How do customers buy? Research suggests that customers go through a five-stage decision-making process in any purchase. This is summarised in the diagram below:

This model is important for anyone making marketing decisions. It forces the marketer to consider the whole buying process rather than just the purchase decision (when it may be too late for a business to influence the choice!)

The model implies that customers pass through all stages in every purchase. However, in more routine purchases, customers often skip or reverse some of the stages.

For example, a student buying a favourite hamburger would recognise the need (hunger) and go right to the purchase decision, skipping information search and evaluation. However, the model is very useful when it comes to understanding any purchase that requires some thought and deliberation.

The buying process starts with need recognition. At this stage, the buyer recognises a problem or need (e.g. I am hungry, we need a new sofa, I have a headache) or responds to a marketing stimulus (e.g. you pass Starbucks and are attracted by the aroma of coffee and chocolate muffins).

An "aroused" customer then needs to decide how much information (if any) is required. If the need is strong and there is a product or service that meets the need close to hand, then a purchase decision is likely to be made there and then. If not, then the process of information search begins.

A customer can obtain information from several sources:

Personal sources: family, friends, neighbours etc

Commercial sources: advertising; salespeople; retailers; dealers; packaging; point-of-sale displays

Public sources: newspapers, radio, television, consumer organisations; specialist magazines

Experiential sources: handling, examining, using the product

The usefulness and influence of these sources of information will vary by product and by customer. Research suggests that customers value and respect personal sources more than commercial sources (the influence of "word of mouth"). The challenge for the marketing team is to identify which information sources are most influential in their target markets.

In the evaluation stage, the customer must choose between the alternative brands, products and services.

How does the customer use the information obtained?

An important determinant of the extent of evaluation is whether the customer feels "involved" in the product. By involvement, we mean the degree of perceived relevance and personal importance that accompanies the choice.

Where a purchase is "highly involving", the customer is likely to carry out extensive evaluation.

High-involvement purchases include those involving high expenditure or personal risk – for example buying a house, a car or making investments.

Low involvement purchases (e.g. buying a soft drink, choosing some breakfast cereals in the supermarket) have very simple evaluation processes.

Why should a marketer need to understand the customer evaluation process?

The answer lies in the kind of information that the marketing team needs to provide customers in different buying situations.

In high-involvement decisions, the marketer needs to provide a good deal of information about the positive consequences of buying. The sales force may need to stress the important attributes of the product, the advantages compared with the competition; and maybe even encourage "trial" or "sampling" of the product in the hope of securing the sale.

Post-purchase evaluation - Cognitive Dissonance

The final stage is the post-purchase evaluation of the decision. It is common for customers to experience concerns after making a purchase decision. This arises from a concept that is known as "cognitive dissonance". The customer, having bought a product, may feel that an alternative would have been preferable. In these circumstances that customer will not repurchase immediately, but is likely to switch brands next time.

To manage the post-purchase stage, it is the job of the marketing team to persuade the potential customer that the product will satisfy his or her needs. Then after having made a purchase, the customer should be encouraged that he or she has made the right decision.

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