Examining Buyer Behaviour in the Online World

Psychological aspects of buyer behaviour are well researched for bricks-and-mortar stores; but what can we pull from this and apply to the digital age of bricks-and-clicks online shopping?

As we know, making a purchase is a decision informed by both the conscious and subconscious. Both of these can be influenced and directed by natural factors (i.e. impulse, desire) and man-made factors (i.e. marketing). This has been studied and documented for years within the traditional bricks-and-mortar store; but what can we pull from this research and apply to the modern bricks-and-clicks store?

The Psychology of Buyer Behaviour
Literature in relation to the notion of buyer behaviour almost always delved into the psychological workings of a consumers mind. As such the literature examined facets of social psychology to grasp and explain buyer behaviour. Yet the overriding feeling from reviewing this literature is that it is a subject too vast to ever fully detail. Some of the readings used the word ‘splintered’ in a metaphorical manner to illustrate this; saying in effect that the human mind is a tree of inter-connecting and far-reaching branches and so far psychologists and marketers have only fully analysed splintered pieces of its thinking.  

What the literature has analysed however, is that the unconscious aspect of a consumers mind plays a key role in buyer behaviour. Statt (1997) describes himself first and foremost as a psychologist and his work is described as integrating marketing with psychology. He views consumer behaviour by providing the following definition “the mental, emotional and physical activities that people engage in when selecting, purchasing, using, and disposing of products and services so as to satisfy needs and desires” – Statt (1997). Suggesting that the unconscious aspects of mental activity play a large role in shaping and directing our conscious experience has evidence to support itself all around us. The average consumer has almost become desensitised to advertising as they have become so used to the over-saturation of their cognitive conscious perception.

Analysing this within eCommerce we can look to Google Analytics. From the reading of Analytics, we can see what way people entered your website/online shop. While you will find that X amount came as a result of your recent newsletter and X amount came from social media streams; you will almost always find a variable of X amount who are a direct hit to your website straight from the address bar. Even the powerful Google Analytics can’t deduct as to why people entered your website in this way. It is clear that something influenced them to do this, but whether it was subconscious or conscious, natural or man-made factors we are not able to tell.

The Human Touch
Much of the literature identified that there is a need to place more of a human and emotive emphasis when applying rigid and economical paradigms to consumers. The literature relayed a sense that because marketers are dealing with the human mind that they should be delicate with it. The mere terms used to describe buyers have even come under scrutiny as what they connote is further analysed (Statt, 1997). For example referring to someone as a ‘customer’ connotes a friendly and willing individual when shopping whereas referring to them as a ‘consumer’ connotes a carnivorous characteristic of an individual out to hunt and consume instead of shop. Marketing techniques which have been seem to breach the boundaries of a person’s thought process, such as subliminal advertising, have even been condemned and banned indefinitely.  

Similarly the literature explored what customers of the digital age should come to expect when shopping online. As shopping online is still a growing and (rapidly) developing practice as opposed to traditional physical shopping (bricks-and-mortar versus bricks-and-clicks) (Dennis et al., 2009); the question has been raised as to what online consumers should come to expect and how they should be treated in the absence of human interaction. Such is the stature of these reasonable consumer expectations that various consumer councils and even the European Parliament have received proposals to create direct ‘online rights’ as such. But as it stands today, “the legal and technical complexities of digital content products and the resulting lack of a clear notion of which product characteristics are still reasonable and normal in digital content can result in uncertainty for consumers.” – Helberger, 2011.

Even though the face-to-face relationship is obliterated with online shopping; it is still very much a human interaction behind the computer, mobile and tablet screens. Do not neglect to offer an abundance of visible and transparent customer service to appeal to the human nature by offering a nurturing and safe shopping experience.

The Element of Desire
Desire has been long-regarded as a controversial subject in consumer psychology as it cannot fully be explained; but one must consider hedonic pleasure seeking as an alternative to needs paradigms. Whereas needs are anticipated, controlled, prioritized, addressed and fulfilled; desires are overpowering as something we give into – something that takes control of us and totally dominates our thoughts, feelings and actions. Passionate potential consumers are consumed by desire (Glen Mick et al., 2003).

When this notion is applied to shopping online, one must consider functionality and practicality. Literature and research suggests that while the modern internet user is a user on a daily basis, integrating shopping into this routine is not as simple as having the option to do so. In effect, one must want to go online to shop. One must have a desire to shop online. Dennis et al. (2009) theorises this process as follows. The functional elements of an online store or ‘e-retailer’ firstly influence potential customers to click onto their website. This means for example if the e-retailers website appears near the top of a search engine results screen. This in turn influences one to shop with the store as it exemplifies easy-access. The final stage is eventual purchasing activity with the possibility of continued loyalty behaviour.     

What we can take from the above food for thought is that despite the power of technology and analytics, they cannot ultimately see into the human mind. However you can influence this by having a responsive and welcoming website that provides a safe and pleasurable shopping environment and experience for patrons – make them want to visit and return to your website for their online shopping needs.

Glen Mick, D., Huffman, C & Ratneshwar, S. (2003) The Why Of Consumption : Contemporary Perspectives on Consumer Motives, Goals and Desires. Britain : Routledge.  
-Statt, D.A. (1997) Understanding the Consumer : A Psychological Approach. Britain : Macmillan Press.
-Zaltman, G. (2003) How Consumers Think : Essential Insights into the Mind of the Market. USA : Harvard Business School Press.  
-Dennis, C., Jayawardhena, C., Merrilees, B. & Tiu Wright, L., 2009. ‘E-consumer Behaviour,’ European Journal of Marketing, [e-journal] 43 (9/10) pp. 1121 – 1139, Available through: Emerald database [Accessed 20 October 2011].
-Helberger, N., 2011. ‘Standardizing Consumers’ Expectations in Digital Content,’ info, [e-journal] 13 (6) pp. 69 – 79, Available through: Emerald database [Accessed October 20th, 2011].

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