Consumer vs. Customer vs. Shopper: When to use what

Consumer vs Customer

The words consumer, customer, and shopper, are often used interchangeably in lay conversation, but each word has a different meaning in the business language and points to a radically distinct segment of the population. If you’re struggling to find the right term for your context, this diagram should help in understanding the difference.

The relationship between customers, shoppers and consumers

Customer: The biggest umbrella in the market

The word customer is an umbrella term that would have all the other concepts, that is consumer and shopper nested within it. An idea of this broad linguistic meaning of the word ‘customer’ can be gauged by the fact that etymologically, it draws its roots from the Latin word “consuetude” which has the meaning “habit, usage, practice, tradition.” So, as a concept, it relates to the entire tradition, or way of buying or using a product or a service. More easily put, the “customer” is the one who sets the “custom” that is “tradition” around the buying and using of a product or service. For example, customers of electronics are a broad base of the population and contain different kinds of buyers of electronic products. Additionally, a customer can also be a person or business entity that makes purchase decisions, either for its own use or for resale purposes. E.g. manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, etc. On a general note, when you aren’t sure where your audience fits in the purchase journey, using “customer” is a safe bet.

Consumer: The one who uses it in the end

Interestingly, the word consumer, though closely related to the customer, has a different meaning. It points to those who consume or use a product or service. This is quite different from the idea of a customer because all customers are consumers but not all consumers are customers. An interesting example to clarify this relational difference is the fact that the customers of children’s products like cereals, toys, and accessories are parents, but they are not the end consumers of these products. Children are the final consumers of children’s products and their preferences are important in the choices of the customers of these products, but not the final clinching factor. Since consumers consume a product, they are typically the ones zeroing in on a particular brand. However, the customers of children’s products, parents, still look at price points, health factors, and other issues while making purchase decisions for their little consumer. A consumer can be an individual, a family, or a group of people engaging with a product.

Shopper: A moving target

Lastly, we look at the concept of the shopper. This segment is somewhere between a consumer and a customer. The term “shopper” is typically used when referring to a person looking to buy something tangible – like products in a supermarket. A shopper is someone who is simply browsing through certain goods in the market but has not necessarily made a purchase.

Shoppers are also customers as they are in the market looking for the products being sold. That said, not all customers are shoppers. For example, people availing a service, like at a bank, an airline, or a telecom company, would be referred to as “customers” and not “shoppers”. Also, a shopper may not always be the end-user of a product, and hence is not a consumer. So, a shopper is more difficult to target, for their focus is wandering and can be grasped only by associational marketing ideas.

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