Consumer Behavior: The Psychology Behind Retail Marketing

Written By Dr. Elizabeth Schroeter
Last updated March 16, 2020

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October 26, 2018

Simple. Thrifty. Living.

Ever wonder what the psychology is behind consumerism? Or simply, why we purchase particular products and brands? Consumer psychology is a growing niche area that studies how one’s thoughts, beliefs, feelings and perceptions influence how and when people purchase certain products. Consumer psychology plays a big role in how retailers market their goods. From their window displays to their discount codes, retailers are constantly working to persuade you to pull out your credit cards and buy what they are selling. In fact, big name retail stores put a great amount of thought and attention towards the consumer experience. Let’s take a look at exactly what marketing professionals are looking at.

Professionals in this field look at things like the decision-making process, social persuasion and motivation to help understand why shoppers buy some things but not others.

Consumer psychologists study a variety of topics including:

  • How consumers choose businesses, products and services. This boils down to a number of reasons, however motivation combined with need or desire tops the list.
  • The thought processes and emotions behind consumer decisions. Advertising research has shown that one’s emotional response to an ad has more influence than one’s intent on purchasing the product.
  • Environmental variables influence buying decisions. This can include friends, family, media and culture.
  • What motivates people to choose one product over another. This may include brand loyalty. A customer may be more comfortable with a certain product due to their experience with it year after year.
  • What personal factors and individual differences affect people’s buying choices. For example, someone’s age, cultural background and cognitive biases all affect whether someone will purchase a given product.
  • What marketers can do to effectively reach out to their target customers. This can include a variety of advertisement techniques or sale offerings.
  • Psychology of pricing. For example, using a price of $7.99 instead of a rounded price of $8 is all about illusion, creating a difference between its perceived value and real value, which has been shown to boost sales.

These above topics can be broken into four categories: motivation combined with need; learning and conditioning; perception, attention, distortion and retention; and beliefs and attitudes.

In the world of consumerism, need drives the motivation to purchase. For example, on the most basic level, we buy food when we are hungry. According to psychologist Abraham Maslow’s theory of hierarchical pyramid of needs, the more basic the need (food, shelter, etc.) the greater the motivation to fulfill it. Once these basic needs are met, one can progress onto higher levels of growth, eventually achieving the highest level called self-actualization. In its most simplistic form, this theory is a perfect example of how consumers are motivated to purchase by their most basic needs. Once those basic needs are met, consumers will purchase products that contribute to social status and heightened self-esteem.

Consumer experience is a part of this consumer psychology category. For example, if a particular commercial convinces the consumer to try the product and they are dissatisfied, the consumer will avoid the product in the future. Avoidance of the product will continue even if changes have been made to address prior issues. Due to this learned experience, advertisers may attempt to change the message attached to their particular product.

The way someone views the outside world is their perception. To gain someone’s attention, you may use tactics that get people to stop, watch and listen. Now once attention has been gained, a marketer will want the consumer to remember their message without filtering it through the consumer’s own mindset. Marketers tend to repeat the information that they want you to retain. Why? Because repetition helps make the message stick. Hence why certain commercials repeat an important part of the ad over and over.

The belief a consumer holds about a retailer or the retailer’s product will inevitably affect whether or not they buy. If you believe a certain company shares the same value system as your family, they are more likely to gain your business. Take Walmart, for example. There is a reason that it is so popular.

In the same vein, if you believe the retailer’s product is beneficial, or have a poor perception of the competitor’s product, you will avoid one product and be drawn to the other. Advertisers attempt to align positive traits with their product that counteract beliefs that may interfere with attracting buyers. This works the same way for the financial products. Services like credit repair companies and debt relief services try to promise you results to make you see their companies as favorable. The best credit repair companies will tell you outright that there are no guarantees when it comes to fixing your financial mistakes. (Something to think about.)

A great amount goes into why we are brand loyal, or why we choose one retail chain over another. Human behavior is complex, and one’s consumer behavior is no exception. However, the power of purchasing is always in the consumer’s hands.

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About the Author

Dr. Elizabeth Schroeter

Dr. Elizabeth Schroeter is a regular contributor to Simple Thrifty Living. Dr. Schroeter earned her doctorate in clinical psychology with an emphasis in attachment. Not only does Dr. Schroeter draw on her educational background, she also incorporates her real life experience as a mother of 3 year old twin boys. As a parent she understands the need for accessible quality content, especially when it comes to finance and parenting. Dr. Schroeter resides in San Francisco, California with her family.

  • I have started reading a book on retail management and while reading that the term “consumer psychology” just came in my mind; searched that in Google and your article is the first that appeared. I read it and found it quite useful and thoughtful. I started thinking how I as a consumer think about shopping and make purchasing decisions. Almost everything you have written here match with my thinking. This motivates me to study consumer psychology in a bit more details. Thank you very much. Any suggestion of book from your side? And yes, I find myself also being brand loyal; never consiously thought about that though.

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