To buy or not to buy? UP professor unpacks the complexities of consumer behaviour

Posted on December 07, 2021

The decision to purchase or not to purchase a product or service is often informed by a number of factors. Consumer choices have become more complex with an increase in access to information, which has widened alternatives. During her inaugural address, Professor Melanie Wiese, an NRF rated researcher whose research interest is in consumer behaviour, said that “situational, social, psychological, cognitive and individual factors need to be considered to provide a fuller perspective on how consumers respond to decision-making”, as consumers do not make decisions in a vacuum.

The complexity of consumer decision-making presents marketers an opportunity to gain consumer behaviour insights that can be used to inform their marketing strategy by asking, ‘What motivates a consumer to choose one product over another, and why?’

“By understanding how consumers decide on a product, marketers can fill the gap in the market and identify the products that are needed as well as the products that are obsolete. Long-term sales stability is not just about having a great product, it's about meeting consumers' needs, understanding what makes them tick, and speaking to them in a way that makes them want to engage,” said Wiese, a Professor in Marketing in the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences.

Professors Margaret Chitiga Mabugu, Yolanda Jordaan, Melanie Wiese and Norman Duncan.

Titled ‘Consumer choice in an ever-changing landscape’, Prof Wiese’s virtual inaugural address was live-streamed by colleagues within UP, from local and international universities, postgraduate students and her family and friends. Professors Norman Duncan, Vice-Principal: Academic at UP and Margaret Chitiga-Mabugu, Dean of the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences, were part of the inaugural procession. Professor Yolanda Jordaan, Head of the Department of Marketing Management at UP, also joined this momentous occasion. 

Prof Wiese’s inaugural topic was timely, given current times of uncertainty due to the global pandemic, which has destabilised economies. This instability has also contributed to the way in which consumers make choices.

In her address, she explained two choice dilemmas: no-choice and hyper-choice, and showcased for example, how no-choice in an essential service failure such as load shedding, could impact consumer choices. On the opposite spectrum, paying for your daily cup of coffee could present consumers with a hyper choice scenario, since ‘cardless’ is becoming the new ‘cashless’ with endless payment options enabled by technologies such as snapping, zapping or tapping. The myriad of choices available to consumers may be exciting but this is not always positive, warned Prof Wiese.

“The paradox of choice stipulates that while we might believe that being presented with multiple options actually makes it easier to choose and thus increase consumer satisfaction, having an abundance of options actually could have the reverse effect,” she said.

She argued that, although economic consumer choice-theory describes what the rational consumer would do, in reality, consumer choices are multi-dimensional and complex because “the world in which consumers live and make decisions, regardless if they are faced with a hyper-choice or no–choice situation, is not static but ever-changing”. Given that global economies are susceptible to being impacted by catalysts capable of altering the economy, as well as the behaviours of consumers within that economy, she emphasised three catalysts. The first is technological advancements, which have caused a tremendous shift in consumer behaviour, as is evident in her research on e-textbook adoption and online health communities.

Another catalyst, mediatisation of the world and the increasing power of social networks, has led to consumer choices being increasingly based on social influences and engagement with brands. Prof Wiese used her recent research with international researchers on Facebook advertising, engagement and social commerce to illustrate the impact of social media on consumer choices. She highlighted how consumers respond to Facebook advertisements (ads).

“Facebook users choose to interact with Facebook ads by clicking or liking the ad or interacting with the brand (purchasing or visiting). Both depend on how users feel about the ad but they tend to be more inclined to respond positively to the ad message than the brand. Interestingly, consumer attitudes toward Facebook ads are correlated to how they feel about ads in general. Thus, although Facebook advertising may be a ‘new technology’; how a consumer chooses to respond to these ads is not so new – emphasising the principle that consumers, in general, try to keep their cognitive system in balance by integrating a single attitude into their overall “attitudinal system,” she said.

Prof Wiese’s inaugural address took on a futuristic look as she speculated about the future of consumer decision-making in light of COVID-19. She concluded with an analysis on changing trends in Black Friday spending, online shopping, and growth in the support for local neighbourhood businesses.

- Author Department of Marketing
Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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