5 Stages of the Purchase Cycle and Where You Fit In

Repetition is a funny thing. Once we get used to doing something, we no longer focus on the individual steps that it takes to do it. If you’re like me then you have made many purchases in your lifetime, and because of that you may not realize the purchase cycle we follow (from realizing the problem to the evaluating how we feel after the purchase is made). It’s so ingrained in us that we barely notice our repetition. Marketers are obsessed with this purchase cycle and have analyzed it thoroughly to better understand consumers and to increase your shopping experiences. Allow me to show you behind the velvet curtain!

1. Problem Recognition

Problem recognition occurs when you realize that there is a difference between your ideal situation and your actual situation. Examples: ideally, I would like an expensive designer purse, but I’m actually toting around a purse from Kohl’s. Or ideally, I would like to drive a brand new car, but I’m actually driving around a 1975 AMC Gremlin. You get the gist of it; you’re no longer content with what you have and you realize that there is a way for you to be happier.

2. Information Search

Once you realize the differences between your situations and you accept the changes that must be made, you can now begin your quest for information. There are two ways to go about this search:

  • Internal Search: knowledge and information you already have without needing to do any additional searching. For frequent purchases, like grocery items, this is an acceptable place to stop.
  • External Search: knowledge and information you don’t have and must seek out to make the most informed decision possible. When the risk of making a wrong choice is high, this step is needed. It includes asking personal sources (family and friends), public sources (review websites, Consumer Reports) and marketer-dominated sources (advertising, company websites, and salespeople) what their thoughts are about the brands out there.

This step of the purchase cycle is where marketers are most concerned with providing the best experience possible to customers. Think about the custom pens you have lying around and how you remember them when you have a need to shop there? They want to ensure that you already know about their brand or company and can stop at the internal search step and not look at other competitors in the external search step.

3. Alternative Evaluation

When you have selected a few brands you think are acceptable for what you want, then you begin to determine the positive and negative attributes. There are factors concerning prestige, price, availability, etc. A consumer’s evoked set is also established during this step (which is the various brands that are identified by the consumer as possible purchases are considered). If you are in the market for a new car, this means after your information search you have ruled out a few brands for various reasons (too expensive, doesn’t have the features you want, no dealers nearby, etc.) and have narrowed it down to two or three brands you are seriously considering.

4. Purchase Decision

Within this step there are only a few more decisions that must be made. First, you must decide from whom to buy the product. This encompasses your past experiences there and what their return policy may be. These steps are slightly different for each consumer out there, but they follow the same logic.

Next, you need to decide when you’ll buy the product. Are Saturdays crazy there? Do they close before you get home from work? Time pressure also needs to be considered; if you stop after work around 5:00 PM, can you still make it home by 7:00 PM to watch TV?

Finally, you ultimately need to figure out if you still want to make the purchase after all these questions are addressed. Perhaps after your research you have found that you can’t afford the purchase or at this time the market doesn’t have exactly what you’re looking for.

5. Post-Purchase Behavior

Congratulations! You decided to do the necessary research, evaluate the different brands and offerings out there, endure the crowds on Saturday afternoon and actually make the purchase! So, lastly, you compare your expectations with the actual product. Is your ideal situation (from the Problem Recognition step) true to your expectations? If everything is not all fine and dandy like you thought it would be, then have no fear. It’s normal to feel a cognitive dissonance and the feelings of a post-purchase psychological tension or anxiety a consumer often experiences — also known as buyer’s remorse.

Behind the curtain of marketing there are quite a lot of unanswered questions. Consumers are sometimes fickle and once you think you have them figured out, they change their habits. If marketers know these steps and how consumers react to them, they’re able to make shopping experiences more enjoyable and less stressful.