Alternative views on the shopper

3 years ago by in Research, The Fashion Retailscape

The descriptions of the different shoppers remain an eclectic mishmash of psycho-demographic characteristics. There are at least two distinct alternative views that can provide a sharper picture of the different types of shoppers. The first alternative is to look at the underlying motives. A study like the one of Westbrook & Black (1985) shows that a focus on underlying motivations shows a more differentiated picture of the ‘recreational’, ‘economic’ and ‘apathetic’ shopper than is often painted. However, there is little agreement about the underlying motivations of shoppers (also see Lesser & Kamal, 1991). Performing a meta-analysis of the studies already conducted, comparable with the meta-analysis of studies into the motivations of visitors of festivals (Van Vliet, 2012), seems to be a logical step forward in this discussion.

A second alternative is to look at ‘consuming practices’, in other words the characterisations of the patterns of shoppers, ‘What do people do when they consume?’. Those patterns do vary considerably between people and situations that it would be cutting corners to explain them exclusively on the basis of the (economic) benefit and the (symbolic) significance of the object that is being consumed (Holt, 1995), or on the basis of fixed types of shoppers (GfK, 2013). According to Holt (1995) consumption has to be regarded as a form of a social act where people use consumption objects in different ways. He concludes there are four classifications of such practices based on two axes: the structure of consuming (focused on the object or focused on the interpersonal) and the purpose of consuming (a purpose in itself, in other words, ‘autotelic’ or instrumental for another purpose). This leads to four types of metaphors for describing the practices, which in Holt’s study is explained by means of the ‘consumption’ of a baseball game (Figure 1):

  1. ‘Consuming as experience’: the subjective emotional reactions to consumption objects. This means the ability to interpret the object: what is it, how it works, what conventions are applicable, etcetera (understanding the ‘world of baseball’), the evaluation of the object against standards, expectations, previous experiences (for example, on the basis of baseball statistics), and the emotional appreciation of those (ecstasy when there’s a home run or admiration for the elegance of a throw).
  2. ‘Consuming as integration’: mastering and manipulating the (symbolic) significance of the consumption object in relation to your identity. This means: acquiring knowledge about the object so that one becomes competent or by wearing visible references to the object (logos, paraphernalia), trying to become part of the object or its makers (becoming a fan) and the personalising of the object by linking personal objects to it (attire during games).
  3. ‘Consuming as classification’: the buying, possessing and displaying of consumption objects in order to side with a group and thus achieve affiliations and distinction: “shopping as a performance becomes important in shaping status and identity.” (Stobart, 2008, p. 14). Whilst this is easy (to show) for material goods, for ‘services’ it is indirect – for example, through photographs and souvenirs to prove you were there or by demonstrating expertise (telling stories, being aware of conventions).
  4. ‘Consuming as play’: using consumption objects as a play element in social intercourse. On the one hand, this concerns the use of consumption objects for exchanging shared experiences (telling tall stories). On the other hand, it means using the consumption objects to entertain each other (imitating commentators for example).

Figure 1: Consuming practices (Holt, 1995)



These ‘consuming practices’ occur in variable relationships: “One important implication is that consuming is never just an experience, a disinterested end in itself. Consumer actions directed toward consumption objects have many faces: they are lived experiences that enlighten, bore, entertain, or raise our ire, but they are also means that we use to draw ourselves closer to valued objects and resources that we use to engage others – to impress, to befriend, or simply to play.” (Holt, 1995, p. 15). That varying relationship is not just down to the fact that the different practices can play a role simultaneously but that they can also occur consecutively. Consuming is a process in which practices can vary.

To view consuming as a process raises the question of possible steps or stages. In the characterisation of this process as a ‘customer journey’ or ‘shopping journey’ there are three stages that are always mentioned: orientation, selection and decision/transaction (Hofste & Teeuw, 2012). A more detailed classification from the perspective of the consumer has six stages: awareness (the recognition that there is a need), collect (collecting information about products and suppliers), evaluate alternatives (evaluating the various alternatives), decide (the actual decision to buy), use (the use of the product) and evaluate (the evaluation of the product and the buying process). All kinds of developments have influenced all of these stages in recent years: from search engines (collect) and comparison websites (evaluate alternatives) to talking on social media about purchases (evaluate).

Discriminating different stages in the consuming process, possibly comes across as a compulsory, linear and rational process. Of course, enough examples can be found where the customer journey is not linear and the shopper does not always act purposefully: “there is a tendency to present the shopper as both an information-processor, a problem-solver and a rational maximiser of utility. The limitations of such a model have long been known. Apart from the a priori nature of the assumptions that they contain, such perspectives ignore all the evidence that shows (…) that problem-solving behaviour is a relatively rare occurrence, and that habitual behaviour is a far more common feature of consumer behaviour.” (Hewer & Campbell, 1997, p. 188). However, this does not detract at all from the conceptualising for recognising different phases – we just have to take into account a much more dynamic process. Furthermore, the fact that all kinds of unconscious processes that can be manipulated play a role in the customer journey does not mean that the consumer has become entirely ‘irrational’ (Maas, 2013). That would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

From a retailer’s perspective two further stages are often added to the previously mentioned three stages: delivery and relationship management/after-sales (customer care) (Schut et al., 2014). Although this appears to be a logical addition it is necessary to realise that we are dealing with two processes: a consumer process and a supplier/ retailer process, which are not organised in the same way. The consumer is, of course, also involved with a delivery, but clicking a button on a website to have the package delivered to a local branch is somewhat different than the fulfilment of this order. From a retailer’s perspective marketing more likely looks like the following: ‘create demand, identify where product could be purchased, expose and engage the shopper, capture transaction data, apply learnings for next marketing action’ (Blatt, 2012). The two perspectives or processes are difficult to understand in one ‘journey’, just like some concepts are reasoned more from the customer perspective (Omni-channel) and others more from the retailer perspective (cross-media) (see Van Vliet, 2014). The fact that the customer process and the retailer process ‘touch’ is evident and has recently been captured in the increasingly popular term ‘touchpoints’ (Shopping2020, 2014). However, a strong conceptualisation of the term touchpoints is lacking: theoretical embedding, conceptual definition and operationalization are still seldom encountered. Furthermore, the question arises about where touchpoints differ from the ‘old’ term of ‘service encounter’ as ‘a period of time during which a consumer directly interacts with a service’ (Clarke & Schmidt, 1995).


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Schut, G., Josten, L., Beek, A., Heinemans, L., Selimi, S. & B. Jansen. 2014. Consument organiseert in 2020 zijn eigen gemak. Postnl/Capgemini Consulting. Download van

Stobart, J. 2008. Spend, spend, spend! A history of shopping. The History Press.

Van Vliet, H. 2014. Cross-mediascapes. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

Westbrook, R.A., & Black, W.C. 1985. A motivation-based shopper typology. Journal of Retailing, 61, 1, pp. 78-103.


Professor Cross-media at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences

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