family decision making


Family decision making is the process through which a family or other group of affiliated people goes in arriving at a choice. In the market place, the process might also be called family buying behavior. No single person in a family group makes a buying decision without being influenced in some way by other members of that same family unit.

While most of the consumer research that has been done has been based on individual buying behavior, a substantial part of larger or more expensive purchases arise out of a joint purchase decision made by more than one buyer.

Many firms have based their marketing strategies on the assumption that family buying behavior is really the result of a group of individual decision processes. Research in this area suggests that family buying behavior is different and far more complex than individual buying behavior. This difference and complexity yields a very dissimilar set of marketing strategies that will affect every element of the marketing mix.


Typical attributes of buying decision situations that tend to be made by families are

  1. relatively large dollar purchases
  2. complex purchases, requiring a variety of expertise and evaluative skills, and
  3. non-routine and highly involving purchases.

Several types of family decision making behavior can be identified. All involve multiple parties, but may be dominated by one party. Husband dominant, wife dominant, syncratic (joint), and autonomic (husband or wife seemingly making the decision alone but in a way that would be acceptable to their spouse).

It has been suggested that the dominance or degree of cooperation can change across the stages of the decision making process; i.e., what may start as a wife dominant process may later end up syncratic (joint) at the time of purchase.

The selection and purchase of a house has been shown to be a syncratic (joint) buying process for families. The purchase of an automobile tends to be slightly husband dominant with some role specialization concerning colors and interiors generally assumed by the wife.

Most research suggests that insurance is usually purchased autonomically by husbands with some confirmation by the wife in the later stages of purchase. Thus, there is no single pattern that forms that best example of a family buying decision. Despite the irregularity of this process, many firms still use such research about family buying to plan marketing strategies.


Using and understanding the process of family buying can be very helpful to the marketing strategies of a firm. A home builder in the Southwest found that by training their salespeople to understand the interspousal decision process they were able to greatly improve the number of closed sales.

A major automobile dealership has redesigned its way of selling to couples by having a second salesperson work with wives who wish to understand all of the interior options in selecting a new car.

In most purchase processes involving both spouses, there is a real danger of either forcing one spouse into a higher level of involvement than he or she wants, or that of ignoring a spouse.

Either can be deadly to a sale without the salesperson ever knowing what caused the missed sale. Most firms that recognize the differences among the various types of family decision processes enjoy a major competitive advantage.


To effectively use strategies that recognize the family decision making process, firms must first understand how families view their products or services. For example, if a firm is in the travel business it is important to understand that families tend to see the purchase of a vacation package as a joint decision with one spouse (hard to predict which one) starting the search process, but with no final decision made until both spouses concur.

Agents for such a firm would have to understand that part of the enjoyment of the vacation arises from selecting the destination and that both parties have role specializations. Simply being aware of that process with its many variations can keep a travel agent working constructively with a couple rather than working against the natural flow of their decision process.

A major problem exists in many family buying situations when the process involves the presence of conflict between the spouses in making a choice. If a salesperson is not aware of the need to help manage conflict in the buying process, the sale may be lost and the couple may associate their frustration with the firm and the salesperson.

Firms selling life insurance must understand that, in most cases, the policy is sold to the male, with only certain key aspects of the service which interest the wife. Exceptions are plentiful, but by understanding the possible structures of dominance, autonomy, and syncracy, the marketer can quickly adjust to the role sharing and role specialization that is present in a couple’s relationship.


In order for management to determine whether their products or services must be viewed from the standpoint of the family buying process, there are a number of questions that must be asked:

  1. Are couples both involved in the buying situation?
  2. Is each spouse asking questions about different aspects of the product or service?
  3. From start to finish, does the typical couple take a long time to arrive at a choice?
  4. Regardless of who starts the buying process, do both spouses get involved before a purchase is made?
  5. Do couples frequently differ in what they want in buying the product?

If most of those questions could be answered “yes” from a firm’s experience in selling, then family decision strategies should become part of the marketing approach. In terms of evaluating how well salespeople handle family purchasing, the following questions yield insight into the effectiveness of their strategies:

  1. Are salespeople being trained to deal specifically with couples?
  2. Has the firm’s marketing research taken into account the need to study the roles of both spouses independently as well as their interactive relationship in buying?
  3. If research is being done using the couple as the unit of analysis, are the findings then being translated into strategies for product design, advertising, and personal selling?

If the answers to any of these questions are negative, the firm needs to reexamine the way it is handling family buying.


Most firms in the have never effectively dealt with the family buying process for their products or services. There are several reasons for this shortcoming:

  1. The family buying process is very complex and despite a significant amount of research in the area, there is still no well accepted model of how the process works.
  2. The rapid development of numerous, competing models of individual consumer behavior has encouraged firms to ignore the greater complexity of family buying behavior.
  3. Even when the research has been done by firms to understand family buying of their products, it has been difficult to articulate those findings into actionable strategies.
  4. Even when strategies have been developed as a result of family buying patterns, it has been difficult to overcome the biases of sales training that typically assume that the selling process is aimed at a single buyer.
  5. In nearly forty years of academic research concerning family buying, the total body of accumulated knowledge is still quite incomplete.

Most firms that wish to respond to this extremely important area must still rely on product-specific research findings. Even with all of these drawbacks, the advantages of researching and thinking about product strategies from a family buying process perspective are very encouraging.

Applications to Small Business

Many products that are manufactured or retailed by smaller businesses are sold to families that buy using interspousal decision making. At first look it may not appear that smaller firms would have the resources to identify key aspects of the family decision process concerning their products or services. It must be recognized, however, that what a smaller firm lacks in resources is frequently made up for by being closer to the customer.

A series of informal observations about how couples buy the firm’s products can, over time, accumulate to a very effective body of actionable knowledge. A beginning place for incorporating the awareness of family decision making is to look at the firm’s strategies relative to the needs of family units.

A second approach is to talk with couples after they have purchased the firm’s products (or not!). While the smaller firm usually cannot justify a formal, complex research study of family buying behavior concerning its products or services, it can undertake a careful process of observation and informal experimentation to determine what strategies facilitate the family buying unit.




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