Thoughts, Insights and Inspiration

External Factors that Influence Online Consumer Behaviour

Consumer behaviour and decision making is anything but straight-forward, and is increasingly influenced by complex internal and external factors beyond what retailers can control simply through clever marketing and advertising. The number of potential influences on consumer buying behaviour is limitless, however brands and marketers are well served to understand the KEY influences, enabling them to reach a position where they can tailor their marketing efforts to attempt to take advantage of some of them in a way that will satisfy the consumer.

When talking about ‘internal’ factors that influence consumer behaviour, these are often centered around perception, attitude, knowledge, personality, lifestyle, roles, and involvement. Although both internal and external factors are inter-connected and work together to assist the consumer decision making process, in this article, we’ll focus on the ‘external’ factors that can influence consumer purchasing behaviour and offer a starting point for marketers to capitalise upon this understanding. External influences are aptly named so because the source of influence comes from outside the person rather than from the inside and include factors like culture, group membership and purchase situation. Today’s consumers are faced with such an array of product selection, and competition is so fierce among companies, that for merchants not to have an understanding of consumer behaviour could prove detrimental to the business.


Culture represents the behaviour, beliefs and the way we act learned by interacting or observing other members of society. Studies suggest that much of what we do is shared behaviour, passed along from one member of society to another. As part of their efforts to convince customers to purchase their products, merchants often use cultural representations, especially in promotional appeals. The objective is to connect to consumers using cultural references that are easily understood and often embraced by the consumer, making them feel more comfortable with, or better able to relate to the product since it corresponds with their cultural values. Additionally, smart marketers use strong research efforts in an attempt to identify differences in how sub-culture behaves. These efforts help pave the way for spotting trends within a sub-culture, which the marketer can capitalise on through new marketing tactics (e.g. new products, new sales channels, added value, etc.).

Group Membership

As well as cultural influences, consumers belong to many other groups with which they share certain characteristics and which may influence shopping behaviour. Often these groups contain Opinion Leaders or others who have major influence on what the customer purchases. Some of the basic groups include social class (based on e.g. income level, education, occupation), family and reference groups.

Identifying and understanding the groups consumers belong to is a key strategy for marketers. Doing so helps identify target markets, develop new products, and create appealing marketing promotions to which consumers can relate. In particular, marketers seek to locate group leaders and others to whom members of the group look for advice or direction. These opinion leaders, if well respected by the group, can be used to gain insight into group behaviour and if these opinion leaders accept promotional opportunities could act as effective spokespeople for the marketer’s products.

Purchase Situation

A consumer’s purchase behaviour can be strongly affected by the situation in which they find themselves, such as the nature of their physical environment, their emotional state, or time constraints. Not all situations are controllable, in which case a consumer may not follow their normal process for making a purchase decision. For instance, if a person needs a product quickly and a store does not carry the brand they normally purchase, the customer may choose a competitor’s product.

These uncontrollable situations can often lead to unexpected purchases, where the retailers that offer the right product at the right time will be the ones to benefit. Weather, for example, has a tremendous effect on purchasing habits. If unexpected weather hits, and retailers are prepared to react quickly, they will benefit over those retailers that made no changes to stock, merchandising or promotional activity during periods of unexpected weather. In the same way, what is being shown on TV, and what is trending on social media, can also have a huge impact on purchasing behaviour.

Merchants can take advantage of decisions made in uncontrollable situations in at least two ways. First, they can use promotional methods to reinforce a specific selection of products when the consumer is confronted with a particular situation. Second, they can use marketing methods that attempt to convince consumers that a situation is less likely to occur if the brand’s product is used.

For merchants it is important to understand how consumers treat the purchase decisions they face. If a company is targeting customers who feel a purchase decision is difficult (i.e., Major New Purchase), their marketing strategy may vary greatly from a company targeting customers who view the purchase decision as routine. In fact, the same company may face both situations at the same time; for some the product is new, while other customers see the purchase as routine.

The implication of consumer buying behaviour for merchants is that different buying situations require different marketing efforts. It is therefore important to not only have a good grasp of consumer behaviour and the influences consumers face when making a purchasing decision, but to also understand your customers inside out, so you can provide them with exactly what they need, when they need it.

From our Blog