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Stages of the Consumer Buying Process

A former university media communications professor, Sallie, an independent publisher, also writes romantic fiction novels and short stories.

Learn more about consumer buying behavior, including the stages of the buying process.

Learn more about consumer buying behavior, including the stages of the buying process.

What decision processes and actions do people go through prior to purchasing and using products and/or services? The steps involved in consumer buying behavior are the focus of this article. What do consumers think about before making the purchases they make? What emotional, physiological, and social factors influence consumer purchases?

Why Companies Need to Analyze Consumer Buying Behavior

It is important for those who market products and services to be concerned about the buying behavior of the ultimate consumer. As a marketing communications professional who also worked as a university professor, during times when I taught courses in marketing and advertising principles, I taught that there are three primary reasons why a company needs to analyze consumer buying behavior:

  • To remain alert and tuned in to consumer reactions to a specific marketing strategy and to find out what types of marketing strategies work with which groups of consumers.
  • To be more certain that the marketing mix (product, price, place/distribution, and promotion) is satisfactory. By analyzing the what, where, when, and how of consumer buying behavior, a company can gain assurance that they are doing all that is possible to satisfy their customers' needs and wants.
  • To be better prepared to predict, with greater accuracy, how consumers might respond to future marketing strategies and appeals.

Consumer Buying Behavior: Six Main Stages of the Buying Process

When it comes to making the more "complicated" purchases, there are six primary and distinguishable stages in the consumer decision-making process. Keep in mind, however, that the final decision to make a purchase is only one stage of the process, and that not all decision-making leads to a purchase. In addition, it is important to note that not all consumer purchase decisions will include all six stages.

From pre-purchase to post-purchase behavior, the number of stages consumers go through is usually determined by the degree of complexity of the decision they must make. The more complicated the decision, the more the consumer will be "involved" with the purchase, and the more stages will be utilized in the decision-making process.

  1. Problem Recognition (Becoming Aware of Need/Desire)
  2. The Search for Information
  3. Evaluating Alternatives
  4. The Purchase Decision
  5. The Actual Purchase
  6. Post-Purchase Evaluation (Outcome: Satisfaction or Dissatisfaction)
A shopper.

A shopper.

Stage 1. Problem Recognition (Becoming Aware of Need/Desire)

Consumers must recognize or become aware of a need or a desire to purchase something. There must be a realization that there is a difference between the desired state of being, and the actual condition the consumer is in. This realization, then, is a stimulus that is pointing to a deficit in the current condition, and the deficit represents either a need or desire for change.

For example, it can be either hunger or simply the desire to taste a particular food that often stimulates the need or the desire to eat. Hunger and/or the desire to eat can cause us to pay attention to food products that are being promoted or advertised through the media. Marketers who manage to reach consumers when they're hungry or desiring food are in the perfect position to close the sale by offering to satisfy, deliciously and/or nutritiously, the need/desire for food.

Sometimes consumers are not even aware that they want/need a product or service until they see promotions informing them of their deficiency, or motivating them toward desire. For example, watching a commercial for a certain style, brand, or type of clothing can stimulate recognition that you need (or desire) a particular new item of apparel.

The owner says it took about 6 weeks to pick out this ring. "I think I went to . . . every jewelry store in the greater Boston area, and every jewelry website I could find . . . kept going back . . . and eventually brought it home."

The owner says it took about 6 weeks to pick out this ring. "I think I went to . . . every jewelry store in the greater Boston area, and every jewelry website I could find . . . kept going back . . . and eventually brought it home."

Stage 2. The Search for Information

To solve their deficit problem (to get what they desire/need), consumers might first do an internal search, through memory. If the problem they recognized in Stage One had to do with a recurring problem in their lives, like hunger, then there is a good chance they've solved this problem many times before, and are already aware of acceptable alternative solutions.

Continuing with our hunger/desire to eat example, what if the hunger/desire for food is coupled with a desire to have a new dining experience? When this is the case, it could help to use memory as a foundation for selecting alternative solutions if you've stored in memory places you think you'd like to try, that you have not tried before. But, this is also a time when the consumer might choose to conduct an external search, one outside of memory, to gather more information.

He/she could ask friends and relatives to recommend alternatives (word of mouth). Or the consumer might check marketer-dominated sources; websites that compare local restaurants, Yellow Pages ads, or other restaurant directories, to seek out possible alternatives. A successful information search will result in a list of possible alternatives, or the evoked set (the number of alternatives that are considered) of options.

Stage 3. Evaluating Alternatives

As the consumer prepares to consider or compare alternatives, there is a need to establish evaluation criteria. What features are most important as each alternative is evaluated? Having a set of criteria will help the consumer zero in on which alternatives are more likely to satisfy his/her needs/desires. Also, keeping in mind his/her evaluation criteria (requirements), the consumer is able to rank/weigh alternatives, or even come to the conclusion that the search for acceptable alternatives needs to continue.

Using our search for restaurants as an example, when our consumer is trying to decide upon restaurant alternatives, he/she might decide to be adventurous and consider "fusion" restaurants blending French and Chinese, or Italian and Mexican. Now that we have some evaluative criteria, alternatives featuring the most savory and spicy mixes might get the highest rank.

But, if the searcher is not satisfied with any of the choices found, he/she can return to the search phase in order to locate other possible restaurant alternatives. As alternatives are being evaluated, information from different sources may be treated differently. For this reason, it is very important for marketers to try to influence decision-making by "framing" their offerings as attractively as possible (for example, sales incentives such as a coupon code might only be published in certain promotions).

The decision to buy a totally electric car would likely require a great deal of post-purchase reinforcement, simply because of the "newness" of the alternative.

The decision to buy a totally electric car would likely require a great deal of post-purchase reinforcement, simply because of the "newness" of the alternative.

Stage 4. The Purchase Decision

This is the stage where the consumer chooses a buying alternative. This choice includes the store, the product, the package, the method of purchase, and so on. Providing information that reinforces the purchase decision, such as showing options for payment, ease of parking, hours of operation, and so on, allows marketer to offer further reasons for a choice to be the consumer's ultimate choice.

For example, our restaurant "adventure" seekers, at this stage, might decide to dine at a famous name restaurant featuring French and Chinese "fusion" not simply because it features the desired cuisine, but also because of its proximity, hours of operation, and ease of parking.

Stage 5. The Actual Purchase

Many people combine Stages Four and Five as if they always occur together. But with more complicated purchases, there can be lengthy lapses of time between the two stages. And, Stage Five is a tricky stage, because the actual purchase may differ from the alternative that was chosen in Stage Four when the purchase decision was made. How is that possible? Easily, and for many different reasons. It could be that the alternative preferred was simply not available, that something changed having to do with the consumer's purchasing power, or another option became available that appeared to be more suitable, in some way, than alternatives previously considered.

Using our restaurant example, after heading out, intending to go to the French and Chinese fusion restaurant that was decided upon, our consumer might find it is booked solid, that he/she needed reservations, or just did not like something about the place once they got there. In the end, our consumers might end up going to another fusion restaurant, or choosing another type of restaurant alternative for their "adventure."

Stage 6. Post-Purchase Evaluation (Outcome: Satisfaction or Dissatisfaction)

The purchase has been made, and now something called cognitive dissonance sets in. This is the stage where the consumer worries if he/she made the right decision. In the case of most higher-priced, high-involvement products, the dissonance is reduced by manufacturers providing warranties, trial periods, after-sales communication, and so on.

Using the example of our restaurant "adventure seekers," after eating a meal at the restaurant they ended up at, our adventurers might be pleased with their choice, and will seek and will notice things that make them feel they made the right choice. But, if the service or the food was not up to the standards they expected, then they will be more likely to seek and notice things that will make them feel they made the wrong choice.

Marketers can provide consumers with a way to contact them, such as a 1-800 phone number or a web address, inviting comments. This will give the consumer a way of communicating with the marketer after purchase, thereby reducing dissonance by answering questions or addressing the concerns of a new customer.

Consumer Buying Behavior and "Involvement"

Consumer buying behavior is determined by the level of "involvement" required to make a purchase decision. Involvement hinges on the importance and intensity of interest in a product or service, in a particular situation.

A buyer's level of involvement will help determine why he/she is motivated to seek information about certain products and brands, but will virtually ignore others. A high level of interest in a product/service usually means the consumer will be highly involved and will spend more time when making a purchasing decision. The amount of risk involved in the outcome of the purchasing decision will also influence the amount of time spent in evaluating alternatives, and in making a final purchasing decision.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2013 Sallie Beatrice Middlebrook PhD


kenneth MZ on May 28, 2019:

precise . thanks Sally

Ashok NR on January 23, 2018:

Very well written, Sallie. Thanks.

Sallie Beatrice Middlebrook PhD (author) from Texas, USA on April 27, 2014:

Thank you kkemper1 for the visit and the comment. You're right, buyers are not usually aware of going through the stages that marketing research has identified and documented, thousands and thousands of times. As consumers, we're mainly concerned with getting what we want/need. However, being more aware of the stages we go through in the process of addressing wants/needs, I believe, can help us all make better (in short- and long-term) purchasing decisions.

kkemper1 from az on April 27, 2014:

I did not read the entire thing but the section titles I agree with 100%.

FYI, sometimes, the steps one goes through are done so fast, the buyer

does not even know he has done them! And of course, it may

have been hiding in the article, but perhaps 5% of items

bought are spontaneous; "it looks cute" and it is bought and

stuck in the closet for its entire life.