What Makes People Buy? 20 Reasons Why

My mentor, Roy Williams, described shoppers as operating in either one of two modes: transactional or relational, a few years ago. At that time, some of us loafed around virtually, exchanging emails with friends, trying to complete a list of reasons that motivate people to buy things. (Thank you, Tom G. and Brett F.) More recently, I returned to compiling the list with the rest of my colleagues. Trying to understand these types of things is what drives us. It also benefits our clients.

What follows below is what we came up with, albeit likely incomplete. As you read this list, can you identify which of these motivations are relational and which are transactional? Can you see where they each fit within Maslow’s hierarchy of needs? Will you help us find additional motivations?

Some of these are self-explanatory. The forces that influence whether people buy include:

  1. Basic needs. We buy things to fulfill what Maslow describes as the bottom of his hierarchy; things like food and shelter.
  2. Convenience. You need something now and will take the easiest or fastest path to get it. Think about the last time you were running out of gas, or were thirsty and found the nearest beverage of choice. This could also be choosing the safe vendor (no one ever gets fired for hiring IBM), or purchasing something to increase comfort or efficiency.
  3. Replacement. Sometimes you buy because you need to replace old things you have (e.g., clothes that don’t fit or are out-of-date). This could be moving from a VCR to a DVD player.
  4. Scarcity. This could be around collectibles or a perceived need that something may run out or have limited availability in the future. Additionally, there’s a hope to gain a return on investment, such as collectibles or antiques; anything that accrues value over time.
  5. Prestige or aspirational purchase. Something that is purchased for an esteem-related reason or for personal enrichment.
  6. Emotional vacuum. Sometimes you just buy to try to replace things you cannot have and never will.
  7. Lower prices. Something you identified earlier as a want is now a lower price than before. Maybe you were browsing for a particular large-screen TV and you saw a great summer special.
  8. Great value. When the perceived value substantially exceeds the price of a product or service. This is something you don’t particularly need; you just feel it’s too good of a deal to pass up. (Like the stuff they place near the endcaps or checkout counters of stores.)
  9. Name recognition. When purchasing a category you’re unfamiliar with, branding plays a big role. Maybe you had to buy diapers for a family member and you reach for Pampers because of your familiarity with the brand, even though you don’t have children yourself.
  10. Fad or innovation. Everybody wants the latest and greatest (i.e., iPhone mania.) This could also be when someone mimics their favorite celebrity.
  11. Compulsory purchase. Some external force, like school books, uniforms, or something your boss asked you to do, makes it mandatory. This often happens in emergencies, such as when you need a plumber.
  12. Ego stroking. Sometimes you make a purchase to impress/attract someone or to have something bigger and better than others. To look like an expert/aficionado; to meet a standard of social status, often exceeding what’s realistically affordable to make it at least seem like you operate at a higher level.
  13. Niche identity. Something that helps bond you to a cultural, religious, or community affiliation. Maybe you’re a Harvard alumnus and Yankee fan who keeps kosher. (You can also find anti-niche identity by rebellion, assuming you’re pretty comfortable with irony.)
  14. Peer pressure. Something is purchased because your friends want you to. You may need to think back to your teen years to think of an example.
  15. The “Girl Scout Cookie effect.” People feel better about themselves by feeling as though they’re giving to others; and especially when they’re promised something in return. Purchasing things they don’t need – or wouldn’t normally purchase – because it will help another person or make the world a better place incrementally is essential to certain buying decisions.
  16. Reciprocity or guilt. This happens when somebody – usually an acquaintance, or someone rarely gift-worthy – buys you a gift or does something exceptionally nice and/or unnecessary. Now it’s your turn to return the favor at the next opportunity. Examples:
    • Event. When the social decorum of an event (e.g., wedding, Bar Mitzvah, etc.) dictates buying something or another.
    • Holiday. ‘Nuff said.
  17. Empathy. Sometimes people buy from other people because they listened and cared about them even if they had the lesser value alternative.
  18. Addiction. This is outside the range of the normal human operating system, but it certainly exists and accounts for more sales than any of us can fathom. Can you think back to the last time you bought something and fully explain the reason why?
  19. Fear. From pink Taser stun guns to oversized SUVs to backyard bomb shelters – and even stuff so basic as a tire pressure gauge – these things are bought out of fear. So, before you go knocking “fear” as a motivator, ask yourself: Are you Y2K compliant?
  20. Indulgence. Who doesn’t deserve a bit of luxury now and then? So long as you can afford it, sometimes there’s no better justification for that hour-long massage, that pint of Cherry Garcia ice cream, or that $75 bottle of 18-year single malt scotch other than “you’re worth it” (best when said to self in front of mirror with a wink and/or head tilt).

These are the things my company has helped clients think about. I hope this list at least gets you started. And let me know if you need help understanding your customers’ motivations. It’s what I do. But in the meantime…

What do you feel motivates people to buy? More importantly, what makes them buy your product or service?

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