Alwyn Van Niekerk
Alwyn Van Niekerk

Is technology manipulating consumer behaviour?

The advent of armchair shopping has turned the consumer space completely on its head. Traditionally the capacity to store and move goods hampered the rate of consumption, which ultimately gave birth to larger brick and mortar stores and faster courier services in an attempt to present and sell the ever-growing selection of goods to the consumer.

People’s public identities used to be partly based on products from a few big brands, which were established over time by aggressive marketing campaigns. The long-tail effect of the internet has brought about a highly fragmented space, where completely unknown producers increase the available product count and compete on equal footing with established players through virtual retailers like Amazon.com, without the traditionally expensive overheads of marketing, salaries, and store costs.

In a world where products are purchased in the privacy of your home, one would think that product-based public identities would lag behind — but this is hardly the case. Social networking sites are adorned with branded applications, which goes a long way to establishing an online persona — typically one of many. Brand loyalty is also extremely strong in the virtual world, where people adopt and speak passionately about big brands such as Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo!.

Technological improvements in storage and connectivity as well as an overall cost reduction have brought about a new senseless aspect to consumerism — best described by the term “devourism”. Music collections, traditionally limited by the bulky storage requirements of jewel cases, are now typically found on pocket-sized devices and collections range in the thousands of songs. Likewise DVDs are now replaced by attractive storage devices that can store ridiculous amounts of movies while taking up no more space than a few stacked DVD boxes.

Will all of the above spell the end for the science of consumer behaviour? The study of the latent and manifest motives behind a mother’s decision to purchase a specific brand of washing powder because the children in the advertisement look so happy with their clean clothes, or a brand of toothpaste because the family are all happy when they brush their teeth together in the morning? Definitely not!

Maslow’s classification of human needs as physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualisation are still applicable in this changing online world, implying that although the mechanisms through which we consume might be changing radically, the underlying reasons why we consume do not.