Branding Beat - Cut Through the Noise

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.

Have you recently unknowingly followed these steps for a purchase? How did you feel afterwards? Did you notice any cognitive dissonance?


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  1. Mandy Kilinskis

    I’m a terrible impulse buyer. I jump directly from 1 to 5. Or maybe I’m just in a perpetual 2.

    Advertising can sway me a lot. I used to be all about saving my pennies for an iPad, but then I saw a few commercials for the HP Touchpad and I now convinced that it is the only tablet for me. Don’t worry, I will do my research…but I fear that I will still be swayed.

    • amy

      Advertising is my downfall as well on some products. There’s a few that I’ll ask family and friends about first and then look to to advertising (more important purchases) and others that that I strictly look at what the marketers are choosing to share with me (less important purchases).

      I trust that you’ll do your research and make me proud 😉 LOL

  2. Jana Quinn

    I’ve never thought about the decision making process as structured and sequential as this, but it makes a lot of sense – and I’m sure I go through it every time!

    You mention that marketers have the most stake in the Internal Search step; if the consumer decides there, the brand does not need to fear competition. I wonder if there are different strategies for approaching consumers at different levels. Do some marketing strategies involve putting the idea that a customer HAS a problem into his head? Are there others who want to make sure they add value around the purchase decision timeframe in order to secure the sale?

    Interesting stuff indeed, Amy!

    • Rachel

      Your point about marketers using different strategies to approaching consumers makes a lot of sense–I think companies definitely do this. For example, I’m not sure a lot of people really thought that they needed a blanket with sleeves a few years ago, but the Snuggie company has certainly convinced millions of customers that they needed something they may never have thought about before…

    • amy

      This process is a fascinating one, that’s for sure. It amazes a lot of people that there’s a process everyone goes through when making large purchases.

      Your question about different strategies sounds like an interesting blog topic, I’ll do some research and hopefully see what I can find out 🙂

    • Janet

      Oh I think you may be on to something. Do they put it into our heads? Product placement? Social Media? How? Tell me more, Jana. I love this train of thought.

  3. Jenna

    Really interesting post, Amy! I do all of those things all of the time, but never really took the time to pay attention to them. These steps are less obvious for smaller purchases, but for big ticket items like a new laptop, I can specifically recall going through each of those 5 steps! 🙂

    • Amanda

      Good call Jenna! The amount/scale of the purchase makes a big difference in the buying decision I think. Extra pack of gum? No problem. Big screen tv? Eh…..let’s think about this. 😉

      • amy

        You both are exactly correct! It doesn’t take a lot of convincing to buy gum at the check out counter, but “Big screen tv? Eh…..let’s think about this” (couldn’t have said it better myself Amanda, thanks!).

  4. JPorretto

    This was a fun one to read! I go through the 1-3 steps and never make it to 4 and 5 so frequently that it’s nice to really be able identify the processes going on. Now I can say to myself, “Self, you need to go back to step 2 before you even THINK about step 5!”

    • Amanda

      Same here Jeff! I research things to buy all the time. I love seeing what’s available and what appeals to me. But when it comes down to the last two steps, I often convince myself that it’s not worth the money or it’s not something I should be spending my money on.

    • amy

      First: I love that you call yourself “self” in your mind 😉

      Second: I also go through the first few steps and then either realize A) I don’t really need it or B) I can’t afford it right now

  5. Amanda

    Great blog post Amy–very interesting stuff here! What you’re saying makes sense–we get so used to the buying process, we forget all the steps that are involved.

    Step two really made me think. I know exactly what you’re talking about because this is how I feel about Walmart. I know that so much of what I buy is available and at and a good price at Walmart, so when I need to buy things, that’s where I go first. I don’t look at the competitors because so many times they disappoint me–the big blue box store never does.

    • amy

      The way we go about searching for information is interesting, isn’t it? When when we know it’s for a product that our friends and family know a lot about we go to them, but if it’s a larger purchase we want to make sure we have ALL the facts.

  6. LK

    I’m a horrible decision maker and pretty much go through all these steps at least 5 times before I make an actual purchase decision. Even when it comes to simple things like what to buy for lunch.
    I should really work on cutting down the amount of time I put into my purchase cycle.

    • amy

      Hahaha, I go through phases where I’m sometimes so frugal I don’t want to spend any money so I carefully consider each step. Then there’s the other times where rush through the steps because I really, really, really like it.

      • LK

        Yea, I guess what my problem is more than anything is I don’t go through these steps when I should and I do go through them when I shouldn’t have to.
        Eating lunch? Why is it necessary, just eat something!!
        Buying something on impulse? Definitely more necessary, yet never done.

        Like you said, I also will rush through the steps if I really want or need something. I recently broke my smartphone this weekend and am back to an old school phone. I am so desperate to buy a new smartphone that I’m rushing through my research and just trying to find a new phone ASAP.

        Great post!

        • amy

          Good luck Lauren!! I hope you pick out a nice one 🙂 (I don’t envy you whatsoever, researching is always so time-consuming)

    • Amanda

      Same here! Sometimes, I’ll take five minutes at the grocery store trying to decide if a really need a particular ingredient, my husband’s like it’s only $2, just grab it so we can get going, lol. =)

  7. Rachel

    Great post, Amy! I’m in the middle of step 2 right now in my (long, ongoing) quest to buy a new desktop computer, so this process definitely rings true for me. I often get bogged down in the information search when making any kind of big purchase–there are so many options to choose from, and it’s so easy to find tons of information on each variation of a product that it becomes overwhelming! I can see why companies find it so important to lure in customers to their products at this stage.

    • amy

      Thanks Rachel 🙂

      When I was looking at buying a new laptop a couple years ago I ran into this exact same problem. The internet has made our lives so much easier in some aspects and has completely ruined other aspects. Now instead of just checking Consumer Reports, you also have to look at CNET and other consumer shopping websites. It’s enough to make anyone exhausted!! 😛

  8. Kyle

    Great overview, Amy. This post gives me flashbacks of a marketing class I took last year. I really try to work my way through each step before settling on a decision. It seems that the faster you make a purchase decision, the greater the chance of buyer remorse which is never fun.

    • amy

      As someone who has suffered from buyer’s remorse – on more than one occasion- it really is never is a fun feeling to have. It seems that when you stop and think about these steps individually you end up walking away with the product and are happy and satisfied or happy and empty-handed. Win-win either way 🙂

  9. Jen

    It seems I always have the opposite of buyers remorse. I’m just too cheap! I find something I really like, so I go through all the necessary steps. Then I get so close to purchasing the item and revert back to step 3, and think “Well, maybe it will go on sale soon. I don’t have to spend that much on it if i have to, right?” Then I don’t make the purchase and never go back for it, or it’s sold out when I do go back, and I get really disappointed!

    Great post Amy! It really made me think about my purchasing habits 🙂

    • amy

      It’s funny that when we stop and think about our purchasing habits we follow the same pattern pretty much LOL

  10. Joseph Giorgi

    Like most people, I’ve never paid much attention to the steps involved in my purchasing decisions. I had no idea that a single purchase could be such a complex process, but I like your elaboration here.

    I tend to make impulsive purchasing decisions more often than I should, so I think that my biggest problem is with step one. If I just stopped to think that my “actual situation” is good enough, then I wouldn’t be so inclined to make unnecessary purchases to achieve my “ideal situation.”

    You’ve probably saved me from wasting a lot of money with this post, Amy. Thank you! 🙂

    • amy

      Happy to help Joe 🙂

      I think a lot of people’s “actual situation” is probably someone’s “ideal situation” somewhere else. But, another blog for another day.

  11. Jeanett

    Great article!We will be linking to this great article on our
    website. Keep up the good writing.

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