We are all vulnerable consumers

Emanuela Stagno

Feeling uncertain or unsafe changes consumer behavior, regardless of background or age.

We often think of vulnerable consumers as disadvantaged people who are particularly sensitive to marketing influences. Companies commonly identify consumers as vulnerable because they are poor, they are old, or they are part of a minority group.

Nevertheless, have you ever experienced that you could not afford something that you really wanted and felt bad about it? If so, you have also been a vulnerable consumer.

Identifying vulnerable consumers

Quite often, companies and institutions use objective indicators (e.g., age, income) to segment the market, target vulnerable consumers, and develop strategies to address their needs.

However, research has shown that consumers are vulnerable not only because they belong to a specific socioeconomic group (e.g., elderly, children, lower income, and minorities), but also because they lack a combination of resources-control that makes them susceptible to harm in the marketplace.

An old person might be independent and able to provide for themselves, but be easily manipulated by information in a promotion because of poor eyesight. Meanwhile, in contrast, a young person might be able to read all the information about a promotion, but feel they lack financial resources because of not having a job.

How do consumers react when they feel vulnerable?

Think about the beginning of Covid-19 pandemic. Many consumers felt they did not have control over what was happening. What did people do? They stocked up on hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes, and toilet paper.

When consumers feel vulnerable, they act differently depending on the extent to which they want to compensate for the lack of resources or try to regain control.

In the case of Covid-19, people compensated for the lack of control by acquiring products that could give them a feeling of security. However, consumers can engage in many different behaviors when they feel vulnerable.

In my dissertation, we propose that when consumers feel vulnerable, they might rely more on other consumers to substitute resources and regain control. For example, people who are in physical pain look at others to feel protected and try to regain control by becoming part of a group.

Some strategies might help vulnerable consumers feel better about themselves, but the same strategies may also be counterproductive for their long-term wellbeing. If people in pain are more likely to conform to others, they might also become more sensitive to social influence and be exploited. 

What can managers do?

Companies and policymakers can implement several strategies to improve consumers’ marketplace interactions and overall well-being.

  1. Acknowledge and map consumers’ vulnerabilities. Managers should recognize that consumers could experience vulnerability for different reasons than the ones associated with socioeconomic indicators. Companies should develop new indicators to assess when and why consumers feel vulnerable.
  2. Help consumers face vulnerability. Once identified the reasons behind consumers’ vulnerability, companies and institutions should help consumers in fighting vulnerability. For example, they could empower consumers when they feel they a lack of control or provide alternative resources when some resources are lacking.
  3. Do not exploit vulnerability. Sometimes consumers might compensate for the feeling of vulnerability by buying products that they do not need. Companies might think that it is beneficial for them because they will sell products. However, companies should think at how to provide benefits for the consumers not only in the short-run but also in the long-run, and how to contribute to consumers’ overall wellbeing.



Hill, R. P., & Sharma, E. (2020). Consumer vulnerability. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 30(3), 551-570.

Stagno, E. (2021). Some consequences of vulnerability in consumers’ life. Unpublished doctoral dissertation.

Published 15. July 2021

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