A general criticism of most models of buyer behaviour is the tendency to presume a high degree of involvement with the purchase decision, which naturally leads the buyer to engage in an active and complex decision-making process that culminates in a purchase. Increasingly, however, it has become clear that not all purchasing decisions are arrived at via such active and complex decision-making processes.
More generally, buyers approach different types of purchasing problems in fundamentally different ways. Understanding these differences is of immense importance both to academic researchers and marketing managers. For example, buyers tend to base their car buying decisions on at least a moderate amount of information regarding specific product attributes, such as size and kilometers per litre (miles per gallon).
In contrast, for snow skis or expensive photographic equipment, where product attributes are complex and difficult to relate to desired performance features, buyers tend to base their decisions more on non-product information, such as price and the recommendations of salespersons. Clearly different marketing strategies are called for in these two situations because buyers approach the two buying decisions in fundamentally different ways. For example, there are significant opportunities to use a high price, relative to competitive brands, to indicate high quality for snow skis and expensive photographic equipment while, with the exception of very expensive cars, cars are generally promoted on the basis of a low relative price.
The Concept of a Buying Situation
The concept of a buying situation has been used by marketers in at least three different ways. One longstanding use of the term is to identify aspects of the larger economic environment that affect the spending behaviour of buyers. For example, when unemployment increases, even people with jobs tend to become more cautious and curtail their spending, especially for expensive durable goods such as cars and houses. This use of the buying situation concept is clearly of importance to marketing managers. However, the larger economic environment and its effects on buyers has tended to be of greater concern to economists and social science pollsters than marketing academicians.
Currently, the most common use of a buying situation limits the concept to variables that are not predictable from knowledge of either the person or the choice object. For example, research indicates that when products that are normally low involvement goods are purchased as gifts the decision-making process more closely resembles a high involvement decision. This conception of buying situations is especially useful in accounting for variance in buyer behaviour studies that would otherwise remain unexplained and possibly obscure the interpretation of the data, and for segmenting markets.
As a practical matter, an infinite number of situational variables might be identified under this second use of the buying situation concept. The relevant situational variables will also vary widely over both products and consumers. For example, a person’s evaluation and purchase decision regarding various types and brands of bread may depend upon whether the product is intended for use as toast, a sandwich, stuffing for a turkey. As another example, some consumers make a sharp distinction between cooking wines and drinking wines, while others do not. The reader should have no trouble identifying examples of other situational variables and some of their managerial implications. While this use of situational variables is of considerable interest to the marketing manager, who is interested in developing effective marketing strategies for specific products, the sheer number of situational variables makes this use of the buying situation concept inappropriate for the task at hand.
The third use of the concept defines the buying situation in terms of consumer and choice object characteristics, such as self-confidence in judging product attributes and the clarity of relevant product attributes. The resulting classification systems lead to a relatively small number of buying situations that consumers tend to approach with different decision-making processes and to resolve in different ways.
This third conception of buying situations results in theories of situational factors that can be applied to consumer behaviour at a high level of generality. The primary managerial value of such theories is not that they provide us with detailed answers to specific marketing strategy questions; for clearly they do not. Rather, they help determine which variables are of primary importance in influencing consumers’ purchasing decisions. For example, under what conditions is it important that a product be distributed widely instead of at selected outlets. Or under what conditions are consumers likely to be highly influenced by their own personality needs. Knowing such things is very helpful to a manager in structuring the very specific questions which must be asked and answered when developing a marketing strategy for a particular product-, e.g., what are the relevant personality needs and how can knowledge of those needs aid in designing an advertising program for a given product.
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