  • Attention – an effort to recognize the nature of a stimuli (e.g. recognizing it is an ad)
  • Awareness – assigning meaning to a stimuli (e.g., humorous ad for particular product)
  • Retention – adding the meaning to one’s internal makeup (i.e., product has fun ads)

How these steps are eventually carried out depends on a person’s approach to learning. By learning we mean how someone changes what they know, which in turn may affect how they act. There are many theories of learning, a discussion of which is beyond the scope of this tutorial, however, suffice to say that people are likely to learn in different ways. For instance, one person may be able to focus very strongly on a certain advertisement and be able to retain the information after being exposed only one time while another person may need to be exposed to the same advertisement many times before he/she even recognizes what it is. Consumers are also more likely to retain information if a person has a strong interest in the stimuli. If a person is in need of new car they are more likely to pay attention to a new advertisement for a car while someone who does not need a car may need to see the advertisement many times before they recognize the brand of automobile.

Marketing Implications:
Marketers spend large sums of money in an attempt to get customers to have a positive impression of their products. But clearly the existence of a perceptual filter suggests that getting to this stage is not easy. Exposing consumers to a product can be very challenging considering the amount of competing product messages (ads) that are also trying to accomplish the same objective (i.e., advertising clutter). So marketers must be creative and use various means to deliver their message. Once the message reaches consumer it must be interesting enough to capture their attention (e.g., talk about the product’s benefits). But attending to the message is not enough. For marketers the most critical step is the one that occurs with awareness. Here marketers must continually monitor and respond if their message becomes distorted in ways that will negatively shape its meaning. This can often happen due in part to competitive activity (e.g., comparison advertisements). Finally, getting the consumer to give positive meaning to the message they have retained requires the marketer make sure that consumers accurately interpret the facts about the product.

As we discussed the decision-making process for consumers is anything but straight forward. There are many factors that can affect this process as a person works through the purchase decision. The number of potential influences on consumer behavior is limitless. However, marketers are well served to understand the KEY influences. By doing so they may be in a position to tailor their marketing efforts to take advantage of these influences in a way that will satisfy the consumer and the marketer (remember this is a key part of the definition of marketing).


For the purposes of this tutorial we will break these influences down into three main categories: Internal, External and Marketing. However, those interested in learning more about customer buying activity may want to consult one or more consumer behavior books where they will find additional methods for explaining consumer buying behavior.

For the most part the influences are not mutually exclusive. Instead, they are all interconnected and, as we will see, work together to form who we are and how we behave. For each of the influences that are discussed we will provide a basic description and also suggest its implication to marketers. Bear in mind we only provide a few marketing implications for each influence; clearly there are many more.

We start our examination of the influences on consumer purchase decisions by first looking inside ourselves to see which are the most important internal factors that affect how we make choices.

Knowledge is the sum of all information known by a person. It is the facts of the world as he/she knows it and the depth of knowledge is a function of the breadth of worldly experiences and the strength of an individual’s long-term memory. Obviously what exists as knowledge to an individual depends on how an individual’s perceptual filter makes sense of the information it is exposed to.

Marketing Implications:
Marketers may conduct research that will gauge consumers’ level of knowledge regarding their product. As we will see below, it is likely that other factors influencing consumer behavior are in large part shaped by what is known about a product. Thus, developing methods (e.g., incentives) to encourage consumers to accept more information (or correct information) may affect other influencing factors.