Chapter 3 – Consumer Behaviour: How People Make Buying Decisions

3.3 Low-Involvement Versus High-Involvement Buying Decisions


  • Distinguish between low and high involvement buying decisions.

One of the ways that the purchase decision process is modified is by consumers’ level of involvement in the decision. Low-involvement decisions usually pose a low risk to the buyer if they make a mistake by purchasing them. High-involvement decisions carry a high risk and limited-involvement products fall somewhere in between. Many factors influence a consumer’s behaviour. Depending on a consumer’s experience and knowledge, some consumers may be able to make quick decisions, and other consumers may need to be more involved before making a purchase.

The level of involvement reflects how important or interested the consumer is in the decision. That changes the amount of information they need to make a decision. The level of involvement may be considered a continuum from decisions that are fairly routine, sometimes called habits, to decisions that require extensive thought and a high level of involvement. Whether a decision is low, high, or limited, involvement typically varies by consumer rather than by the product or service. For example, for most consumers, purchasing a car is high-involvement decision because it doesn’t happen often, it is expensive compared to their income and it is a complex and long term decision. When a consumer is engaged in the purchase process for the car, they might engage in extensive search using word of mouth, online product reviews, and safety ratings.

For high-involvement products, the brand reputation may important to consumers. For example, beginning in the 1970s, American-made cars had such a poor reputation for quality that Japanese car brands were able to enter and dominate the market. Since then, due to government regulation, the quality of American cars has improved (with the exception of Tesla) but American cars continue to have a lower product quality brand image than Japanese cars. In the 2021 Consumer Report’s Annual Report on Car Performance, Reliability, Satisfaction, Safety & Emissions, Mazda, Toyota, and Lexus have consistently been the top three brands (Consumer Reports, 2021).

Consumers do not go through all the stages in the decision process for low involvement products such as bread or rice because they don’t need to search for information or evaluate alternatives. Low-involvement decisions are typically inexpensive (compared to income), purchased regularly and pose low risk to buyers if they make a mistake or there is a problem with them. Not going through all the stages is called routine response behaviour, that is, they make automatic purchase decisions based on limited information or information they have gathered in the past. For example, if you always order bottled water at lunch, you are exhibiting routine response behaviour. You likely don’t think about other drink options because your routine is to order bottled water. Similarly, if you run out of your bottled water at home, you may buy more without going through information search.

Unanticipated low-involvement purchases are made without planning or previous thought. These are called impulse buying. While you’re waiting to check out at the grocery store, perhaps you see a protein bar and buy it simply because you want it. You might see a roll of tape at a check-out stand and remember you need one or you might see a bag of popcorn and realize you’re hungry or just want them.

To reach as many consumers as possible at the moment of decision, low involvement products, such as chocolate bars, often place them in as many locations as possible. Products that are typically high-involvement such as cars may use more personal selling to answer consumers’ questions. Brand names can also be very important regardless of the consumer’s level of purchasing involvement. Consider a low- versus high-involvement decision, for example, purchasing a tube of toothpaste versus a new car. You might routinely buy your favorite brand of toothpaste, not thinking much about the purchase (engage in routine response behaviour), but not be willing to switch to another brand either. Having a brand you like saves you “search time” and eliminates the evaluation period because you know what you’re getting.

By contrast, high-involvement decisions carry a higher risk to buyers if they fail, are complex, and/or have a high price. A car or laptop computer are examples. These items are not purchased often but are relevant and important to the buyer. Buyers don’t engage in routine response behaviour when purchasing high-involvement products. Instead, consumers engage in what’s called extended problem solving, where they may spend time comparing different aspects such as the features of the products, prices, and warranties.

High-involvement decisions can cause buyers a great deal of post-purchase dissonance (anxiety) if they are unsure about their purchases or if they had a difficult time deciding between two alternatives. Companies that sell high-involvement products are aware that post purchase dissonance can be a problem. They offer potential customers lots of information about their products, including why they are superior to competing brands and how well they function post purchase. Real salespeople, either in person or as live chats, or artificial intelligence in the form of chatbots may be used to answer questions and reassure customers.

Limited problem solving falls somewhere between low-involvement (routine) and high-involvement (extended problem solving) decisions. Consumers engage in limited problem solving when they already have some information about a good or service but continue to search for a little more information. Assume you need a new backpack for a hiking trip. While you are familiar with backpacks, you know that new features and materials are available since you purchased your last backpack. You’re going to spend some time looking for one that’s decent because you don’t want it to fall apart while you’re traveling and dump everything you’ve packed on a hiking trail. You might do a little research online and come to a decision relatively quickly. You might consider the choices available at your favorite retail outlet but not look at every backpack at every outlet before making a decision. You might rely on the advice of a person you know who’s knowledgeable about backpacks. In some way, you shorten or limit your involvement and the decision-making process.

‡ signifies new material that Ryerson University authors have added to this adaptation of Principles of Marketing published by University of Minnesota Library Publishing, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


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