Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 23
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

A New Buying Motive

Self-giving reveals itself to be a buying motive for some customers.

A team of researchers from the University of Florida recently studied a new variation of an old buying motive, gift-buying for oneself, and made penetrating new insights into the psychology of purchase motivation. David Mick, Michelle DeMoss, and Ronald Faber discovered that under certain circumstances, women between the ages of 20-50 will be inclined to purchase unnecessary "gifts" for themselves in order to fulfill certain "felt" needs. They studied these needs and they also discovered how retail environments could be adapted to take advantage of them.

With self-giving, people act symbolically to say something positive to themselves . . . something that celebrates an event, congratulates an achievement, or consoles a misfortune. Their actions are expressions of their self image and serve to bolster their self esteem.

This research discovered three general characteristics of customers that identify them as likely to purchase self- gifts: 1) people in transition between statuses in their lives, 2) people with heightened sensitivity to work-related events or issues, and 3) people involved in deteriorating relationships.

People in transition include those making changes in career or marriage, and people with general feelings of movement between life stages. Self gifts for these customers will help them complete the journey through these life passages and help them symbolically mark them. Using the product or service in the future reminds them of this transition.

People thinking about their jobs may want to reward their hard work which has gone unrecognized or amplify and mark a reward they have already received, like a promotion.

People in deteriorating relationships are seeking a way to protect and restore their self-definition and bolster their self esteem. They want to give themselves symbols of emotional states they are unable to receive in their interpersonal relationships: affection, appreciation, and respect.

Astute salespeople, suspecting a customer may be influenced by such self-giving motivations, can qualify customers with the question . . . "Is there any particular occasion or event that brought you in today to look at __________ (perfume, cars, computers, health club memberships, etc.)?"

When people are influenced by self-giving buying motives, they often have not selected the brand of product before coming to the store. These customers are looking for a new brand which they feel will help them meet the needs self- giving represents for them and will help them mark the occasion. This is an opportunity for the salesperson.

People influenced by self-giving buying motives are very sensitive to salespeople. They need this person to be a constructive part of a process that may be therapeutic for them, but they fear disapproval. Salespeople must act clearly to allay such fears and help customers fulfill their buying motives.

Store managers should hire salespeople skilled in interpersonal communications who resemble the customers they will serve (age, sex, appearance). They should teach salespeople to personally relate to the customer's current life situations with remarks such as . . . "Sometimes I buy things for myself for the same reason" - p. 140. If a desired brand is unavailable, a salesperson should "uncover the consumer's meanings for the unavailable brand" and relate these to an available brand" - p. 140. And since expectations for outcomes for such purchases are so high, salespeople can refer to these outcomes to help close the sale (remembrance, marking of this special time, feeling better, and so on).

They also suggest grouping products with high ego involving and symbolic meanings together in clusters, for example, selling perfume in beauty shops, or personal driving accessories in sports car dealerships. Point-of-purchase (POPs) promotional materials with a theme of increasing professional and personal independence should illustrate groups of items and emphasize the benefit of re-experiencing the current positive feelings in the future through subsequent use of the product.

Professor Mack and his group are careful to limit the implications of their research to women between the ages of 20 and 50, the group they studied. But it's possible that self-giving buying motives pervade the purchase experience. If so, astute salespeople may be able to use these insights to close sales in many selling situations that these professors did not consider.

Reference: Mick, David Glen, Michelle DeMoss, and Ronald Faber (1992) A Projective Study of Motivations and Meanings of Self-Gifts: Implications for Retail Management. Journal of Retailing, 68 (2), 122-143.

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