Why We Buy (Even When We Don’t Want To)

Why We Buy (Even When We Don’t Want To)


It’s another slow day at work, and suddenly you find yourself scrolling through Amazon’s Deals of the Day. You go to the grocery store just for milk and bread, and come out with a cart full of whatever was on sale. You didn’t think you needed that fancy gadget, but found yourself buying one anyway. And of course it has to be the most updated version.

These are a few of the familiar scenes around the 21st century marketplace, which seems to have infiltrated human life in every possible facet. Everywhere around us we’re being told what to buy, and why we need to buy it. In fact, some advertising has become self-aware of its bid for our attention. Old Spice commercials are infamous for this, while Trader Joe’s warns to “ignore the ads disrupting this post, they want you to buy things you don’t need.”

So why is it that we keep buying? What keeps us coming back for more, even when we don’t necessarily need anything more?

The truth is, as much as we think we have control over what or how much we purchase, human beings are psychologically wired to buy. We are creatures of habit who spend our money in predictable ways.

How Can We Explain the Drive to Buy?

Basic consumer psychology is concerned with satisfying human needs and desires, but consumer scientists also acknowledge “there is a big area between buying necessities and splurging on conspicuous consumption.” Buying has become more than just meeting our needs. How can we explain this discrepancy in human behavior?

On a surface level, buying is an aesthetic matter. We want to uphold a certain image and will buy whatever products are deemed necessary to maintain that image. In fact, studies show that customers may even respond better to certain shapes and colors, such as preferring rounded edges over more angular ones. Heavier containers have been associated with higher quality, and cooler colors with elegance. These innocuous details make a big difference when it comes to what products we decide to purchase, and what we leave on the shelf.

For many, buying is a social activity. It is a general psychological principle that we decide what is socially acceptable by watching what other people do. So it only makes sense that we often decide what to buy based off of what other people are buying. We find ourselves asking each other “Hey, where did you get that?”

We often search for a multitude of opinions before deciding to make purchases, even if it means spending hours sifting through customer reviews. Principles like this social proof are what give those five little stars and the words of internet strangers so much power in terms of marketing and sales. Your customer will talk to potential clients about your product. It is only a matter of time.

This herd mentality extends even to determining what it is that we need to buy in the first place. Before we even make the decision to buy something, we are sorely aware of what everyone around us already has. Social creatures that we are, we crave a sense of belonging. Thus, even though we don’t need the newest technology, for example–which at this rate, could become obsolete in a matter of months–we’ll buy it to keep up with our peers.

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We also decide what to buy based off what is known as the culture of scarcity. As the old saying goes, we always want what we don’t have. Not only that, but if we perceive a buying opportunity as a limited time offer or a particularly good bargain, we feel inclined to snatch it up before it disappears.

That’s why those timers ticking away at Amazon’s lightning deals allow for some pretty impulse purchases. I didn’t even think I wanted a cold brew coffee press until I noticed it was only $20 off for three more minutes. Truthfully, those deals can and will pop up again, but by giving the impression time is limited, sellers are more likely to make a quick sale.

When it’s all said and done, even though customers are many times aware of these tendencies, the most clever of us still can’t fully resist these marketing ploys. While technological resources have made customers more knowledgeable, the psychology and sociology of it all tends to overshadow any market savvy.

How Does This Impact Your Sales Techniques?

The realities of this can result in a sense of hopelessness at the idea of constantly being manipulated by the market; However, in terms of sales, this is all great news. There aren’t many surprises when it comes to how customers behave and what they will respond to.

In a sales context, this knowledge of human motivations for purchase become what has been referred to as “weapons for influence,” subtle ways to use psychology to the advantage of sales. This includes the aforementioned techniques like aesthetics, timing, and social pressures.

Another technique is reciprocity, which involves cultivating a subtle sense of indebtedness, which can be done with simple tasks like offering someone a glass of water when they enter your office. Even a small favor like that gives the recipient the chance to return the gesture, which chances are, they will feel psychologically inclined to do.

Yet another psychological tendency is that we are creatures of habit that will simply continue to use what works best. When a product has proved itself before, we are more likely to use it again. Personal care products are an excellent example of this. When we find a shampoo, deodorant, makeup, or toothpaste that works for us and is within our price range, we tend to stick with it for the long haul.

So, if your product can prove its worth over time, customers will stick with it, and mention it to their friends. Maintaining customer loyalty can be as simple as proving your product’s value in the first place.

Overall, despite their complexity, humans are predictable creatures when it comes to the way that we buy things and how we choose to buy them. Understanding the psychological implications of these customer interactions is another invaluable tool for the salesperson, as well as a reality in our everyday lives.

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