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Cody Link MKT 310 November 25

, 2013
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Why People Buy Things They Dont Need
An Analysis of Consumer Behavior Trends
MKT 310-141
Professor Melissa Markley

When a person leaves the comforts of their home on a mission to buy something, whether
it is needed immediately or for reasons of self-fulfillment, it satisfies a physiological need within
us. As consumers venture to the grocery store, the mall or an outlet they pay attention less to the
utility of the items, but rather what kind of response our emotions have after the purchase is
complete (Danziger 1). In Pamela Danzigers book, Why People Buy Things They Dont Need,
she examines with extreme scrutiny the motivations behind discretionary spending and the
nuances of the modern consumer. With her examination and additional research, consumer
ideology can be characterized and quantified depicting what, when and why a person chooses to
buy a particular item.
I have chosen to analyze Danzigers text and the topic of unnecessary discretionary
spending because I feel it relates to my given situation currently. As a college student I must be
able to make informed purchases that both satisfy my desires while placing a priority on
essentials. I need to sustain myself with food, shelter and clothing but have the need to enjoy my
college days by spending time out with friends. Its truly a balancing act; save money with hopes
of securing long term financial security versus unplanned purchases and impulse buys. Danziger
intrigued me almost immediately with her research and examination of superfluous spending; I
now know that there is more to spending than just merely handing over my credit card and
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signing on the dotted line. Spending money on planned and unplanned purchases is deeply
rooted in the human psyche and we feed off the pleasure we get from investing in those things.
Danziger was wise to immediately point out what she feels to be a discretionary product
matrix. Using four categorizations, along a vertical and horizontal line, Danziger can classify the
purchases we make and show how they fall in terms of need versus want. The vertical line has
extravagant purchases at the top and practical purchases at the bottom. Running along the
horizontal line, physical purchases are placed at the left end of the spectrum while emotional
purchases are on the right (Danziger). Her classification is meant to depict the overall American
consumer at all levels of monetary inflow while also observing an individuals personal value
system what one holds dear, what can be easily done without, what is affordable, and what one
is willing to make sacrifices to obtain (26). The categorization of discretionary purchases is
briefly examined below:
Utilitarian purchases: These purchases are ones that will improve a persons life in some
physical sense. A utilitarian purchase will grant the consumer more efficiency and aids in
execution of tasks that they themselves are not readily equip to do.
Indulgences: Purchasing an indulgence is typically made with little effect to guilt or
budget as they are often inexpensive. Examples include: lotions and potions, flowers and
Lifestyle Luxuries: This type of purchase is similar to a utilitarian item but with added
value and an inherent prestige for the buyer. The prospective purchase item performs a
task, for example a car, but lends to the buyers perceived social status. A BMW 7 Series,
a Brooks Brothers suit or an Omega watch could be classified as a lifestyle luxury
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Aspirational Luxuries: This type of purchase is primarily motivated by emotional needs
and often grants the consumer the ability to express his or herself. Aspirational luxuries
are the opposite of utilitarian purchases as they do not improve a persons day-to-day life
but satisfy emotional needs (25). Customized transport in the form of planes, boats, RVs,
and fine jewelry are aspirational luxuries.
However, what must be taken into account is how people may view these categorizations
differently based on their income level. Our perception of a products value and the value
systems that consumers adhere to may end up driving how and what items are purchased at any
given moment. The act of purchasing or aspiring to purchase something creates a fantasy; we
begin to think of how a certain product may fill in an unmet need in our lives and how our lives
may be improved (30). This type of imaginative behavior is something that marketers and
advertisers hold very dear. By creating a perceived need, marketers have the ability to touch
consumers hot buttons with powerful and compelling marketing messages (30). A marketers
message fulfills a consumers needs but keeps them coming back for more. By creating an
elaborate fantasy surrounding a product, marketers and branding teams strive to indulge the
consumer and promote the idea that fulfillment comes by way of purchasing an item.
What Danziger does not explain well is how consumer spending although constant can vary
depending on things such as rate of unemployment or the stability, growth or decline in the
economy. Demonstrating the effects of the aforementioned variables is a Gallup poll tracking
consumer spending over a five year period beginning in 2008. Economist Dennis Jacobe
describes a sharp down turn in consumer discretionary spending as seen in 2008 spending stays
relatively stagnate until 2011 when daily spending totals climb higher (3). The poll, which had
been executed in the first quarter of 2013, shows consumer spending trending higher as each
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month passed. In January 2013, average consumer spending across all income levels was
reported as $80 a day; in March of that same year it rose to $89 per day (Jacobe 1). Counter to
my first inclination, high income households saw a decline in consumer spending during the first
quarter of this year while middle and lower class spending was marginally better (8). Despite
experiencing the effects of high gas prices, the end of the payroll tax holiday, and federal budget
sequestration, consumers still had confidence to go out a buy (9). On a smaller scale, the trend of
consumer spending was opposite to the reaction in 2008 when instability was very high. Even
with issues among government and political unrest across the world, consumers felt comfortable
going out and stimulating the economy.
An interesting example Danziger uses is correlating consumers to Pavlovs dogs. We get a
satisfaction from purchasing a discretionary item and that reinforces the desire to continue
buying things we want but may not need in the immediate future (22). When we make a purchase
and it fills an emotional need, we start planning for the next purchase and the act of planning
creates anticipation (23). It is a psychological game - the hunt if you will - as we begin our
search for a product we create a narrative that drives our need. I like this example very much
because we can see it every day with our peers and family members. We fall into a consumerist
routine where we desire things that we believe we need and without them we languish. For
example, I bought a pair of Nike tennis shoes, which were by nature fairly expensive for
someone in my income bracket a little more than a year ago. I loved and adored those shoes but
found myself falling less in love with them when the next greatest thing had hit the market, and
the cycle repeats itself. This can be applied in my different product sectors. Technology is
notorious for releasing a product then previewing its successor mere months later. We keep our
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appetite at bay by making these purchases fulfilling the fantasy but the hunger and desire
quickly returns as another prospective purchase begins to enter our psyche.
To continue to stimulate consumer desire, marketers will need to adjust their technique for
communicating with their audience. In a 2011 study performed by Gartner, a technology
research firm, analysts believe that some 80 percent of consumer discretionary spending will be
affected by mobile marketing and the continued stamina of social media by 2015 (Farb 1). Mass
marketing has since fallen out of favor instead calling upon more consumer oriented technology
like interactive television and digital signage to promote social marketing (2). The technology
age truly has become more prevalent than ever before as now we are bombarded with the ability
to access all types of information for informative and consumptive purposes with the touch of
finger. With Facebook, email and apps, marketers can gain access to their audience with more
ease than ever before. The importance of social media is clearly based on the trends in the
allocation of money by marketers. The Gartner study found that in 2010, $877.2 million was
spent on social marketing (4). This was a jump of 138 percent as spending on social marketing in
2009 was $368 million (4).
The Gartner study made one particularly astute comment that I feel mirrors Pamela
Danzigers position on marketing and reasoning for consumer purchases. It suggests that there
needs to be a Shift [in] traditional thinking regarding campaign management, including its
channels and approaches, to reflect customers' changing approaches to companies (16).
Danziger stresses almost to a fault how profoundly involved a consumers emotions play into the
purchases they make. Danziger says, The prime motivator of a desire is rooted in passion, not
logic (32). I believe this may encourage additional participation on behalf of the consumer to
explain what they want and desire, ultimately improving the buying experience. By creating a
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two-way conversation with the target market, the consumer may also feel as if their opinions
matter and create brand loyalty with a product or service.
In addition to working in conjunction with the target market, I think that marketers should be
aware of what Danziger calls the Five Segments of Discretionary Consumers (39). The
categorization of consumers into the five categories is largely based on attitudes and opinions
which were collected and tabulate by Unity Marketing (38). The five categories, self-
expressives, careful indulgers, impulsives, conflicted, and bargain hunters, are designed with
hopes of understanding what prompts the average American consumer to buy what they do (38).
For the sake of this essay, the focus will center on the self-expressives category which dominates
a majority of the matrix.
A self-expressive, much as its namesake alludes to, is someone who buys an item as a means
to manifest their personality and showing it off to others. These shoppers use discretionary
spending to express creativity and to satisfy unmet emotional needs (42). Self-expressives, are
highly idiosyncratic in their purchaseswhat turns on one self-expressive individual may be
very different from what turns on another, says Danziger (42). Not surprisingly, the idea of
personifying individuality through style and preferences will differ from ones peers. And yet,
we will still hold in high regard the opinions and feels of our peers while attempting to make a
statement of individuality. According to Danziger, self-expressives deprive themselves of
nothing, being the group who spends the largest portion of their income on discretionary
purchases at 19.5 percent (43). Armed with this knowledge, marketers can tailor champagnes to
these highly prolific consumers. If this consumer group is spending nearly 20 percent of their
yearly income on superfluous items (my hypothesis would be on indulgences and lifestyle
luxuries) then this is the group which should garner the most attention. However, a marketer
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cannot alienate the other segments or income brackets within the consumer matrix. Instead, a
marketer may attempt to improve how they forecast new trends and market them to these
What I grapple with when buying a discretionary item is how I will justify it in my head. In
another study conducted by Unity Marketing, 14 different justifiers were acknowledged and can
be implemented by a consumer. By polling 1,000American households, Unity Marketing
attempted to better understand the motivation behind the average Americans purchase decisions
(61).Surprisingly, items bought on impulse were ranked very low on the spectrum of
justifications as represented by the Unity study. Accounting for only 39 percent of the
respondents being polled, the category bought on impulse was only defeated for least important
motivating factor by status with 30 percent (61). I was shocked by this data; as consumers, we
hold the opinions of others and how they view us very dear which is often why we flaunt new
cars and hold dinner parties. This is a way for consumers to reassure themselves that the
purchase was wise and that they hold some status over their peers. Ranked at the top with 89
percent of the population agreeing it was the most important justifier was quality of life,
followed by pleasure at 84 percent agreement (61). The quality of life justification is made when
a consumer believes his or her purchase will enhance how they live on a day to day basis.
Additionally, the study found that the quality of life purchase is often made more frequently in
households who have a high school diploma or college education and moderate income (64). The
household which has more than two individuals demonstrate more concern than those with a
single individual motivating the need to improve overall living conditions (64). Other
demographic information regarding the quality of life category include: a far higher rate of
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response from Black Americans as well as citizens in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties as this
time is meant for establishment and career building (64).
Another aspect of the consumer justification subtopic is the decision to buy authentic or
counterfeit products and is this behavior ethical. Consumers often purchase products from
vendors which offer imitation designer goods because they achieve the perceived value of a
prestigious product without the monetary investment. Walking around with the hippest, most
expensive, or newest trending purse or watch inflates our ego and demonstrates to our peers that
we can afford such products. But therein lies the justification; consumers buy forged products at
a discount and they believe that hardly anyone will know the difference. When faced with this
problem, researchers found that people placed responsibility for their unethical behaviors in the
hands of the governing bodies that purchases of counterfeit goods should be regulated
(dAstous 256). Additionally, until which time government decides that engagement in unethical
behavior is deemed illegal, they will continue to spend discretionary budget on counterfeit
products (256). The inverse is also true; consumers create a mental narrative and formulate
positive attitudes regarding ethical products and companies with socially responsible practices
(255). As a result, a portion of the population feels that the support they give to ethical
companies and the refusal to purchase from unethical companies will somehow shape the future
decisions of those companies (255). I dont know that to be true but the power of public opinion
is profound; the Dominos Pizza scandal is a great example of this. Almost overnight, Dominos
saw a sharp decline in sales because of the lack of action upper management took after the
sanitation issues at a North Carolina location. Until which point they decided to do a brand
overhaul and change the image of their company, they suffered from diminished sales and
ultimately losing the trust of some consumers.
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As a consumer, Im not sure of the allure of a counterfeit product; in the back of my mind I
would always know that Im merely wearing a knockoff. And by engaging in the purchase of a
counterfeit, Im attempting to fool people into thinking Im wearing the authentic product.
Certainly I see the value added aspect of wearing a genuine Rolex timepiece or for a woman,
an authentic Coach purse. But by participating in the purchase of the fake, the consumer betrays
his or herself and what real satisfaction could be gained by purchasing the real thing. However, I
also recognize that these counterfeit products are inherently cheaper and grant people access to
items which by nature breed exclusivity.
My take on the topic of consumer spending, discretionary or otherwise, has changed slightly
after reading Danzigers text and external consumer behavior analyses. Im a notorious impulse
shopper and understanding the psychological implications of purchasing, specifically on
extraneous items, gives me some insight as to why I buy the things I do and what effects it has
on my total net worth. In the beginning of this analysis I mentioned how we, the consumer
constantly struggle with the idea of spending money versus saving money. I relate it to the angel
and the devil on your shoulder saying what you should or should not do. Being a modest 22
years old I dont have all the answers in the world and I accept the fact that I will allocate my
funds in places that they shouldnt necessarily go. But, to that end, I believe that during the late
high school through college years, we are granted a very unique opportunity. Most students work
to fulfill endeavors for personal and educational reasons. The monetary gift we get in the form of
a paycheck often gets misappropriated on bar tabs, electronics and clothes while instead it should
go towards student loans and savings accounts. The hindsight of the situation is that we will
eventually look back at all those discretionary purchases, realize that they were unnecessary and
build safer, more saving-oriented habits.
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Mind you, I am not suggesting that students should be consumer hermits. These years are
important as we begin to make decisions with little or no input from Mom and Dad. It is a time
of growth and maturity and we will be the deciding factor in our eventual fiscal success or
failure. To Danzigers point, we buy things to satisfy a need; but I think that if the purchase of a
desired item is prolonged until you can make an informed investment, the payoff is twice as
gratifying. I think that a consumer may get the most satisfaction from a larger, extraordinary
purchase, if it is used as a reward for good performance. For example, I wish to purchase a new
pair of Oakley sunglasses but I want to work towards it and treat the sunglasses as a gift to
myself for a job well done. Seems reminiscent of childhood where parents would reward their
children for executing chores but as a motivational tool I believe it can be highly effective.
I do believe that the consumer environment is in a constant state of change and marketers
must be able to adapt with haste. Danzigers text is nearly a decade old now and although I
believe her commentary on the topic at hand is widely insightful, I think that her take may be
different now. Just as a change in the economy or the outbreak of war would influence where and
how consumers spend money, marketers must now call upon the vast network of social media
outlets to gauge ever-evolving trends and buying behaviors. It seems that a business who doesnt
embrace social media is set at a significant disadvantage as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn
grant organizations the ability to communicate their message to millions of people instantly.
Here in lies the wonderful thing about being a marketer; we have a myriad of channels to
communicate our message and success is driven by segmenting the audience and exploiting all of
the best opportunities available to us. Right now social media is a go-to, but who knows what the
future holds. Just like buying behaviors or allocations of funds of discretionary purchases is
constantly in flux, so will how marketer will reach their audience.
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As we enter into the retail environment, we buy necessities and indulgences. Big or small,
cheap or pricey, humans love the emotional response from the act of buying. The motivations for
all purchases are based in some very primary elements of consumer psychology, namely income
bracket, brand preference and perceived value of the item being bought. Danziger suggests that
the act of shopping encourages us as consumers to create a fantasy, a narrative of sorts, about the
desired item and how it will fulfill our dreams (23). We enjoy consuming so much that we
anticipate our next purchase almost immediately. Marketers, through careful research and
application can take the behaviors of consumers and brand a product to create a buzz and a need.
The work of a marketer can then become a part of the consumer fantasy. They can incorporate
themselves into the narrative and promote brand awareness and satisfy their customers.
Works Cited:
DAstous, Alain, and Amlie Legendre. "Understanding Consumers Ethical Justifications: A
Scale for Appraising Consumers Reasons for Not Behaving Ethically." Journal of
Business Ethics 87.2 (2009): 255-68. Print.
Danziger, Pamela. Why People Buy Things They Don't Need. N.p.: Dearborn Trade, 2004. Print.
Farb, Brittany. "The Digital Age Of Marketing." CRM Magazine 15.7 (2011): 16. Academic
Search Complete. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.
Jacobe, Dennis. "U.S. Consumer Spending Continues Upward Trend in March." Gallup, Inc., 5
Apr. 2013. Web. 22 Nov. 2013.