Clothing Decisions: a Decision Process Analysis of Focused Group Interviews

Roger D. Blackwell, The Ohio State University
Jo Ann Schickel Hilliker, The Ohio State University
ABSTRACT - The purpose of the research was to gain a comprehensive understanding of variables and the processes involved in the purchase of selected garments of women's clothing. A decision process approach was used to analyze ten focused group interviews conducted in varied geographic and demographic populations.
[ to cite ]:
Roger D. Blackwell and Jo Ann Schickel Hilliker (1978) ,"Clothing Decisions: a Decision Process Analysis of Focused Group Interviews", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 05, eds. Kent Hunt, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 743-749.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 5, 1978      Pages 743-749

CLOTHING DECISIONS: A DECISION PROCESS ANALYSIS OF FOCUSED GROUP INTERVIEWS

Roger D. Blackwell, The Ohio State University

Jo Ann Schickel Hilliker, The Ohio State University

(On leave from the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service)

ABSTRACT -

The purpose of the research was to gain a comprehensive understanding of variables and the processes involved in the purchase of selected garments of women's clothing. A decision process approach was used to analyze ten focused group interviews conducted in varied geographic and demographic populations.

INTRODUCTION

The purchase and use of women's garments has been investigated by many researchers. Generally, these investigations have concentrated on only one or a few of the variables such as information sources (Stauffer, 1972; Arbaugh, 1974; Orsini, 1972; Martin, 1971-1972), confidence and perceived risk related to satisfaction (Sproles, 1969), physical characteristics such as color or fiber content (Wylie, Grown, and Morris, 1977; Schultz and Phillips, 1976) racial and socioeconomic factors (Braguglia and Rozencranz, 1968; Patson, 1971; Sturdivant, 1971; Schickel, 1970), social class (Warning 1956; Roach 1960; Kundel, 1976), quality/price relationships (Stafford and Enis, 1969; Sims, 1969), and numerous other evaluative criteria such as laundering qualities, appearance and style, durability, fit and so forth (Borrell et al., 1964; Nolan and Levine, 1959; Shelly, Goldberg and Clayton, 1968; Clayton and Sherman, 1972; Jenkins and Dickey, 1976). Many studies have also focused on complaints and satisfaction (Whitlock et al., 1959; Conklyn, 1971; Steiniger and Dardis, 1971; Ayers et al., 1963; Wall, Dickey and Talarzyk, 1976).

The investigation of each of these variables provides important clues to understanding purchase and usage decisions but the clues are limited only to partial explanations. A more comprehensive approach is needed to integrate all of these variables, or even to determine what variables are relevant. Ryan (1966, p. 178) has commented on the need for understanding a wide range of variables and their interrelationships:

We can have a better understanding of what will be satisfactory to the consumer if we know: why people choose the clothes they do; how society influences them in their selection; the relationships between personal values, interests, attitudes, self-concepts and personality factors and the effect of clothing on individuals.

The research reported in this paper takes an integrated approach to understanding clothing decisions, using a comprehensive model of consumer decision processes as an aid to collecting and analyzing data. This study involves qualitative data and must be regarded as exploratory in nature. However, it is based on an approach designed to discover major variables important in clothing decisions which may later be subjected to more quantitative approaches. The results, though exploratory, do describe how some consumers make clothing decisions and may therefore be useful both to management interested in marketing clothing and to home economists interested in maximizing satisfaction from the use of clothing.

RESEARCH METHODOLOGY

This research involved focused group interviews analyzed by reference to the Engel-Kollat-Blackwell/(EKB) model of decision processes. (Engel, Kollat, Blackwell, 1973). The results are reported in this paper, using the EKB model as a framework for presentation.

Data Collection

Ten focused groups were conducted in varying geographic regions. Each group consisted of six to twelve women (average of 10) selected by commercial marketing research organizations using random recruiting techniques and screening questions to obtain balanced groups. The screening question given to randomly selected women on the telephone consisted of a statement in which respondents were asked to rate themselves as "very interested, somewhat interested, or not interested" in fashion. Only those who were very interested in fashion were asked to participate. Other questions established the woman's age, dress size, and socio-economic characteristics. Each group consisted of a balanced composition of age and socio-economic characteristics and three racial groups. Thus, because of recruiting specifications in this study, the women wore average clothing sizes and possessed a greater than average fashion interest compared to the population as a whole.

The interviews were conducted in Atlanta, Boston, Columbus (Ohio), Daly City (California) and San Antonio. All interviews were tape recorded and conducted in specially equipped facilities of commercial marketing research organizations. Half of the interviews were conducted by the senior author and half by another investigator experienced in group interviews.

Focused Group Approach

The purpose of the focused group approach is to provide a sampling of the decision elements in clothing decisions. No attempt is made to develop a statistical description of the proportion of consumers in the population possessing specified attributes. The qualitative approach of focused group interviews does not supplant statistical description but rather provides an important prior step by discovering variables that are important and generating hypotheses for investigation in quantitative studies (Cox, Higginbotham, Burton, 1976).

An interview guide was used in conducting the focused group interviews. This generally enhances the efficiency of the technique in collecting the maximum amount of relevant information but at the same time has the potential of arresting discussion that might generate topics not previously considered by the researchers and may force discussion of topics that are not meaningful to the group participants (Merton, Fiske, Kendall, 1975). These problems were recognized by the interviewers who, be being sensitive to the problems, attempted to allow and encourage the discussion into areas not covered in the interview guide (but relevant to fashion and clothing topics) and to move to other areas of discussion when topics failed to generate meaningfulness to the participants.

Theoretical Framework for Analysis

The Engel-Kollat-Blackwell (EKB) model of consumer decision making was used for analysis of the data and as the theoretical framework for the study. For each garment analyzed in the study, separate analysis pages were prepared containing headings corresponding to stages of the EKB model (problem recognition, internal search, etc.). Each of the authors independently listened to all tapes of the interviews and recorded each comment relating to a stage in the EKB model. Other comments that did not "fit" in the model but were of interest in understanding fashion and clothing purchases were defined as follows:

Problem recognition is the consumer decision stage which is caused by recognition of unmet needs. Problem recognition results when a consumer recognizes a difference of sufficient magnitude between what is perceived as the desired state of affairs and what is perceived as the actual state of affairs. It leads to doing something about this feeling or recognition.

Internal search and alternative evaluation is the consumer's use of existing attitudes to identify and evaluate alternative solutions. The consumer identifies the pertinent evaluative criteria based on past experience.

External search and alternative evaluation is the consumer's use of various sources of external information such as mass media, personal sources and marketer-dominated sources (advertisements, dealer visits and so on) to learn about the number of alternative solutions to the perceived problem. The characteristics and attributes of these alternatives and the relative desirability of each is reviewed and weighted by the consumer.

Purchase process is the customer in-store environment interaction. Purchase process behavior can be precipitated by two events. One, it can be problem oriented in the sense that the consumer visits a retail outlet in order to purchase a product or service that satisfies some perceived problem. Second, other factors such as desire to get out of the house, a desire to get away from the spouse and children, a desire to engage in fantasy may motivate a visit to a retail store.

Outcome refers to consequences of a decision and the various forms of resulting behavior. Two outcomes are specified: (1) triggering of new behavior, and, (2) post purchase evaluation.

A second objective of the study involved understanding contemporary conceptions of fashion and understanding of the relationship between such conceptions and clothing purchases is necessary to predict future trends that may occur in fashion conceptions and clothing purchases.

The remaining portion of the paper describes the results from the focused group interviews. Following a general discussion on the concept of beauty and role of clothing the results concerning decisions stages are reported for each garment analyzed in the study. These garments include a good dress, skirts, casual clothes, pant suits, bras and panties. Due to the overlap between some garment categories, only the results which relate to distinguishing attributes or decision elements are reported for some garment categories.

CONTEMPORARY CONCEPTIONS OF BEAUTY AND CLOTHING

Contemporary women viewed beauty and fashion in diverse ways and the only consensus position was that a beautiful woman is one who looks healthy, clean, well-postured and appears to take care of herself. Among young women, this usually meant a "natural" look but among middle-aged women, there was more tolerance for "some help for nature."

The women in this study consistently defined beauty more as "personality" or the inner qualities of a person rather than external appearance. The quality of a relationship with a person or a person's attitudes toward life and other people were increasingly viewed as beauty --a position that de-emphasized the role of clothing in achieving "beauty."

When pressed to described women of physical beauty, two different models emerged. One was of the contemporary, natural women. She has a free spirit, is liberated, and wears both casual clothing, such as jeans and casual shirts, or wears exotic dresses with extreme cleavage, no bras and often back-less design. The other model of beauty was the woman who appeared healthy and had a good body. She wears attractive clothing but not exotic clothing.

The Role of Clothing

Clothing was worn to fit into women's peer groups or her life style. Clothing was much more individualistic in the sense that fashions were determined by many types of groups or segments rather than one fashion for the society as a whole. A typical comment reflected this view: "People notice clothing because it explains a lot about your personality," Another woman amplified this view when she said, "You can't judge a book by its cover but clothing gives a good clue about which people are alike."

A GOOD DRESS

Respondents indicated that a good dress was not as important in their lifestyles as it once was. Pants have replaced the dress for many occasions.

Problem Recognition

Varied comments were made indicating the recognition of a need for a new dress. The purchase process for a dress was usually initiated by a special occasion or by a recognition of new fashion look. Career women, however, often walk through a store and see a dress which triggers the decision process.

Many women mentioned that they purchase a dress for a special occasion such as a wedding or funeral or to wear to a special place such as a nice restaurant. In general they felt a dress was expected or more appropriate than pants for such occasions.

Some comments seemed to indicate that fashion is one reason for recognizing the need for a new dress. Several women stated that in spring or fall they feel the need to look for new clothing. The recognition of this need appeared to be a combination of boredom with their present clothing and an awareness of the "new" fashions.

Several of the younger women indicated that they bought a dress because they did not have one. The recognition of a need for a dress may have been prompted by two influences. First, at the time the interviews were conducted (1975), the pants fashion had been important for several years. It had reached a peak and had begun a decline as the "fashion." Skirts and dresses were beginning to appear. Since the women interviewed possessed above average interest in fashion, they probably were picking up a trend. In other words, the eye was becoming accustomed to a new look. Secondly, several women said their purchase of a dress was influenced by husbands or boyfriends. A typical expression offered by one woman was, "My husband said, Why don't you buy a dress? I always see you in pants." Several respondents stated a belief that men were pleased to see legs. Their beliefs support Laver's theory of shifting erogenous zones in women's dress (Laver, 1964).

Career women reported that dresses were still appropriate for office wear, at least two or three days a week, or for special "dress up" days. High school students reported that dresses were worn by some to school but mostly by the straight kids who were "out of it" or by the very stylish, country club kids. There was considerable agreement that students who wore a dress all the time were considered "strange."

Internal Search

The criteria for evaluation of a dress varied with each woman. It appeared that most women went shopping with an idea of what they intend to buy but looked at several dresses to find the one that met most of their criteria. Whether the individual liked the dress when in the store was an important criterion. Color was also very important in the selection of a dress.

Women reported that they must try on quite a few dresses to find the right fit. Some stores were viewed as never having anything that fits or that is appropriate while others do.

Price was also important. Women usually had a price range in mind and did not deviate much from it. Some women made a point to browse through sale dresses.

The care of the dress was also a consideration. Some women would only consider buying washable garments; other preferred dry cleanable ones. One woman said that since she owned only one dress, she preferred to have it dry cleaned.

Several women expressed concern related to the construction of the garment. Several inspected the garment to determine if it was durable. They expected the dress to last a long time. Comments were also made concerning the thread, buttons and size of seams. The women most concerned with construction appeared to be homesewers.

External Search

Few women relied directly on mass media for information on dresses. A few girls indicated that they liked the clothes of Mary Tyler Moore and Cher on television. Most women consulted personal sources of information such as a sister, mother, boyfriend, or husband. High school girls indicated that the popular people at school were significant influences.

Purchase Process

The comments related to purchase process fell into two categories -- store related and product related.

Store related. The store considerations concerned its location, the sales personnel and whether or not an individual "likes" the store. Only a narrow range of stores appeared to be considered. The respondents desired a store that was easy for them to get to. Career women reported that they often do their shopping during lunch hour and choose a store convenient to work.

Various attitudes toward salespeople were expressed. Some women indicated a positive attitude toward sales women but most expressed a desire to look at the dresses and not be helped by salespeople. A typical comment was expressed by one young woman, "Clerks bug you. They always say that a dress looks so cute even when you know it looks crappy."

The product. Two types of dress shoppers were revealed in this study. One is the woman who likes to shop in large department stores for a good selection. The other is the woman who prefers small, unique shops. The latter type disliked shopping in department stores because "you see yourself on the street."

SKIRTS

Most of the comments made concerning a good dress also applied to skirts. The primary attraction of skirts was the variety in skirt lengths, which made skirts a desirable change from pants.

There was a general consensus among the women of all ages that mini skirts were out of fashion even for younger girls. Respondents stated a belief that short skirts became accepted because of the youth revolution, liberalism, freedom and new sexual attitudes; however, they believed that now the mood is more conservative, resulting in more skirts of long and moderate lengths.

Several women indicated that for special occasions they selected the floor length or maxi skirts because they were "fun to wear" and made them feel "special". These women appeared to be very receptive to the fashion trend toward long skirts for "at home" wear or for entertaining.

The women were also concerned about the fit of skirts. Some tall girls reported that it was easier to find skirts to fit than pants that fit. Others indicated difficulty in finding skirts that fit around the waist and hips.

CASUAL CLOTHES

Casual clothes were defined by the researchers as clothes appropriate for home or leisure activities. Almost all women referred to jeans or pants with assorted tops as casual clothes. Other possible clothing items, such as culottes or shorts, were not included in the current definition of casual clothing by most women.

Jeans were recognized as the favorite of younger women although several women over 30 commented on their pleasure in wearing jeans, too. It appears that jeans will be included in wardrobes for many years in the future. Some typical comments of respondents illustrate the probable future in jeans:

"We'll still be wearing jeans twenty years from now."

"They are trying to get skirts back instead of jeans but it won't work, except maybe long skirts, because jeans are so comfortable."

"I like jeans because you can wear anything with them. It doesn't matter if you get a stain on them. You can just keep wearing them every day -- and they are accepted everywhere."

"I wear jeans around home 95% of the time," (Ex-school teacher, age 35).

"We'll never stop wearing jeans."

Problem Recognition

Pants and jeans were perceived to be ideal for contemporary lifestyles. They were worn almost everywhere and were described as the most "comfortable" garment. Almost all women owned at least one pair. The wardrobe of some younger women contained only pants or jeans; no dresses or skirts were included.

Pants and jeans were purchased when old ones wore out. As a woman's inventory became depleted, she became more receptive to purchasing jeans or pants in routine shopping. The women were also sensitive to special sales and special displays or other stimulants to sales.

As with dresses, the purchase of pants or jeans was also prompted by a need related to an activity. The role for pants and jeans has expanded to include all activities including work, parties, dinners on the town and even religious activities. The style of pants or jeans varies with the activity.

Internal Search

Jeans were important to women and they were willing to expend considerable effort to find jeans or pants that match their evaluative criteria. There were specific features that women looked for, such as type of cuff, durability, fit.

Fit was the most important evaluative criteria. Women wanted jeans and pants that fit. A major problem for many women was to get jeans to fit around stomach. Some respondents reported loyalty to some brands because of fit but others said that even the same brands changed so often in fit that brand loyalty does not help. Women reported searching for jeans that fit and finding few that do.

Several women commented on the pros and cons of all cotton versus cotton blend jeans. All cotton jeans were liked because of the softness, however, they wore out quickly. Other women desired cotton blended jeans because of their durability.

A small but distinct group of women indicated that they liked jeans because they could embroider favorite designs on them. They particularly liked to express their own individuality in the designs chosen. This group tended to be younger women who disliked their clothing to be like everyone else.

External Search

Store displays were credited with influencing the type of casual clothes purchased. Husbands and family members were also important influences. An older woman explained that she had not worn pants for 50 years but that at the instigation of her 20 year old daughter she began wearing them for yard work. Now she likes them so much she wears them every place and stated that now they could not be taken away from her.

Purchase Process

Jeans are bought everywhere. Selection is an important factor in determining which store is shopped. Stores appealing to youth -- such as those on campuses -- were perceived to have better selection.

Quite a few women reported the need for shopping in several stores in order to find jeans or pants that fit. The respondents reported that they always tried on pants to check the fit. The exact fit desired depended on the individual. Some women wanted jeans not too tight; others wanted jeans that would shrink to fit their bodies. Some women complained that jeans were too tight in the hips and too loose at the waist, requiring something to be worn over the waist to cover it up. Several respondents stated the male jeans fit better because they could buy the correct leg and waist measurements.

PANT SUITS

The respondents indicated that the use of pant suits varied with age. The younger women felt that pant suits were worn only by older women. Several high school girls indicated that their mothers and grandmothers wore pant suits almost everywhere -- to work, parties, movies and other places. Their fathers were credited with influencing the mothers to wear pant suits. The younger women emphasized that they preferred the mix and match quality of jeans or pants and tops rather than the coordinated suit. Pant suits were generally considered to be too "dressed-up" for younger women.

The older women interviewed indicated that they liked the freedom and comfort of pant suits. Pant suits were perceived as "right" for the office. An older woman explained that pant suits were for older women over 25 who wanted to be neat and who would not wear jeans but did not want to wear a dress. They were believed to be good for lifestyles involving either work or bridge in the afternoon.

BRAS

Attitudes toward bras have become more realistic and more individualistic. Respondents viewed a bra as something to be worn if a woman needs it rather than simply because every one else wears one or does not wear one. If a woman is small, she may not need one but a larger woman probably needs one, especially in active situations such as sports. A few years ago when some women stopped wearing bras, it was considered a "showy" thing with shirts or blouses that made it obvious that no bra was being worn. Today, it is less for show and more a matter of individual preference.

Problem Recognition

Buying a new bra usually occurred for one of two reason. First the woman became increasingly aware the bras she owned did not provide support, had sagging straps, were discolored, or did not make her feel as she wanted to feel. If the situation was really serious the woman might make a special trip to a trip to a department specialty store. By the time she entered the store she had determined the need for a new bra. Thus, she was particularly susceptible to ads or special promotions in the store.

The second reason that often resulted in the purchase of a new bra was the purchase of outerwear that required a different type of bra. Sometimes the purchase of an especially nice dress caused feelings that it was wrong to wear an old bra with a special occasion dress. A new bra might be purchased at the same time as the dress.

Internal Search

The criteria with which women evaluated and selected bras were varied and reflected a highly segmented market. There was nearly complete disagreement or absolute polarity reflected by respondents' comments about what they wanted in a bra. Bra features considered included total disagreement about whether straps should be elastic (so they don't "cut" you and allow active movement) or non-elastic (so they don't stretch out of shape). Some women asked for wider backs because it was more comfortable; others preferred the opposite because wide straps interfered with current fashions. Some women preferred the seamless bras which gave a natural, soft, rounded appearance. The women who liked seamed bras indicated that these bras lasted better and gave better support in contrast to the seamless which became flimsy with a few washings.

The women agreed that the "pointy" look was undesirable and in decline. There was also general agreement that bras must be easily washable in automatic machines without discoloring or falling apart.

Prettiness was an attractive feature for bras but not sufficient reason to cause women to buy the bra or become a satisfied customer. The appearance of the bra may have caused the woman to try it on or give it consideration but other criteria were used in making the purchase.

The two criteria used most often by women in the actual purchase of a bra were fit and comfort. Each woman may define these two criteria differently.

Women may look at the same bra and have very different evaluations on these criteria. Some women look at underwire support bras and say, "How awful. That would just kill me." Other women look at the same underwire bra and say, "That has a good underwire and looks like it would give me enough support to be comfortable."

External Search

As a result of the decision to purchase a bra made prior to entering a store, women often wait for sales or shop for special sales before purchasing. The need for a new bra may be evident but time is usually not crucial.

Younger women were influenced by their friends and their preferences in bras. The women indicated that as their figures matured, each woman relied more on her personal evaluative criteria.

Purchasing Process

Women bought bras in stores that offered a large selection. Middle-aged women were more brand loyal than young women. Young women were more likely to select in bargain basements, specialty stores, chain department stores (Sears, Penney's) and some discount stores. They looked at the prettiness, price, color, and so forth before selecting. The middle-aged woman bought the same brand and style purchased before if satisfied with it and it was available. Several women complained that the styles changed frequently and that they were unable to repurchase a favorite style.

Women felt that they must try on a bra before buying it. The exceptions were young women of moderate (usually B cup) size who were able to buy the one size soft bras and the D cup woman who had limited selection, and such precise requirements that she became a repeat purchaser of one style and brand.

Women were divided in their opinions about the helpfulness of sales clerks in the foundation departments of retail stores. Many women reported that few clerks were helpful with fit problems and style substitutions.

PANTIES

Panties were considered a "fun" product for most young women rather than a product to be taken seriously. Most women reported that they wore briefs and preferred a lot of variety in applied decoration and color.

Problem Recognition

Panties were purchased when the ones owned wore out. Store displays or sales frequently reminded the consumer that her inventory was low.

Several younger women stated that when the hip hugger pants became popular they purchased panties with the lower waist to wear with the new pants. Most women expressed great dislike for wearing natural waist panties with lower waist pants. Many women have continued to wear bikini panties even though outer garments now have natural waists.

Internal Search

Women reported that they liked pretty panties and were heavily influenced by appearance. They usually bought inexpensive panties but occasionally received more expensive ones as gifts from relatives.

External Search

Evaluative criteria used by women when selecting panties were appearance and comfort. As stated before, most women selected panties from those available in stores based on their appearance. Most women preferred panties in a variety of colors or with an applied decoration such as embroidered flowers. A few women preferred white panties.

Women considered comfort important, too, but seldom tried on panties before purchasing. Comfort was judged by visual inspection. Dislike was expressed for elastic that became either too tight or too loose after washing and for seams that scratched. Some women expressed their dissatisfaction with the performance of nylon panties that were dried in a dryer.

Girlfriends or peers were sometimes influential in the selection of panties. The older women indicated that husbands or boyfriends influenced what they purchased.

Purchasing Process

Most women reported that they bought panties in department stores and to a lesser degree in specialty stores. They usually made selections from the tables of panties on display. Some women indicated that they purchased a specific brand such as Sears because they were pleased with previous experiences.

CONCLUSIONS AND FUTURE RESEARCH

A decision process approach revealed substantial insight into the variables that are important in purchase decisions for selected garments. Analysis of focused group interviews, using the Engel-Kollat-Blackwell model, permits a sampling of decision elements in garment decisions and suggests many hypotheses that might be investigated with quantitative or statistical methodologies.

In addition to the specific descriptive elements that might be further investigated, the following general questions are generated from this exploratory research and may be fertile areas for further investigation:

1. The women in this study (who because of selection procedures have above average interest in fashion) appear to be very aware of fashion trends and have well-developed opinions about such trends. Could .groups such as these be isolated and with proper statistical controls be used reliably to predict future fashion acceptance and trends?

2. Substantial differences in opinions were expressed by younger and older women regarding some items of clothing. Will the younger women continue to express the same attitudes and beliefs as they grow older (attitude stability) or will their attitudes and beliefs become more consistent with the older womens' as they mature? (attitudinal assimilation)

3. Practically every garment was discussed in terms of its comfort by respondents. What is the meaning of comfort? Do women use "comfortable" to describe clothes because it is socially acceptable comment or are physical and performance reasons underlying comfort more important?

4. The current definition of a beautiful person appears to minimize physical features and the clothing worn. Is this definition valid among the entire population? Will this definition decrease the importance individuals place on clothing? Is this belief in what a beautiful person may be, reflected in the clothes chosen by an individual?

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