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Illustration of a woman carrying shopping bags on a magnifying glass with data chart behind

What is consumer behaviour?

Consumer behaviour is a field of study that examines people’s buying and spending habits. It explores patterns and trends gleaned from data and other research to answer questions such as:

  • Who makes up an existing or target demographic – what are their characteristics? 
  • What is this demographic looking for – what products and services do they want and need?
  • When does this demographic tend to buy? Is their purchase of a particular product – or group of products – a regular part of their routine, or is it a rare treat or one-off purchase?
  • Where are people shopping? Is it at home online, or in a retail shop?
  • How are people making their purchases? How are they using their products?

Perhaps most importantly, the study of consumer behaviour asks why – why do people buy the things they buy? What motivates them? What influences them? With questions like these, consumer behaviour has strong ties to psychology – but it’s become an increasingly important focus in marketing.

Why is consumer behaviour important?

Understanding consumer behaviour is a powerful tool for marketers. Armed with knowledge about who their customers are – or who their target customers are – how they behave, and why, marketers can enhance their understanding in areas such as:

  • Demographics. Who, exactly, is included in a target audience? What ages and genders are included? What are their likes and dislikes? What is their average income? 
  • Competitors. How do consumers feel about an organisation’s competitors? What do they like or dislike about them? What brands are the most popular? Which products or services are the most in demand?
  • Brand. Do consumers feel a sense of brand loyalty, or strong ties with the business? Does the business have a solid reputation – and does this impact how consumers interact with it?
  • Products and services. Why do consumers choose one product or service over another? 
  • Habits. How much research do consumers conduct before making their purchase? How often do they purchase a particular product? 
  • Influences. What environmental and social factors influence a person’s consumer behaviour? Are they influenced by their culture, or media such as advertising? Do their friends, family members, and other peers have sway over their decisions?

These questions are important because their answers can – and should – directly inform a marketing strategy. By understanding their target demographics, marketers can gauge what the demographic wants – and what it doesn’t want. This understanding can help influence marketing campaigns and marketing messages, but it can also help steer new product development and adjustments to services, as well as inform improvements to the customer journey and user experience.

What are the four types of consumer behaviour?

Habitual buying behaviour

Habitual buying behaviour occurs when a consumer makes a purchase as part of their everyday routine, with very little thought or research going into the decision. For example, someone buying the same brand and type of milk as part of their weekly shop is habitual. Consumers see little difference between brands and the products themselves, so the decision comes down to price, convenience, or brand loyalty.

Marketers targeting habitual buyers typically use repetitive, visual advertisements that build brand familiarity, as well as discounts and price-drop promotions that encourage first-time buyers.

Variety seeking buying behaviour 

Like habitual buying behaviour, variety seeking buying behaviour is characterised by consumers putting very little thought into their purchasing decisions, even though there are significant differences between brands. Consumers do what’s called brand switching – the cost of switching between brands and products is low, so people will switch impulsively, or on a whim.  

Marketers targeting variety seeking buyers will aim to create habitual buyers, typically by ensuring more shelf space in shops and retailers. This tactic includes ensuring plenty of stock is available, running frequent advertising campaigns, offering low, competitive prices, and attracting new customers through deals, coupons, and free samples. 

Complex buying behaviour

Complex buying behaviour occurs when people purchase an expensive product or service, and have lots of options to choose from. This purchase is usually a one-off or rare expense, such as a car purchase, so consumers spend a lot of time weighing their options before making a decision and spending their money. They’re likely to conduct their own research and consult other people as part of this process.

Marketers targeting complex buyers need to have extensive knowledge about their products and services so that their marketing campaigns and assets can provide people with the information they need to fully understand their options.

Dissonance-reducing buying behaviour

Dissonance-reducing buying behaviour is another buying behaviour with high consumer engagement, and it’s also typically associated with important purchases. However, consumers in this scenario struggle to see differences between brands or their products and services, and because of this limited information, they cannot conduct the kind of research or investigation before purchasing that’s common in complex buying scenarios. This can unsettle consumers, many of whom worry that they’ll have cause to regret their choice post-purchase.

Marketers targeting dissonance-reducing buyers typically rely on post-purchase support campaigns. For example, someone buying a new-to-market tech gadget is more likely to rest easy with their purchase if they know they’ll have access to help and support with any issues after they get the product home. This tactic can also create brand loyalty, encourage repeat purchases, and help with customer retention.

What influences consumer behaviour? 

Personal factors

There are a number of personal and demographic factors that influence consumer behaviour. These include:

  • age.
  • gender.
  • profession.
  • income.
  • social class.
  • culture.
  • interests.
  • opinions.
  • education level.

Psychological factors

Psychology and marketing are closely linked, and it’s important to note that because no two people are the same, no two responses to any marketing campaign will be the same. Psychological factors that influence an individual’s consumer behaviour include their:

  • attitude towards a number of topics, from the brand, to the product, to consumerism itself.
  • perceptions about the brand, the product or service, and the consumer’s own needs.
  • cognitive understanding

Social factors

Social influences play a huge role in consumer behaviour. A person’s relationships and connections to other people form an important part of their identity, and can significantly impact their choices when buying everything from a cup of a coffee to a holiday abroad. Social influences can include:

  • close relationships with family members and friends.
  • peer-group relationships, such as those with social acquaintances and colleagues.
  • external parties, such as advertisements and social media.

Tips for conducting consumer behaviour research

When developing marketing strategies and planning marketing efforts, conducting consumer research should come first. This research can be quantitative and qualitative, and can include methods such as:

  • Existing consumer buying behaviour reports. Research typically starts by compiling all of the data already available. Sales reports, web traffic reports on e-commerce sites – through analytics providers such as Google Analytics – and more will already exist within the business. Bringing it all together in one place is a good starting point – marketers can better understand how people are making their purchase decisions, what product life cycles currently look like, and then make predictive assumptions about what steps can be taken to influence consumer behaviour based on the existing trends.
  • Market segmentation. A huge area of market research is market segmentation. It allows marketers to break down their customer base – or target customer base – into more granular segments, each with its own unique characteristics, stimuli, decision processes, and so on. Once these segments are identified, marketers can then tailor their activities for each segment, targeting each group with different products and messages.
  • Focus groups. Bringing together a group of consumers can help marketers dig deeper into everything from how consumers make buying decisions and their existing purchase process, to their personal thoughts about the organisation’s existing customer experience and reputation.

Broaden your business and marketing skillsets

Explore consumer behaviour and consumer psychology in greater depth with the MSc Management with Marketing degree from the University of Lincoln. This flexible programme has been designed for people who want to develop the business and marketing skills that are in highest demand with employers, and because it’s taught 100% online, you can study around your professional and personal commitments.

One of the key modules on this programme is in applied consumer behaviour, so you will have the opportunity to develop a critical perspective of how an understanding of consumer behaviour can be used by marketers to develop and inform marketing practice within a sustainable marketing context.