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Keeping the main thing, the main thing

business strategy 5Someone once told me after they came back from an online retailer’s conference how much the internet had changed consumer behaviour. A presenter at the conference had laid out an innovative model showing five stages that internet consumers pass through in making their online purchases.

  1. Problem recognition
  2. Search for information to evaluate alternatives
  3. Implementation of the purchase
  4. Physical consumption
  5. Post-purchase evaluation/feedback

Never before have consumers enjoyed so much power with instant access to a whole new world. We are now surrounded by advertising and re-targeting to pique our interest in products. At the click of a mouse, Google delivers relevant information in a split second to facilitate the search for product information. Completing the purchase process is easier than ever before as we don’t even have to get off the couch and depending on the level of satisfaction, we tweet the world and tell our Facebook friends about our latest purchases.

It’s hard to argue with any of that.

Maybe it’s my science background, but I was a little suspicious; not with the model per se, but with the claim that it was new. I reflected on my own experience and realised that I’d always behaved like the model, both pre-and post-internet. Had the internet really changed things that much?

Prior to the internet we were swamped by TV, radio and print advertising. We visited shopping centres and maybe pulled the Yellow Pages out to phone a few suppliers gathering information and prices along the way. We ultimately bought things and at barbeques we shared our stories – both good and bad – with our friends.

To test my suspicion I Googled “1970s Consumer behaviour” and perhaps not surprisingly there before my eyes were hundreds of articles presenting exactly the same consumer behaviour model that was being presented as new at the internet conference. Almost word for word, the same five stage process appeared time and time again. Deeper research into this reveals that the models go back to the 1960’s. Nicosia (1966), Engel, Kollat, and Blackwell (1968, 1973), Howard and Sheth (1969), Robertson (1971), and Hansen (1972) all viewed consumer decision making as a multistage, problem-solving process.

So what exactly has the internet changed if not our fundamental consumer behaviour? Here are a few things that come to mind:

  • Speed
  • Ease
  • Indifference to geography
  • Breadth of information
  • Broader reach with our feedback

These are all great for consumers and maybe challenges or opportunities for retailers but at the end of the day, the consumer is buying one retailers product over another. On the whole, we always have been and will continue to be, rational consumers seeking out the right product at the right price despite living in the information age. From a retailers perspective, it has probably never been more important to keep the main thing, the main thing.

Graham Lack has over 35 years retail experience in senior management roles at Luxottica and Suzanne Grae, in retail operations, finance, IT, marketing, merchandise planning and logistics. Contact him via

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