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July 21, 2021

The Psychology of Online Shopping

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eBrandcast / The Psychology of Online Shopping

One of our mantras at eBB is that eCommerce has only changed how consumers buy, but it hasn’t changed why we buy. Unlike eCommerce, whose rules and best practices seem to change by the hour, understanding consumers psychology can give you a lot more stability in how your run your business. Understanding how it translates in eCommerce can also streamline your decision making, and help you identify the trends and new tools that are right for you.

Today’s episode lays out the essential psychology at work throughout the customer journey online. With this insight, you can optimize your store, and your brand, to make sure you’re motivating more customers to convert, and return.

You'll Learn

The 3 psychological elements you need to understand as a marketer

The consumer psychology at play throughout the 5-stages of the customer journey

What eCommerce tools tap into our natural buying psychology

Practical tips and examples to trigger leverage consumer psychology online


Full Podcast Transcript

Hello Beings of Earth! I’m your host Neil Verma.

Welcome to eBrandCast, where we decode what branding truly is, so you can build a dominant eCom Brand.

In this episode, we dive into the psychology of online shopping.

Including the 3 psychological elements you need to understand as a marketer, and how the consumer’s psychology changes as they move through the 5 stages of the customer journey.

We’ll also discuss some of the tools in eCommerce that will help you tap into the natural buying psychology of consumers to increase conversions.

We’re covering a lot today, so let’s get started.

In 1996, Procter & Gamble introduced a new product: Febreeze.

Internally, P&G were excited by the new technology in the product that could neutralize odors on fabrics that can’t be put in a washing machine, like carpets and furniture.

The marketing campaigns focused on educating consumers about how the odor-killing tech worked, and how it could deliver you from unwanted smells in your home.

Easy to use, effective, non-scented, and didn’t stain fabric… they were sure they had a winner on their hands.

Except they didn’t.

Consumers, it turned out, didn’t think they’re houses smelled bad, and the product seemed doomed to fade away into obscurity.

But P&G believed in the product, so they decided to spend time figuring out why the product wasn’t connecting with customers.

To do this, they conducted in-home usage testing with self-identified clean freaks.

The team found themselves in a perfectly organized home that was obviously regularly cleaned.

Except for the overpowering smell of cat-pee from the home’s 9 resident felines.

Even though one member of the team was actually gagging from the smell, the homeowner was totally oblivious to it.

When they asked her how she dealt with the cat-smell, she insisted her cats didn’t smell at all.

Over and over again, the team found that even in homes with an overpowering smell, the residents were totally unaware of it.

Of course, you know the end of this story, because you’ve seen the famous ads about how we’re “noseblind” to familiar scents, even when they’re obvious to others.

But this wasn’t the only breakthrough.

P&G found that the customers who did use the product, didn’t use it as an emergency cleaner for spills and infrequent bad smells.

Instead, they used it as part of their cleaning routine.

This led to P&G adding “refreshing” scents to the spray as a way to positively reinforce its users.

It was meant to be a reward for using the product, creating a dopamine rush in your brain, and ultimately a strong habit.

Over time, the familiar scent of Febreeze spray would reassure you your house doesn’t smell to visitors.

What’s important about this story is that aside from the addition of scents, the product’s core technology wasn’t changed at all.

It was the same dead-end product that was a bestseller just a few months later.

What really changed was the customer’s perception of the product, as well as the problem the product addressed.

What does this mean to eCommerce entrepreneurs?

Well, one of the biggest myths I see among entrepreneurs, is that eCommerce has made branding irrelevant.

And too many entrepreneurs don’t realize that setting up a storefront and enticing consumers to buy are two different things.

In fact, Febreeze shows us that even a genuinely innovative product isn’t going to sell itself.

And this is really the secret to branding, it’s building a business made to serve customers.

One that consumers feel compelled to buy from.

Certainly, eCommerce has changed how people shop, but it hasn’t changed why.

So today, I wanted to take a step back and give you an overview of consumer psychology, and how it mixes with eCommerce.

Not only will this help you optimize the customer experience with your business, it will also help you make every aspect of your brand more effective.

Consumer psychology is a field of study that looks at why we buy, and how our emotions, beliefs, and preferences influence our purchase behavior.

Although it’s a relatively new field of research, the core insights of branding haven’t radically changed, even with the tools of neuroscience and brain imaging at its disposal.

Even if you’ve never studied consumer psychology yourself, you are living in the world it shaped.

Every store you walk into and every ad you see relies on consumer psychology.

Think of Ikea, and how their warehouses channel customers through each display.

Or any store at your local mall.

Cashiers are often placed at the back of a store, for instance, to ensure customers are exposed to as many products as possible.

This way, consumers are more likely to find more items to buy and increase their cart value as they approach checkout.

Of course, these are consumer psychology insights that aren’t going to apply in exactly the same way online.

But they’re no less important.

Netflix actually employs psychologists on their Consumer Insights team, and their participation has led to innovations like auto-play countdowns, and personalized thumbnails.

And the basics of consumer psychology are universal.

Here’s the big picture.

There are 3 basic components to consider: motivation, ability, and triggers.

Motivation speaks to what motivates an individual consumer to buy.

They may be motivated by the promise of pleasure, or the promise of avoiding pain.

Another powerful motivation is to increase your social acceptance or avoid rejection.

This was the critical piece Febreeze got wrong, for instance.

It wasn’t until they realized people couldn’t be motivated by a problem they weren’t aware of that the product became relevant to consumers.

By branding this issue as being “noseblind,” the problem was suddenly real.

The second component, ability, refers to whether a customer has the resources to complete a purchase.

Of course, this includes financial ability.

We might feel motivated to own a private jet, but very few of us have the money to afford one.

But ability also refers to access to the knowledge and time needed to reach a decision and complete the purchase.

In our Febreeze case study, this is a piece they focused on from the beginning.

By teaching consumers about the technology of their spray, they hoped it would be enough information to move consumers to buy.

But as you’ll see throughout this episode, these 3 components work together to influence consumer behavior.

Just nailing one isn’t going to help you.

Finally, every purchase is triggered.

This is when desire and ability turn into action.

In eCommerce, for example, triggers often take the form of calls-to-action, social ads, or pop-ups.

So the trick is having all 3 components working for you.

This means reaching consumers who have the motivation and ability to buy from you, and having effective purchase triggers.

In other words, these 3 components span every step of the customer journey, whether the consumer is in-store or online.

So let’s break down the customer journey and I’ll explain how each of these 3 components come into play in eCommerce.

The customer journey model I’m going to use is called the Nicosia model, if you want to look it up later for more information.

It has 5 stages.

Stage 1 of the customer journey is problem recognition.

This is the point in the journey when the consumer becomes aware of a problem they want to solve, or a need they’re looking to fulfil.

This need can be triggered externally, like by an ad, or internally, like when we feel hungry.

In addition, the awareness of the problem is intense enough that it becomes a drive to solve the problem.

What happens now, is that the consumer is put in a state of heightened awareness.

This was the psychology behind the successful Febreeze campaigns that educated consumers not about the spray’s technology, but what it means to be “noseblind.”

It was a marketing campaign designed to make consumers aware of a pain point they may simply be unaware of.

Likewise, the first wave of DTC eCommerce became the giants they are today because they also mastered this technique.

Casper’s early marketing, for instance, emphasized the pain of traditional mattress buying, like the overwhelming amount of options, pushy salespeople, restocking fees, and stressful truck deliveries.

Warby Parker’s early marketing reminded consumers that prescription lenses are only so expensive because optometrist offices have the market cornered.

Bonobos was created because its founder couldn’t find a pair of pants that fit properly, and this message about having to settle for pants that don’t quite fit well was the spearhead of their initial marketing.

Dollar Shave Club also immediately makes the case for their brand by pointing out consumers are overpaying for standard razors, basically to pay for celebrity brand endorsements.

All of them are heightening awareness of the pain of old options, in order to position themselves as a more rewarding solution.

And once consumers are in this heightened awareness of pain, they’re naturally more receptive to information about their problem or need, as well as any potential solution.

This is why heightening pain in your messaging while positioning your brand as a better solution is so powerful.

But if this awareness happens outside of a branded message, they’ll start searching for the best solution.

Like for example when a consumer decides they’re hungry, or a product they’ve used for years breaks.

Maybe by asking friends for recommendations, taking a closer look at in-store displays, or searching for solutions online.

And of course, much of the information they get will be from marketing sources.

In eCommerce, we refer to this stage as brand awareness.

It’s at this point that, assuming this consumer has never encountered your brand before, they discover it for the first time, and it becomes one of their ultimate options.

This is where content marketing really shines.

By publishing articles, videos, blog posts, and so on, that address common consumer problems, you put yourself in front of the customers and give them helpful information about the problem.

If they do a search online related to their need or problem, and encounter helpful content you’ve released, you can land on their radar.

Not only that, as long as your content is also valuable or insightful, the consumer will see your brand as an expert, building trust.

A good example of this is Fu-Tung Cheng, a designer whose favorite medium is concrete.

He’s written several books about home renovations with concrete including concrete countertops, fireplaces, floors, and so on.

His online content is filled with DIY tutorials, techniques, and guides to help consumer create works of art with concrete, without breaking their bank account.

Consumers have the option to use the free DIY content, sign up for his workshops or buy a book.

The brand also sells proprietary concrete mix and other tools.

The point is this high-value content puts his brand on your home renovation map.

Once consumers are aware of their problem and feel motivated to solve it, they then move into Stage 2 of the customer journey, information search.

While consumers may have done some preliminary searches about potential solutions, this is where that search kicks into high gear.

At this point, consumers believe a solution exists, likely have several brands in mind to choose between, and are determined to find the solution that will best suit them individually.

If you’re taking the risk of ignoring branding altogether, digital marketing might get your into a consumer’s consideration set at this point.

But it’s at this stage where a brand’s power starts to make a difference.

But at this stage, consumers are mostly product focused, and their ability to buy the product comes into play.

It’s only here, for instance, as consumers are aware of a problem and seeking a solution, that information about your product becomes relevant.

So it was here that Febreeze’s innovative spray that actually neutralized smells rather than cover them up became a genuine selling point.

When it comes to eCommerce, consumers will want to know what kind of features and unique benefits your products offer, and of course the price.

Consumers will pay close attention to your product pages, images, and descriptive copy.

Whether your product images are professional, and give consumers a full sense of the product will influence whether your brand stays on their radar.

Having other media, like videos on product pages, can also help give consumers a better sense of the product, as well as help your brand stick out in their minds.

A great example is United by Blue, a brand that sells sustainable outdoor clothes and accessories.

They’re product pages have all of the standard information you’d expect from an eCommerce store, but they also have some added touches that really help their brand stand out.

Their product details are very precise.

On the page for their Ridge Button-Down shirt, the listed details include that the shirt features a “Shirttail hemline,” “point collar,” and that the pocked is placed “at the wearer’s left chest.”

They make sure to anchor these details in the brand’s identity by adding the shirt is “made responsibly in China.”

And that for every product purchased, 1 pound of trash is removed from oceans and waterways.

In addition, their fit guide is superb, because it’s visual.

Instead of the standard table of bust, waist, and hip measurements to small, medium, and large sizes, they add a photo of where exactly to take each measurement on your body to decide.

They also include quick links to customer support right in the guide in case you need extra help.

The consumer has clarity about the product and sizing, and it’s all anchored by the topline brand benefits.

In United by Blue’s case, those would be sustainability and the added perk of proceeds helping to clean the oceans.

Remember, ability isn’t just financial, it’s whether consumers are armed with the right information to feel they can make a confident choice.

Once consumers have a good idea of their options and what each choice offers them, they’ll move into stage 3, the evaluation of alternatives.

Here, consumers start to look beyond the product alone.

The product still matters, but at this stage consumers see different products as having different features that are all promising to satisfy their need, or solve their problem.

The differences between brands come into relief.

And as consumers explore and weigh these differences, they learn more about the brand itself.

This is when beliefs about a brand start to take shape and solidify.

It’s also when your unique brand benefits, not just your product benefits, but the benefits of choosing your brand, hold the most power.

And consumers start to form brand preferences, and begin to form emotional associations with each brand they consider.

Field Notes is a brand that sells notebooks, just plain, old-fashioned paper.

And there are endless competitors out there, including several well-known and respected brands like Moleskine and Leuchtturm 1917.

As consumers narrow down their options, they’ll interact more purposefully with your content, advertising, and website.

Yes there are differences between paper types, weight, and styles, but very, very few customers are going to prioritize paper weight as they pursue options.

So it’s here that how you present your brand, and information about your products that will make the most difference and determine whether you stick out in the consumer’s mind.

Moleskine is known for their limited edition, licensed notebooks.

They’ve produced notebooks that feature cover art from Star Wars, the Peanuts comic strip, Harry Potter, LEGO, Dr Seuss, Batman, and various music artists like The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan.

These licenses will appeal to various different customers.

Field Notes, by comparison, really sells the lost art of writing by hand.

In one striking video, they explain their subscription service which delivers a pack of seasonally themed notebooks 4 times a year.

That each notebook series takes advantage of a different printing or binding process, different types of paper, and so on.

But where then they hook the consumer emotionally.

They explain the most important part of the purchase process is when you actually put ink on paper.

And they demonstrate that all this writing and doodling makes a difference.

In the video they compare the weight of a stack of unused notebooks to the weight of the same number of notebooks filled with writing.

The difference is 6 grams, which they call “the weight of the notebook’s soul.”

One downside to the cover-obsession of Moleskine, is that it can lead to customers having the feeling of not wanting to “ruin” such a nice notebook with frivolous or unimportant notes.

These limited editions are in danger of never being used, unlike Field Notes’ subscription program which encourages you to write down everything and fill in your editions before the next shipment.

A strong, core brand message is that it doesn’t matter what you use the notebook for.

They make this clear by telling customers the brand is “inspired by the vanishing subgenre of agricultural memo books, ornate pocket ledgers and the simple, unassuming beauty of a well-crafted grocery list.”

It’s a totally different attitude that’s going to create a different emotional reaction in different people.

And remember, we’re talking about paper.

Ultimately, at this stage motivation and ability are upgraded.

From simply having a base need and enough knowledge to choose an option, customers now tap into their deeper motivations, like sustainability, or the freedom to write without self-censorship.

Their ability to purchase is turned into an emotional connection to the brand, and elevates finding a solution to their original problem, into a way of reinforcing or aspiring to the best of themselves.

Once customers reach this level, they’re at stage 4, the point of making a purchase decision.

This is not the end of the journey, however.

Prior to this stage, motivation and ability have been the active elements in the consumer’s mind.

Now, triggers come into play.

This stage is a little more practical than the last one, as having a well-designed flow through your site toward completing checkout is key.

So are clear call-to-actions.

You need to turn the desire to buy into the desire to buy now.

People tend to respond to urgency and guarantees with action.

Words like hurry, limited, right away, running out, and last chance, are all shown to create a sense of urgency in consumers that moves them to act.

This is the psychology behind Amazon’s practice of showing customers how many items are left in stock once the numbers get low.

NakedWines, an online wine seller based in the UK, displays the number of sales of any given product and the percentage of customers who would purchase it again.

So for example you might see a sticker that says “90% of 1,980 would buy it again.”

It’s a kind of social proof, which, remember, can come in both positive and negative forms.

Here, NakedWines is using the positive side of social proof, whereas our friend Febreeze, is using the negative side.

Many of its initial “noseblind” commercials mentioned that your guests are probably just too polite to let you know your house smells, creating social pressure to fix the problem.

In addition, guarantees also work as they reduce the consumers’ perceived risk.

eCommerce bedding brand Brooklinen offers a lifetime-warranty on all their products.

Evo, a brand that sells outdoor apparel as well as sports equipment like skis and snowboards, offers a price match guarantee on their product pages.

These guarantees are key, because once a consumer has made a decision for a specific brand, there are still 2 factors that can interfere.

First, the attitude of others, like doubt cast by a family member, or a bad review found online.

And second, a sudden change in their situation, like the sudden loss of a job, or any other emotional surprise like the death of a loved one.

Having reassurances like hassle-free returns, money-back guarantees, significant social proof, and a trustworthy checkout process can ensure you don’t lose consumers right after winning them over.

Also, keep in mind that most first-time customers will start with a smaller purchase.

There’s less perceived risk, and in cases like offering a free trial, it’s easier than saying no.

Once they’ve made their final order, eCommerce offers a unique psychological appeal to customers.

Unlike in-store shopping, where customers receive the product the moment they checkout, in eCommerce, there’s a delay between ordering and receiving delivery.

Now that shipping in eCommerce has become faster and more reliable, the delayed gratification it creates actually enhances the online shopping experience.

Making the purchase, as well as being able to shop in your pajamas, gives customers an instant buzz.

But also, in the gap between buying and receiving, the anticipation only tends to increase the desire for the product.

This delayed gratification is also the same emotional process behind the pleasurable countdown to Christmas.

And it powerfully engages our neural reward system.

The danger, of course, is that if you’ve misrepresented the quality or effectiveness of your product, this is setting customers up for disappointment.

But with a great product that you’ve carefully and intentionally branded, delivery can associate your brand with a big oxytocin boost.

Designing your packaging for a great unboxing experience will only enhance these effects.

Packaging that presents the product when you open the box, for instance, like how Allbirds designs their shoe boxes.

Or Caraway home, who sell ceramic cookware, but package the box so you don’t need to dig through layers of wasteful plastic and Styrofoam before you see the product.

You can also increase excitement for the product’s arrival by sending the customer helpful information in the gap between ordering and delivery.

Emailing product manuals, or links to video tutorials and assembly instructions, content that will improve the customer’s experience with the product once it arrives.

But purchase and delivery isn’t quite the last stage of the customer journey.

That would be stage 5, post-purchase behavior.

This is where the customer feels either satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their ultimate brand choice.

For you, it’s important to monitor the post-purchase buzz about your brand.

This is when you reach out to customers and ask for a review, or for feedback.

It’s when dissatisfied customers will reach out to your customer service to resolve an issue or initiate a return.

Having an automated email campaign that lets customers know how to leave a review, or how to contact customer service, can be a big help here.

And the easier you make it for customers to communicate with you, the more they will.

Of course, the longer-term aspect of this stage includes the product’s full life-cycle, whether it’s a perishable product, or when and if customers eventually dispose of it.

If your product is designed to be used and thrown out, this raises some opportunities for sustainable brands to offer new solutions.

Patagonia is, as ever, a sustainability champion, and has one of the best post-purchase campaigns, called Worn Wear.

The brand hosts events you can bring your gear to in order to be repaired or donated.

To return to our opening story, this is exactly why P&G added scents to Febreeze, as a reinforcing “reward” for using the product regularly.

It’s a post-purchase payoff, the reassuring smell of a clean home.

Unfortunately, especially in eCommerce, this is an often neglected stage of the journey, but it shouldn’t be.

Because post-purchase is where your brand becomes a part of your customer’s life, and where a customer’s relationship to your brand is solidified.

And this is what branding really is, a relationship.

The customer journey is just one way to visualize how this relationship is built, and by applying it to your business you can make sure your brand is meeting your consumers’ needs at every step.

Of course, one of the major changes from traditional retail and advertising that eCommerce has brought is speed.

The customer journey hasn’t changed fundamentally, but it has sped up tremendously.

With so much information at our fingertips, this whole journey can be completed in a matter of hours or minutes.

So your brand needs to be omnipresent in order to emerge as your target customers’ top choice.

But let me leave you with this thought.

Even for entrepreneurs, I know that feeling overly salesy can sometimes feel inauthentic.

And I don’t present consumer psychology as a way to “trick” consumers into buying from you or buying something they don’t need.

Understanding consumer psychology is about improving the customer’s experience overall.

It’s about helping them find the solutions they feel they need.

To help them improve their lives in whatever way they prefer.

And it helps us shape our brands to ensure we’re perceived in the intended way, that we’re giving consumers the most relevant and important information they need.

And really, consumers may be noseblind, but they can’t be fooled for long by inauthentic marketing.

You may succeed in manipulating a few sales, but you can’t manipulate a relationship long-term.

So take these two models and start applying them to your business.

The 5 stages of the customer journey: problem recognition, information search, evaluation of alternative, purchase decision, and post-purchase behavior.

As well as the 3 components of every purchase decision: motivation, ability, and triggers.

Are you engaging a customer’s motivation and ability to buy in the early stages of the journey?

Are you adequately triggering a purchase decision, and building a relationship to your brand post-purchase?

Consumer psychology isn’t terribly complicated, but the potential implementations are limitless, and it’s critical to understand that psychology if you’re going to build a brand that people actually care about.

And just one last reminder before I sign off.

I’ve talk a lot about branding today, and if you want some more information on how to build a brand that aligns every aspect of your business, visit

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