How Our Environment Influences What We Buy

Filed Under: Shopper, CPG


Elena Lyrintzis

We like to think that we are in control of how we spend our money. When deciding which cereal to buy, for example, people might cite factors such as nutrition, price, value, and reputation of the brand as important considerations. However, economic and psychological research suggests that we are not as rational as we’d like to believe.

Irrational decision making is often misrepresented as simply depending on emotions to make decisions. But, decisions are actually influenced by various outside forces and biases which subconsciously alter our rational processing. The way we interact with these environmental stimuli can seriously impact our purchasing behavior. Below, we offer three environmental factors that shape purchases and why they matter for marketing.

Time pressure

Think about the last time you had to make a quick decision. Dan Ariely recently discussed how time pressure is an important point-of-purchase factor which can change consumers’ decisions. When outside influences force people under a time constraint (whether real or imagined), they tend to have tunnel vision and will consider fewer factors than they normally would. Instead of weighing the costs and benefits of various brands, the consumer will choose based on a narrow set of features.

Why it matters. Adjust messaging to include last minute shoppers. Do most people buy the product on a whim? If so, consider how people with a narrowed focus will see the product and make sure to direct their attention to the most important features.

For Example: Someone who is running late and needs to buy cereal might pick it based on the shelf presence, instead of considering factors like nutrition that require more mental processing.


The season of the year can have a less obvious effect on consumers, but still impacts in a variety of ways – and we’re not talking about selling sandals in June. At the beginning of the year, we tend to look forward, which helps explain an increase in services that promote health (e.g., gym memberships). On the other hand, gift giving holidays like birthdays tend to focus more on the present (no pun intended). Along these lines, a recent study at the University of Chicago found that people looking to the future will prefer a beverage that promotes excitement, while people who are focused on the present will prefer a beverage that promotes calmness.

Why it matters. Match the message to the need state, not just the meteorological season. Create a planning calendar that considers how people are feeling about their goals and decisions depending on the time of year. Use excitement as a strategy when promoting a brand at the start of the year, when people are likely to be looking toward the future.

For Example: The holidays may not be associated with increased cereal purchasing, but people tend to eat more treats around the holidays. A need-state strategy would focus on holiday treat recipes that include cereal.


Our environment affects our mood, and our mood affects our purchasing decisions. Good weather alone has been shown to increase consumer spending on unrelated products such as newspaper subscriptions and green tea because the extra sunlight improved mood. Specific environments can also influence our moods. Recent research has shown that people’s frustrations at the DMV have a negative causal effect on organ donation registration. In other words, environments that elicit negative moods have a detrimental impact on behavior.

Why it matters. Both general and specific surroundings can affect people. Think about the consumers’ environment when interacting with a brand. Avoid media placement in an environment associated with negative or frustrating emotions.

For Example: A negative TV show might transfer unwanted negative feelings to a cereal advertisement directly following.

The Bottom Line. It is important to remember that consumers have countless environmental and situational factors that influence how they interact with marketing. This is why it is vital to think about the context when creating and testing new messaging.

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