Amount of External Search Activity

Many studies have examined the amount of external search that consumers actually undertake. The majority of these have used only one measure of total search activity. However, when viewed together they paint a rather consistent and somewhat surprising picture of consumers’ external search behavior. The following are representative of the general findings:

Research suggests that consumers typically consult few information sources (friends, articles, advertisements, and so on) before making a purchase. For example, one study showed that, prior to purchase, 15 per cent of major appliance and car buyers consulted no information sources, while 30 percent consulted only one and 26 percent consulted two.

In terms of outlets visited various studies that approximately 40 to 60 percent of shoppers visit only one store before making a purchase. This appears to hold across durable and nondurable goods.

Evidence regarding the number of alternatives buyers consider again suggests limited search. For example, one study reported that 41 percent of refrigerator shoppers considered only one brand, while those considering only one brand of washing machine and vacuum cleaner were 61 percent and 71 percent.

Shoppers also appear to acquire limited amounts of information about the brands actually under considerations. To illustrate, one study found that of the 560 items of readily available information to consider when choosing among sixteen brands of cereal the median number of items reviewed was only seven.

Less than 12 seconds elapsed between the time grocery shoppers arrive and depart from a product display, on average. 42% of shoppers sent 5 seconds or less. In addition, for 85 percent of the purchases only the chosen brand was handled and 90 percent of the shoppers physically inspected only one size.

Because they are based only on single measures of behavior each of the above studies provides an incomplete picture of consumers’ external search activity. However, taken together these results strongly suggest that the majority of consumers’ actually engage in quite limited amounts of external search. Also, other studies have used composite indexes of search by combining several measures together. These studies confirm that many, perhaps even a majority of consumers engage in little external search for information. Additional evidence suggests that consumers can be categorized according to their general tendency to engage in external search. For example one investigation identified three different groups among care buyers low searchers, high searchers and selective searchers. The latter group used intensively only certain sources of information (such as media, friends), and tended to ignore others. Finally, a number of findings suggest that those who typically engage in considerable external search activity – the so called information seekers – are identified by a higher demographic profile (higher educational levels, income occupational and so on) than are low researchers.

The amount of external search that consumers engage in varies considerably across individuals and different purchase situations. Although a number of explanations have been offered for this variability the cost / benefit view appears to be the most popular one. This explanation holds that external search will be undertaken will continue as long as the consumer perceives the benefit of search to be greater than the costs involved. Included among the potential benefits of external search are (1) a more comfortable feeling about making an informed purchase (2) an increase in the actual chances of making a choice that leads to greater satisfaction (3) the positive feelings derived form being generally knowledgeable about products and services, (4) the pleasure that can result form engaging in shopping activities and (5) the high potential monetary payoffs to search. This latter factor has been confirmed using data for twelve product test in Consumer Reports which indicated that the potential maximum loss to consumers from purchasing worst choice rather than a best choice was great.

Potential cost of external search includes the commitment of time foregoing other pleasant activities, and the frustrations or tensions involved, as well as any actual monetary expenditures (such a s fuel and parking fees). It is important to appreciate that the cost and benefits involved are those that are perceived by the consumer even if they do not correspond perfectly with reality.