CONSUMER
BEHAVIOR

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Lars Perner, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Clinical Marketing
Department of Marketing
Marshall School of Business
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, CA 90089-0443, USA
(213) 740-7127
Cell: (213) 304-1726

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Information Search and Decision Making

Problem Recognition.  One model of consumer decision making involves several steps. The first one is problem recognition—you realize that something is not as it should be.  Perhaps, for example, your car is getting more difficult to start and is not accelerating well.    The second step is information search—what are some alternative ways of solving the problem?  You might buy a new car, buy a used car, take your car in for repair, ride the bus, ride a taxi, or ride a skateboard to work.  The third step involves evaluation of alternatives.  A skateboard is inexpensive, but may be ill-suited for long distances and for rainy days.   Finally, we have the purchase stage, and sometimes a post-purchase stage (e.g., you return a product to the store because you did not find it satisfactory).  In reality, people may go back and forth between the stages.  For example, a person may resume alternative identification during while evaluating already known alternatives.

Consumer involvement will tend to vary dramatically depending on the type of product.  In general, consumer involvement will be higher for products that are very expensive (e.g., a home, a car) or are highly significant in the consumer’s life in some other way (e.g., a word processing program or acne medication).

It is important to consider the consumer’s motivation for buying products.  To achieve this goal, we can use the Means-End chain, wherein we consider a logical progression of consequences of product use that eventually lead to desired end benefit.  Thus, for example, a consumer may see that a car has a large engine, leading to fast acceleration, leading to a feeling of performance, leading to a feeling of power, which ultimately improves the consumer’s self-esteem.  A handgun may aim bullets with precision, which enables the user to kill an intruder, which means that the intruder will not be able to harm the consumer’s family, which achieves the desired end-state of security.  In advertising, it is important to portray the desired end-states.  Focusing on the large motor will do less good than portraying a successful person driving the car.

Information search and decision making.  Consumers engage in both internal and external information search. 

Internal search involves the consumer identifying alternatives from his or her memory.  For certain low involvement products, it is very important that marketing programs achieve “top of mind” awareness.  For example, few people will search the Yellow Pages for fast food restaurants; thus, the consumer must be able to retrieve one’s restaurant from memory before it will be considered.  For high involvement products, consumers are more likely to use an external search.  Before buying a car, for example, the consumer may ask friends’ opinions, read reviews in Consumer Reports, consult several web sites, and visit several dealerships.  Thus, firms that make products that are selected predominantly through external search must invest in having information available to the consumer in need—e.g., through brochures, web sites, or news coverage.

A compensatory decision involves the consumer “trading off” good and bad attributes of a product.  For example, a car may have a low price and good gas mileage but slow acceleration.  If the price is sufficiently inexpensive and gas efficient, the consumer may then select it over a car with better acceleration that costs more and uses more gas.  Occasionally, a decision will involve a non-compensatory strategy.  For example, a parent may reject all soft drinks that contain artificial sweeteners.   Here, other good features such as taste and low calories cannot overcome this one “non-negotiable” attribute.

The amount of effort a consumer puts into searching depends on a number of factors such as the market (how many competitors are there, and how great are differences between brands expected to be?), product characteristics (how important is this product?  How complex is the product?  How obvious are indications of quality?), consumer characteristics (how interested is a consumer, generally, in analyzing product characteristics and making the best possible deal?), and situational characteristics (as previously discussed).

Two interesting issues in decisions are:

A number of factors involve consumer choices.  In some cases, consumers will be more motivated.  For example, one may be more careful choosing a gift for an in-law than when buying the same thing for one self.  Some consumers are also more motivated to comparison shop for the best prices, while others are more convenience oriented.  Personality impacts decisions.  Some like variety more than others, and some are more receptive to stimulation and excitement in trying new stores.  Perception influences decisions.  Some people, for example, can taste the difference between generic and name brand foods while many cannot.  Selective perception occurs when a person is paying attention only to information of interest.  For example, when looking for a new car, the consumer may pay more attention to car ads than when this is not in the horizon.  Some consumers are put off by perceived risk.  Thus, many marketers offer a money back guarantee.  Consumers will tend to change their behavior through learning—e.g., they will avoid restaurants they have found to be crowded and will settle on brands that best meet their tastes.  Consumers differ in the values they hold (e.g., some people are more committed to recycling than others who will not want to go through the hassle).  We will consider the issue of lifestyle under segmentation.

Family Decision Making