Store Optimisation

What Drives the Digital Consumer? The Psychology of Buying Online

Patrick McCarthy

The reasons for shopping are many. We need stuff for practical purposes. We want to fulfill desires for material goods. We want to achieve a particular status within our social circles. We need to eat, clothe, and keep ourselves clean. We need to get around. We want to impress others, to belong. We want to enjoy our free time, and that demands certain kinds of gadgets and entertainment devices. The list goes on and on… and on.

You may have noticed something about that inexhaustible list. Most of it is psychologically motivated. That is, we have a deeply human need to buy stuff. But the buying is just a symptom of a greater requirement. When we’re clear on what that more fundamental need is we can develop responsive marketing practices and nail down more strategic ecommerce development. 

As ecommerce website specialists, we’ve spent years analysing strategies and business approaches that inform online consumer behaviour. And the principles are the same, regardless of niche or industry. There is a psychological root to buying, and along with practical steps, that’s what we’ll explore in this article. 

To start, we can look to both the social sciences of human behaviour or even Buddhist principles to ascertain what really underpins consumerism.

Why We Buy 

The primary psychological reason people buy stuff is to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. 

We all want to feel good, and it’s our human tendency to notice what’s lacking and seek to fill it. We cling to what we want and evade that which we don’t want, and it’s all a form of suffering. So, we live in a way that keeps our pain low and our pleasure high. 

How does this relate to your ecommerce business specifically? Knowing what makes a customer buy helps you adapt your process and strategies accordingly. You don’t just want to increase the likelihood that they’ll buy from you. To achieve more conversions, you want to know exactly what makes them click ‘buy now’ and follow through with the sale. 

The Behaviour Change Model

According to Dr. BJ Fogg, three basic ingredients feed human behaviour: motivation, ability, and triggers. 

As we briefly outlined, there are several motivations for buying, but the three main ones are the promise of pleasure, avoidance of pain, and the desire for social acceptance. 

Consider your own buying behaviour. Recall the last purchase you made and the motivation behind it. Under all the practical layers for your purchase, does it fall into one of those categories? As an ecommerce owner, you can draw on those motivators to create marketing campaigns, enhance user experience, and improve your product or service offering.  

Beyond motivation, consumers must also be financially able to buy your product or service and receive triggers to do so. While these elements are important, we have far less control over their influence, so we want to focus our efforts on the motivational factors behind buying.

Using Psychology to Build Your eComm Business 

Website Design

Aesthetics have a huge influence on consumer behaviour. In a study that examined the impact of visual, navigational, and information design characteristics on consumers’ experience, researchers discovered that certain design features create significant irritation. The implications were clear: attractive websites can enhance user experience (1).

Attraction comes down to appearance as a primary characteristic. An updated, modern, responsive design with parallax scrolling, big, bold font, hero images, and eye-catching multimedia contribute to a more impressive site and a more impactful user experience.

For example, consider the impact of video on your buying decisions. Aside from being a more efficient way to demonstrate a product’s use or to deliver a message, video––if well-made––capitalises on aesthetic appeal through sound, colour, and animation. 

So too does your store’s primary design, from the color palette to images to the loading speed of each part of your site. Font style and text size factor in too, and each of these features draws your customers to notice key areas of your site, absorb certain information, and buy your product or service.  

Consider these fundamentals of website design and aesthetics:

  • How do colour and font represent your brand and what do they communicate to customers?
  • How do you call attention to your CTAs?
  • Is the information structured clearly and so as to avoid distractions?
  • Do pages load quickly?
  • Are your images high-quality & representative of your brand and target customer? 

Social Proof

A large part of enhancing pleasure and minimizing pain is behaving in a way that supports our membership within a particular group. Indeed, belonging is a fundamental human need. We are attracted to situations, news, people, and products that are backed by other people because their support lends a kind of proof that something is worth our time and attention. 

According to the behaviour change model, the desire for social acceptance motivates us to act in a particular way. As an ecommerce owner, you can use that to your advantage by including samples of social proof throughout your store. Testimonials. Photos of happy customers. Reviews and ratings for each product or service. Icons that link to your social media pages.

Third party validation goes a long way, and once you have even a modest following and a handful of good reviews, it’s one of the easiest elements to work with. 

Ease of Use 

As we briefly touched on it in the website design section, irritation is a major buying deterrent. We live in the age of fast and easy. Consumers want rapid access to information without having to jump through too many hoops to get it. If there’s a lot of friction between ourselves and what we want, we’re likely going to give it up and look elsewhere. 

With that in mind, all actions performed in your shop should be optimised for speed and ease of use. There should be as few barriers possible––if any––between your customer and the sale. If you’re noticing regular cart abandonment or low conversion rates, check for the following areas of potential friction:

  • Loading time: Slow loading time is frustrating and can cause high bounce rates.
  • Checkout process: Eliminate unnecessary steps to ensure a fast, streamlined process.
  • Cost: Be transparent about any additional costs, such as shipping.
  • Payment options: Offer well-known, secure payment options that people trust.

What’s Next?

Website design features, social proof, and ease of use are fundamental considerations for motivating customer behaviour. There is so much you can do in addition to marketing strategies to create an online store that influences people to buy, just by knowing what drives that behaviour. 

As ecommerce website specialists, we can help you create an online shop that puts those psychological needs at the forefront of your business and leads to higher conversion. We offer a free strategy session to get you started. Contact us today.


  1. Perceived irritation in online shopping: The impact of website design characteristics - ScienceDirect).

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