7Sins: #1 Narrow scope

Editor’s note: Today we start our series on the seven sins of consumer psychology from the presidential address of professor Michel Tuan Pham at the recent conference of the Society for Consumer Psychology. Read the introduction here.

One of the most crippling aspects of our research comes from the limited scope of what we choose to study. We collectively identify our field as the study of “consumer behavior.” I suspect that most of us would agree with the following definition of what consumer behavior is:

The set processes by which consumers come to learn about, desire, acquire, use, and dispose of goods, services, and activities available in the marketplace to satisfy their needs.

scope of consumer behaviour

Pictorially, the scope of what we call consumer behavior looks like this: A series of stages that progress from the activation of a desire for some need-fulfilling marketplace offering, followed by processes linked to its acquisition, followed by an actual usage and consumption, and ending with the disposal or divestment of the marketplace offering.

If you look at what we study as consumer psychologists, you will find that the bulk of our research is dedicated to activities that are linked to purchasing behavior—things such as search, consideration sets, choice, persuasion, willingness to pay, etc.—as opposed to consumption behavior as a whole. In this respect, our field is more about buying behavior in particular than about consumption behavior in general. This issue not new, in 1982, Jag Sheth already noted that we need to go beyond consumer decision making and study nondecision-making aspect of consumer behavior. In fact, in the early days, the field was called “buyer behavior” rather than “consumer behavior” (Alderson, 1957; Howard & Sheth, 1969). It is only subsequently that we expanded the field’s boundaries to what they are today.

As the figure illustrates, buying behavior is only a subset of all consumption-related activities. In fact, it is a subset of the activities related to acquisition. We should not forget that important forms of acquisition are not purchase related including borrowing, product sharing, gift reception, and yes, even stealing. Except for gift-giving, very little research examines these other forms of acquisition, even though they have very large effects on business and the overall economy. For example, according to the National Association for Shoplifting Prevention, $13 billion dollars of goods are stolen from retailers every year, and one in 11 people in the US is a shoplifter.

So, why do we still focus primarily on purchasing behavior? One reason is historical. Another is a widespread belief that purchasing behavior is somehow more relevant from a managerial standpoint. Although there is truth and logic to this belief, it is somewhat misconceived. Businesses are not just interested in what makes consumers buy their products, they are also very interested in what makes consumers want (or not want) these products in the first place. Why do consumers want to renovate their kitchen? Why and when do consumers want to replace their car? Why are consumers interested in cruises as a form of vacation? What this means is that understanding consumers’ needs and desires is important in its own right. This is in sharp contrast with the way we typically frame our research questions, where we generally assume that consumers’ needs and desires are exogenous (e.g., “Assuming that you need to go on a vacation, which resort would you choose?”).

Once you recognize that consumers’ needs and desired are important in their own right, you realize that many important and fascinating questions remained to be answered. For example, when and how can fictitious needs be engineered, as the De Beers Company did with diamonds in the second half of the 20th century?  How can certain perceived needs be suppressed, such as the need to own a gun or the need to text while driving? How can under-recognized needs be activated, such as the need for safe-sex practices and hygienic food preparation?  These are questions that are theoretically rich and have genuine business and policy relevance.

Similarly, businesses are also very interested in knowing more about how products and services are actually consumed. Some of the most important consumer insights one can obtain for product innovation, improvement, and marketing is from observing, analyzing, and understanding actual usage and consumption behavior. The original idea for introducing Starbucks as a socially acceptable place where people can just hang while drinking a 4-dollar latte, came from a trip that Howard Shultz took in Italy where he got a chance to observe how Italians frequent local coffee bars. Similarly, the enormous success of Febreeze, now $1 billion brand of air freshener, was originally driven by insight gained from observing the cleaning habits of consumers in their homes. One of the most interesting insights that I gained about consumer behavior came from the one of the projects in my strategic consumer insight class. The project was for a pharmaceutical company interested in understanding why sleep-deprived consumers in western economies—and that’s about 25 percent of the population—often do not resort to sleeping aids. One of the major findings from that project was that a primary reason for this lack of consumption comes from the fact that for most consumers, the process of going to sleep is strongly ritualized. And sleeping aids do not fit into these rituals. Therefore, we clearly need to devote more attention to usage and actual consumption aspects of consumer behavior. We are beginning to see greater interest in consumption experience (Schmitt, 1999; Brakus, Schmitt, & Zarantonello, 2009) and consumption utility (Janiszewski 2009). Other important topics include pre-consumption activities (e.g., preparation, self-customization), shared consumption, consumption rituals, and product possession behavior.

Finally, we should not forget that there is also important knowledge to be gained from the disposal and divestment stage of consumer behavior. Disposal behavior, such discarding and recycling, has enormous impact on the environment; donation and reselling behavior greatly affects the economy and social welfare see Craigslist and eBay success; product divestment is a major determinant of the replacement of consumer durables; and compulsive hoarding behavior is a serious issues, especially among the elderly.

Want to read on? Sin #2 here….


1 thought on “7Sins: #1 Narrow scope

  1. Pingback: The Seven Sins of Consumer Psychology | :InDecision:

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