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3.2 Situational Factors That Affect People’s Buying Behavior

Learning Objectives

  1. Describe the situational factors that affect what consumers buy and when.
  2. Explain what marketing professionals can do to make situational factors work to their advantage.

Situational influences are temporary conditions that affect how buyers behave—whether they actually buy your product, buy additional products, or buy nothing at all from you. They include things like physical factors, social factors, time factors, the reason for the buyer’s purchase, and the buyer’s mood. You have undoubtedly been affected by all these factors at one time or another. Because businesses very much want to try to control these factors, let’s now look at them in more detail.

The Consumer’s Physical Situation

Have you ever been in a department story and couldn’t find your way out? No, you aren’t necessarily directionally challenged. Marketing professionals take physical factors such as a store’s design and layout into account when they are designing their facilities. Presumably, the longer you wander around a facility, the more you will spend. Grocery stores frequently place bread and milk products on the opposite ends of the stores because people often need both types of products. To buy both, they have to walk around an entire store, which of course, is loaded with other items they might see and purchase.

Store locations are another example of a physical factor. Starbucks has done a good job in terms of locating its stores. It has the process down to a science; you can scarcely drive a few miles down the road without passing a Starbucks. You can also buy cups of Starbucks coffee at many grocery stores and in airports—virtually any place where there is foot traffic.

Physical factors like these—the ones over which firms have control—are called atmosphericsThe physical aspects of the selling environment retailers try to control.. In addition to store locations, they include the music played at stores, the lighting, temperature, and even the smells you experience. Perhaps you’ve visited the office of an apartment complex and noticed how great it looked and even smelled. It’s no coincidence. The managers of the complex were trying to get you to stay for a while and have a look at their facilities. Research shows that “strategic fragrancing” results in customers staying in stores longer, buying more, and leaving with better impression of the quality of stores’ services and products. Mirrors near hotel elevators are another example. Hotel operators have found that when people are busy looking at themselves in the mirrors, they don’t feel like they are waiting as long for their elevators.Patricia Moore, “Smells Sell,” NZ Business, February 2008, 26–27.

Not all physical factors are under a company’s control, however. Take weather, for example. Rain and other types of weather can be a boon to some companies, like umbrella makers such as London Fog, but a problem for others. Beach resorts, outdoor concert venues, and golf courses suffer when the weather is rainy. So do a lot of retail organizations—restaurants, clothing stores, and automobile dealers. Who wants to shop for a car in the rain or snow?

Firms often attempt to deal with adverse physical factors such as bad weather by making their products more attractive during unattractive times. For example, many resorts offer consumers discounts to travel to beach locations during hurricane season. Having an online presence is another way to cope with weather-related problems. What could be more comfortable than shopping at home? If it’s too cold and windy to drive to the GAP, REI, or Abercrombie & Fitch, you can buy these companies’ products online. You can shop online for cars, too, and many restaurants take orders online and deliver.

Crowding is another situational factor. Have you ever left a store and not purchased anything because it was just too crowded? Some studies have shown that consumers feel better about retailers who attempt to prevent overcrowding in their stores. However, other studies have shown that to a certain extent, crowding can have a positive impact on a person’s buying experience. The phenomenon is often referred to as “herd behavior.”

If people are lined up to buy something, you want to know why. Should you get in line to buy it too? Herd behavior helped drive up the price of houses in the mid-2000s before the prices for them rapidly fell. Unfortunately, herd behavior has also led to the deaths of people. In 2008, a store employee was trampled to death by an early morning crowd rushing into a Walmart to snap up holiday bargains.

To some extent, how people react to crowding depends on their personal tolerance levels. Which rock concert would you rather attend: A sold-out concert in which the crowd is having a rocking good time? Or a half-sold-out concert where you can perhaps move to a seat closer to the stage and not have to stand in line at the restrooms?Carol J. Gaumer and William C. Leif, “Social Facilitation: Affect and Application in Consumer Buying Situations,” Journal of Food Products Marketing 11, no. 1 (2005): 75–82.

The Consumer’s Social Situation

The social situation you’re in can significantly affect what you will buy, how much of it, and when. Perhaps you have seen Girl Scouts selling cookies outside grocery stores and other retail establishments and purchased nothing from them. But what if your neighbor’s daughter is selling the cookies? Are you going to turn her down, or be a friendly neighbor and buy a box (or two)?

Video Clip

Thin Mints, Anyone?

(click to see video)

Are you going to turn down this cute Girl Scout’s cookies? What if she’s your neighbor’s daughter? Pass the milk, please!

Companies like Avon and Tupperware that sell their products at parties understand that the social situation you’re in makes a difference. When you’re at a Tupperware party a friend is having, you don’t want to disappoint her by not buying anything. Plus, everyone at the party will think you’re cheap.

Certain social situations can also make you less willing to buy products. You might spend quite a bit of money each month eating at fast-food restaurants like McDonald’s and Subway. But suppose you’ve got a hot first date? Where do you take your date? Some people might take a first date to Subway, but that first date might also be the last. Other people would perhaps choose a restaurant that’s more upscale. Likewise, if you have turned down a drink or dessert on a date because you were worried about what the person you were with might have thought, your consumption was affected by your social situation.Anna S. Matilla and Jochen Wirtz, “The Role of Store Environmental Stimulation and Social Factors on Impulse Purchasing,” Journal of Services Marketing 22, no. 7 (2008): 562–67.

The Consumer’s Time Situation

The time of day, the time of year, and how much time consumers feel like they have to shop also affects what they buy. Researchers have even discovered whether someone is a “morning person” or “evening person” affects shopping patterns. Seven-Eleven Japan is a company that’s extremely in tune to physical factors such as time and how it affects buyers. The company’s point-of-sale systems at its checkout counters monitor what is selling well and when, and stores are restocked with those items immediately—sometimes via motorcycle deliveries that zip in and out of traffic along Japan’s crowded streets. The goal is to get the products on the shelves when and where consumers want them. Seven-Eleven Japan also knows that, like Americans, its customers are “time starved.” Shoppers can pay their utility bills, local taxes, and insurance or pension premiums at Seven-Eleven Japan stores, and even make photocopies.Allan Bird, “Retail Industry,” Encyclopedia of Japanese Business and Management (London: Routledge, 2002), 399–400.

Companies worldwide are aware of people’s lack of time and are finding ways to accommodate them. Some doctors’ offices offer drive-through shots for patients who are in a hurry and for elderly patients who find it difficult to get out of their cars. Tickets.com allows companies to sell tickets by sending them to customers’ mobile phones when they call in. The phones’ displays are then read by barcode scanners when the ticket purchasers arrive at the events they’re attending. Likewise, if you need customer service from Amazon.com, there’s no need to wait on hold on the telephone. If you have an account with Amazon, you just click a button on the company’s Web site and an Amazon representative calls you immediately.

The Reason for the Consumer’s Purchase

The reason you are shopping also affects the amount of time you will spend shopping. Are you making an emergency purchase? Are you shopping for a gift? In recent years, emergency clinics have sprung up in strip malls all over the country. Convenience is one reason. The other is sheer necessity. If you cut yourself and you are bleeding badly, you’re probably not going to shop around much to find the best clinic to go to. You will go to the one that’s closest to you.

What about shopping for a gift? Purchasing a gift might not be an emergency situation, but you might not want to spend much time shopping for it either. Gift certificates have been a popular way to purchase for years. But now you can purchase them as cards at your corner grocery store. By contrast, suppose you need to buy an engagement ring. Sure, you could buy one online in a jiffy, but you probably wouldn’t, because it’s a high-involvement product. What if it were a fake? How would you know until after you purchased it? What if your significant other turned you down and you had to return the ring? How hard would it be to get back online and return the ring?Jacob Hornik and Giulia Miniero, “Synchrony Effects on Customers’ Responses and Behaviors,” International Journal of Research in Marketing 26, no. 1 (2009): 34–40.

The Consumer’s Mood

Have you ever felt like going on a shopping spree? At other times wild horses couldn’t drag you to a mall. People’s moods temporarily affect their spending patterns. Some people enjoy shopping. It’s entertaining for them. At the extreme are compulsive spenders who get a temporary “high” from spending.

A sour mood can spoil a consumer’s desire to shop. The crash of the U.S. stock market in 2008 left many people feeling poorer, leading to a dramatic downturn in consumer spending. Penny pinching came into vogue, and conspicuous spending was out. Costco and Walmart experienced heightened sales of their low-cost Kirkland Signature and Great Value brands as consumers scrimped.“Wal-Mart Unveils Plans for Own-Label Revamp,” Financial Times, March 17, 2009, 15.

Saks Fifth Avenue wasn’t so lucky. Its annual release of spring fashions usually leads to a feeding frenzy among shoppers, but spring 2009 was different. “We’ve definitely seen a drop-off of this idea of shopping for entertainment,” says Kimberly Grabel, Saks Fifth Avenue’s senior vice president of marketing.Stephanie Rosenbloom (New York Times News Service), “Where Have All the Shoppers Gone?” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, March 18, 2009, 5E.

To get buyers in the shopping mood, companies resorted to different measures. The upscale retailer Neiman Marcus began introducing more midpriced brands. By studying customer’s loyalty cards, the French hypermarket Carrefour hoped to find ways to get its customers to purchase nonfood items that have higher profit margins.

The glum mood wasn’t bad for all businesses though. Discounters like Half-Priced books saw their sales surge. So did seed sellers as people began planting their own gardens. Finally, those products you see being hawked on television? Aqua Globes, Snuggies, and Ped Eggs? Their sales were the best ever. Apparently, consumers too broke to go to on vacation or shop at Saks were instead watching television and treating themselves to the products.Alyson Ward, “Products of Our Time,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, March 7, 2009, 1E.

Key Takeaway

Situational influences are temporary conditions that affect how buyers behave. They include physical factors such as a store’s buying locations, layout, music, lighting, and even smells. Companies try to make the physical factors in which consumers shop as favorable as possible. If they can’t, they utilize other tactics such as discounts. The consumer’s social situation, time situation, the reason for their purchases, and their moods also affect their buying behavior.

Review Questions

  1. Why and how does the social situation the consumer is in play a role in behavior?
  2. Outline the types of physical factors companies try to affect and how they go about it.
  3. What social situations have you been in that affected what you purchased?
  4. What types of moods and time situations are likely to affect people’s buying behavior?