How People Buy: The Evolution of Consumer Purchasing


This week’s infographic comes from Hubspot, and timelines how the US consumer has bought from 1900 to today. It’s a record of the “evolution of consumer purchasing.”

The Big Influence

A Century of U.S. Consumer Purchase Decisions

When it comes to identifying cultural trends from the past century, we often focus our attention on what people bought. What types of clothing, music, and food? But there’s another side to this consumer story that’s easy to overlook: how were people buying? Where were they getting the information they needed to make informed purchase decisions? Follow the timeline below to find out!


A Simpler Time

Newspapers, magazines, billboards, and other printed advertisements dominated the retail industry. Product discovery was relatively organic: shoppers saw new goods in stores or noticed ads throughout their daily activities.

It’s all in the catalog.

The Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward extensive mail-order catalogs enabled customers to order anything from buttons to materials for building homes.


The Rise of Radio Ads

The transition from written to spoken news and entertainment threw the marketing world a curve ball. Audible advertisements for seemingly every product imaginable emerged during “commercial breaks” in radio programming.

1929 saw the “Black Tuesday” stock market crash trigger the Great Depression, which wiped out Americans’ savings but helped give rise to at-home entertainment in the form of radio listening.

Listen Up.

At the start of the 1930s, 12 million American households owned radios, but by 1939 more than 28 million did.


The Start and End of the War

World War II marked an increase in overall ad spending, from $2.1 billion in 1941 to $2.8 billion in 1945. During this time, radio advertising revenue surpassed magazine advertising revenue.

Unemployment Slows Consumption.

Unemployment averaged nearly 18% between 1935 and 1939. After entering World War II in 1941, America found itself at the end of the Great Depression.

Conserve, Conserve, Conserve.

During World War II, American were asked to be conservative with purchasing products, such as gasoline, steel, rubber, coffee, butter, oil, and meat, to prevent shortages. “Ration stamps” were authorized to purchase a limited quantity of each product.


The Rise of TV Ads

By the mid-1950s, the television was in more than half of U.S. homes. This helped give rise to the “Mad Men” era of advertising, and automobiles became a status symbol for Americans.

Ch-Ch-Charge It.

The Diner’s Club card, an early version of the credit card, was invented in 1949. It enabled customers to dine out while leaving their wallets at home. Two years later, more than 20,000 people had one.

During the post-World War II economic boom, families moved en masse to new homes in the suburbs. The 1950s turned out to be a heyday for door-to-door sales, as salespeople found success selling to suburban families during the day.


Baby Boomers Hold the Power

The 1960s saw an increase in economic prosperity: people had disposable income and leisure time more than ever before. After the Vietnam War, Baby Boomers came of age and sought to make changes in everything from social issues to arts to marketing.

An Honest Approach

A 1976 Gallop Poll asked Americans to rate eleven industries’ reputations for honesty and ethical standards, and advertising executives ranked last on the list. In response, the Federal Trade Commission and the National Advertising Review Board started holding ads to higher standards of accuracy and honesty.


TV Exposes All

Fully aware of how to use multiple channels to reach broad consumer audiences, advertisers exposed Americans to an estimated 1,600 ads every day during the decade. People read ads in their morning papers, listened to them on their car radios, watched them on their TVs, and received them in the mail. By 1976, 69 million U.S. homes had at least one TV. This launched ad spending to $5.9 billion.

Introducing the Personal Computer

The personal computer industry began in 1977with the introduction of three preassembled, mass-produced personal computers: the Apple II, the TRS-80, and the Commodore Personal Electronic Translator (PET). The early PCs helped provide consumers access to a revolutionary new source of information: the Internet.

Spam, Anyone?

The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network sent the first-ever spam email to a 400-person recipient list on May 3, 1978: it promoted a product presentation for a new line of computers. Decades later, consumers used spam filters to block out these types of unsolicited marketing messages.


New Technologies

The 1980s saw the mass adoption of several new technologies that impacted consumer actions. TV remote controls allowed viewers to switch channels more easily and VCRs made it possible for viewers to record programming. Both technologies made it easier for consumers to skip over interruptive ads.

The Internet: Consumers’ New Frontier

Online shopping took off with eBay and Amazon at the helm. The 1994 launch of Hotwired marked the start of Internet advertising. For $30,000, sponsors could place ads on the Hotwired website for twelve weeks. Hotwired’s first banner ad produced a 44% click-through rate.


Decisions in an Instant

Email and search marketing emerged during this period and internet usage surged across the country. It seemed that ads were everywhere, even on newly popular blogs.

The Internet Boom

Forever revolutionizing consumer habits, the Internet enabled consumers to click on ads to buy products. Banners and pop-up ads became extremely common. Total online ad spending hit $300 million in the mid-1990s and tripled by 2000.

2002- Present

Consumers Go Mobile

By 2002, 90% of Americans owned cell phones. Today, more than half of Americans own smartphones.

The Power of Online Reviews:

Seattle-based Yelp launched in 2005 and accumulated 60,000 reviews by 2009. It rated 70% of the city’s restaurants in comparison to The Seattle Times which reviewed about 5%.

Today, 73% of consumers say that positive customer reviews make them trust a business more. This percentage is an increase from 58% in 2012.

A straight target:

In 2009, Facebook unveiled ad features for advertisers to target audience demographics based on language and radius.

With mobile devices and social media ruling consumers’ daily activities, many companies are turning to inbound tactics in order to attract, convert, and close customers. Rather than interrupting people with ads, they’re creating valuable content and making it easy for potential customers to find and engage with them online.


Reprinted by permission.

About the author: Linda Bustos

As Director of Ecommerce Research at Elastic Path, Linda Bustos works with some of the world’s largest companies to help improve conversion rates and profitability on the Web. In addition to writing the Get Elastic blog since 2007, Linda’s articles have appeared in Mobile Marketer, CMO Magazine, E-Marketing + Commerce, and Search Marketing Standard. She is a frequent speaker at industry events, including XCommerce, Conversion Conference, and Affiliate Management Days.

In 2010, Linda earned a spot on the DMNews Top 30 Direct Marketers Under 30 list. She has served as faculty for the Banff New Media Institute’s Career Accelerator Program and Marketing Profs University, and has appeared as one of the Top 100 Influential Marketers of the year in 2008 and 2009. Prior to joining Elastic Path, Linda worked agency-side, specializing in usability and SEO.

You are seconds away from signing up for the hottest list in New York Tech!

Join the millions and keep up with the stories shaping entrepreneurship. Sign up today.