Shopping isn't a Rational Activity

There is a basic misunderstanding about what influences shopping behaviour. Shoppers sincerely believe that they act rationally to make the best purchasing decisions. And retailers and brands assume that shopping decisions are based on rational evaluation of the features and attributes of the products they sell.

Shopper rationality is more fiction than fact. We know this from in-depth analysis of shoppers’ self-reported behaviour and a review of the psychological factors that affect their purchasing process.

Shoppers’ Self-Perception of Rationality

When you use traditional market research methods, such as focus groups and in-depth interviews, and ask shoppers to tell you whether their purchase behaviour is influenced by factors such as brand names, advertising and promotional purchase incentives; they describe themselves as totally rational, objective shoppers and claim that their decisions are not affected by these influences.

Shoppers are aware that they are targets of marketing activity. However, they believe that they are strong, independent thinkers who are not seduced by marketing.

Shoppers also describe how they make purchase decisions. They explain how they investigate and weigh-up product features, consider such factors as how the benefits of one brand compares against the competition and which is the best value for their money.

Systematic Bias

The problem with the shoppers’ self-perception of rationality is that their view is skewed by systematic bias.

This bias is revealed when shoppers overestimate their immunity from marketing influences. By attributing their purchase decisions to rational thinking they affirm their autonomy and derive a satisfaction from this perceived control over their lives.

Marketers also have a systematic bias which affects the relationships of their brands with shoppers. The marketing process views the shopper through the lens of the product. This  view is a bias in itself, as it constrains the exploration of the psychology of motivations and preferences. Marketers’ bias can be overcome by viewing and understanding their products through the lens of the shoppers’ mind.

The Myth of the Rational Shopper comes into clearer view when you apply psychological research methods to exploring shopping behaviour. Go beyond conscious self-reports of decision-making to discover the non-conscious factors that shape shopper behaviour.

How shoppers decide

Shoppers go through three steps in the purchase decision process.

1, The process begins with overall perceptions about a category.

2, Next, the motivations and needs of shoppers drive initial perceptions of individual product and service options within the category.

3, Finally, it is the perceived emotional end-benefits of owning and using specific products or services that moves shoppers to a purchase decision.

If shoppers were rational, the process would stop at the point of analysing how well the product features and attributes satisfy needs and motivations. But that is not the case. It is the shoppers’ perceptions of emotional payoffs that cause them to purchase.

About Phillip Adcock

My name is Phillip Adcock: I have more than 30 years of human behavioural research and analysis, and have developed a unique ability to identify what it is that makes people psychologically and physiologically 'tick'.

Would you like to know more about how shoppers and consumers think? Download my FREE guide now. Alternatively, check out, where there are more FREE downloads available there. Or why not simply email me with what's on your mind?

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Phillip Adcock
Psychology & Behaviour
Change Consultant

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