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10 min read

The five steps of the consumer buying process: Explained

Customer & Market Research

Do you ever walk into a store, aimlessly fill the cart, and spend your hard-earned cash without a second thought?

Sure, we may be susceptible to the odd impulse buy, but, overall, many of us focus on what it is we’re buying, why we need the product, and how the product will add value to our lives. 

Before arriving at the point of going through the checkout, a buyer embarks on a decision-making process that you as a product marketer must also understand.

This process works in tandem with consumer behavior, but what is consumer behavior, and more importantly, why is it applicable to businesses, as well as the consumer?

Let’s find out.

The importance of consumer buying behavior

The importance of consumer behavior

Consumer behavior provides an understanding of the people buying your product, whether they’re individuals, groups of consumers, or organizations.

These behavioral trends provide invaluable insights into the process a buyer(s) goes through when they’ve decided to invest in your product or service, as well as how they use and consume your offering to fulfill their needs and requirements.

The consumer buying process helps companies with the likes of:

What is the consumer buying process?

Otherwise referred to as the consumer decision-making process or buyer funnel, to name a few, the consumer buying process refers to the stages a customer experiences throughout their customer journey – from recognizing a need to the final post-purchase stage (and beyond!). 

It’s a fundamental aspect of product marketing, serving as the cornerstone for businesses aiming to understand and influence customer behavior

There are five steps in the consumer buying process, and the time taken to pass through each stage is unique for each customer.

For example, a consumer buying a new car may decide to test drive a model several times, compare and contrast different brands, read reviews, and conduct thorough research before making a purchase, or deciding to look at an alternative.

On the other hand, another person may devote their loyalties to a particular manufacturer, and be willing to invest after taking it for a spin. The point being, the fluidity of the consumer buying process hinges on the personal preferences of the consumer – sometimes it’s straightforward, and sometimes it’s convoluted.

Nevertheless, by comprehending the intricacies of this process you can tailor your research, strategies, and campaigns to engage with consumers effectively and enhance overall customer satisfaction and relationships

So, what are the stages, what role do they play, and what influence does a product marketer have at each respective point?

The five key stages of the consumer buying process

The consumer buying process unfolds through several distinct stages, each playing a crucial role in shaping purchasing decisions. It typically begins with problem recognition, followed by an information search, evaluation of alternatives, and the actual purchase, and concludes with post-purchase evaluation. 

Recognizing and addressing each stage enables you to strategically intervene, provide relevant information, build trust, and address concerns right from the get-go.

Stage 1: Problem recognition

The consumer buying process stage 1: Problem recognition

Problem recognition marks the initiation of the consumer buying process, where individuals identify a need or challenge requiring resolution. It’s often considered the most important point in the process. After all, how can a consumer be expected to invest in a solution to a problem they’re yet to identify?

When our vision’s impaired, we buy new glasses, if we can’t sleep in our stuffy bedroom in the summertime, then we buy a fan, and when you’re sick to death of plugging the vacuum cleaner, you invest in a cordless alternative.

The common theme: Consumers buy products to solve a problem.

This phase is integral for product marketers, demanding a keen understanding of consumer pain points. Your role is to delve into the consumer's mindset, positioning your product as the ideal solution to their identified problem. 

Whether your company’s making flat-screen TVs, state-of-the-art coffee machines, or mobile phones with “the most impressive, sophisticated megapixel camera," as a PMM pro, you need to use your skills and step into the mind of your prospective customer and position your product as the go-to option on the market that’ll solve their worries just like that. 

To drive potential customers through the buyer’s journey, you need to research their purchasing habits and buyer behaviors and use your findings to craft messaging and communication that’ll resonate with respective personas, establishing your product as the ultimate answer to their concerns. 

There are a ton of marketing automation tools out there to give consumers the support they need at every stage of their customer journey, with plenty of PMA-approved resources available in the PMA tech stack

You may not think marketing automation is your cup of tea, but with research revealing humans have a shorter attention span than a goldfish (no, we’re not kidding), we strongly suggest using these tools to enhance your customer onboarding experience and support your customers through the recognition phase and beyond.

Stage 2: Research, research, research

The consumer buying process stage 2: The search process

The research process is where consumers actively seek information about products or services recognized during problem recognition. 

They’ll typically search both online and offline, as well as internally and externally, intending to collect information on the products or services identified at the preceding problem recognition point. This might involve anything from exploring a multitude of online reviews to seeking advice via word of mouth (WOM).

Unsurprisingly, much of the consumer research is completed online, so businesses need to ensure they invest time, effort, and resources in their SEO (search engine optimization) to enhance their online exposure and brand presence.

But consumers don’t only turn to the powers of the World Wide Web during the search process, with word of mouth regarded by many as the most powerful form of advertising. Previous experiences or testimonials from family and friends are often cited as a key factor behind a person being persuaded or dissuaded from choosing one brand, instead of another.

Ensuring your product is visible and positively represented online is vital. Businesses need to invest time, effort, and resources in SEO to enhance their online exposure and brand presence. You should also encourage testimonials, reviews, and case studies, and leverage them as powerful endorsements that’ll contribute to the consumer's decision-making process.

Stage 3: Considering alternatives

After visiting their chosen sources, your customers will now be at a stage where they’ll have earmarked a few options, before deciding where to invest.

The consumer buying process stage 3: Considering alternatives

Let’s use the classic running shoe comparison as an example. After visiting their chosen sources, your customers will now be at a stage where they’ll have earmarked a few options – and are evaluating which product aligns best with their needs – before deciding where to invest.

They’ll have taken into account factors such as cushioning, comfort, and the protection the shoe gives the foot. 

And let’s not forget the price!

When a consumer is making their buying decision, they’ll always be looking for the best product they can get, at the best price. Evaluating alternatives allows the consumer to conclude which option would suit their needs and address their pain points before they make a final selection.

For savvy product marketers, this stage emphasizes the importance of product differentiation. Crafting messages that highlight your product's unique selling points becomes crucial in influencing consumer decisions. 

This is the stage where effective product marketing can tip the scales in your favor by demonstrating why your product stands out among the alternatives.

Stage 4: Selection stage

The consumer buying process stage 4: Selection stage

This is it – crunch time.

Having identified their problem, searched for available products, and compared and contrasted the options on the table, it’s time for the consumer to decide which product they’re going to buy.

Product marketers play a pivotal role in this stage. You need to ensure that your product is not only considered but chosen. Factors like negative reviews, reluctance to invest, poor customer onboarding, company location, and reputation can influence the consumer's decision. 

All going well, this is the point your hard work pays dividends and you convert the lead into a customer. That said, it’s not always plain sailing, with multiple factors contributing to a consumer taking their custom elsewhere. 

This could be attributed to the likes of:

  • Negative reviews
  • Reluctance to invest
  • Poor customer onboarding
  • Company location
  • Poor reputation

Stage 5: Post-purchase evaluation

The consumer buying process stage 5: Post-purchase evaluation

The post-purchase evaluation is very much what it says on the tin: It’s the reflective phase where customers assess how useful their new investment is, and whether or not their new investment has fulfilled the expectations they had during the pre-purchase stages. 

Positive post-purchase experiences can transform customers into brand ambassadors. If you have a satisfied customer who becomes an ambassador, they’ll promote your product and serve as an influencer for prospective customers… Remember the importance of word-of-mouth marketing we spoke about?

Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could line our customers up and read all of their minds? Imagine the insights you could collect to influence your entire product marketing strategy! Competitive Intelligence Certified might not be magic, but it's the next best thing.

Factors influencing consumer behavior

Consumer behavior is a complex interplay of many different factors – both internal and external, and each factor can significantly influence the customer’s decision-making process. 

Internal factors encompass things like personal preferences, attitudes, and perceptions, while external factors include the likes of cultural norms and economic considerations. Recognizing the interconnectivity of these elements is key when you’re seeking to understand and predict consumer behavior. 

Campaigns resonate most when they speak to both inner desires and outer influences – addressing attitudes while acknowledging social norms, and appealing to perceptions while considering economic realities.

By dissecting these influences, you can tailor your strategies to resonate with the target audience effectively and foster deeper connections which (hopefully) turn into brand loyalty and advocacy.

Psychological aspects of consumer decision-making

Consumer decision-making extends far beyond surface-level needs and wants. It’s shaped by, you guessed it – the human brain; the nuanced mechanisms of our psyche. 

If you’re seeking unwavering brand loyalty, you need to peel back the layers and examine the implicit perceptions, attitudes, motivations, and values that could be guiding each customer’s purchase.

What values could color a consumer's view of a product? How do entrenched attitudes influence receptivity to messaging? What desires or goals could spur engagement with your brand

By probing these psychological dimensions, you can align positioning and messaging, and create impactful campaigns.

The role of branding and positioning

As you likely know, in today’s market, product quality and features aren’t always enough to sway a customer. Long-term loyalty stems from making that emotional connection

Meticulous and creative branding goes way beyond a logo or tagline. A brand should represent the total experience a customer has with a product – effective branding weaves together the right messaging, imagery, and associations, and constructs and solidifies them in the minds of the consumer.

This means weaving your purpose, values, and personality into your branding, so you can resonate on a deeper level, and become much more than a commodity. 

This ties in with your positioning – ensuring your brand is clear, seamless, consistent, and differentiated from your competitors. Leaning too heavily on features alone leaves you at risk of being replaceable. 

Post-purchase experience and customer satisfaction

The customer journey doesn’t end at checkout. The consumer buying process is just that: An ongoing process. If you want conversions and long-lasting loyalty, don’t overlook this stage.  

Attentive PMMs understand that how a customer feels after a purchase can make or break the relationship. Providing stellar customer service, checking in on satisfaction, and surprising with loyalty perks can transform an experience from just transactional into something personal. It shows that your cares lie beyond revenue.

Don’t forget – satisfied customers often become vocal champions, generating word-of-mouth.

Final thoughts: The role of product marketing in consumer decision-making

Product marketing is a linchpin in the consumer decision-making process, orchestrating a strategic tie between the product and its potential consumers. 

From the initial stages of creating awareness to the post-purchase phase, product marketing shapes how consumers perceive and engage with a product. 

Effective product marketing transcends simple promotional tactics and focuses on creating a compelling narrative that aligns the product seamlessly with the consumer's lifestyle, solving their problems, addressing their needs, or enhancing their experiences.

Throughout the consumer buying process, your strategies will evolve to cater to each stage uniquely. 

Want to learn more?

Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could line our customers up, throw on a pair of magic goggles, and read all of their minds? Imagine the insights you could collect to influence your entire product marketing strategy!

Well, we might not have magic but we do have a Consumer Psychology Certified course to help you… which is pretty much the same thing.

Led by Alex Chahin, VP of Marketing at Titan, you’ll learn how to tap into consumer psychology and reap the rewards of applying knowledge around behavioral economics to your product marketing strategies.

By the end of this course, you'll:

✅ Have a definition of consumer psychology in marketing and how advertising affects consumer behavior.

✅ Better understand how to group pain and gain points.

✅ Understand how personal factors and individual differences affect people's buying choices.

✅ Be able to identify what your customer’s default action is.

And much more...

Written by:

Lawrence Chapman

Lawrence Chapman

Lawrence is our Copywriter here at PMA who loves crafting content to keep readers informed, entertained, and enthralled. He's always open to feedback and would be thrilled to hear from you!

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The five steps of the consumer buying process: Explained