The Information Seekers -- a Cross-Cultural Consumer Elite

Jack L. Engledow, Indiana-Purdue University at Indianapolis
Hans B. Thorelli, Indiana University
Helmut Becker, University of Portland
[ to cite ]:
Jack L. Engledow, Hans B. Thorelli, and Helmut Becker (1975) ,"The Information Seekers -- a Cross-Cultural Consumer Elite", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 02, eds. Mary Jane Schlinger, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 141-156.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1975      Pages 141-156

THE INFORMATION SEEKERS -- A CROSS-CULTURAL CONSUMER ELITE

Jack L. Engledow, Indiana-Purdue University at Indianapolis

Hans B. Thorelli, Indiana University

Helmut Becker, University of Portland

[This research was made possible by the generous support of the International Business Research Institute of the Graduate School of Business, Indiana University; and the Consumer Research Institute.]

[Jack L. Engledow is Associate Professor of Marketing at Indiana-Purdue University at Indianapolis; Hans B. Thorelli is the E. W. Kelley Professor of Business Administration at Indiana University; Helmut Becker is Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Portland.]

This article summarizes an international comparative study of subscribers to and users of product test magazines in the United States and Germany. Such subscribers are found to be of higher income, education, and social class than "average consumers" in their respective countries, and are much more critical and "rational" consumers--with a strong interest in consumer affairs. They also, however, are somewhat more conservative and much more discriminating in their criticism of business and advertising than would be supposed by the usual consumerist stereotype. The striking similarity in demographic characteristics, attitudes, and purchase behavior across nations leads the authors to suggest that there exists a rather homogeneous cross-cultural elite of affluent and information-sensitive consumers which may be of strategic importance to consumerists, public policy makers, and marketing decision-makers.

The proper functioning of markets in advanced, affluent economies depends heavily upon adequate stocks and flows of information. As buying decisions become more complex, the quantity, quality, and type of information available to consumers substantially determines the allocation of resources, and becomes a critical concern for all who are interested in the efficiency and effectiveness of the marketplace.

One type of information which has grown rapidly in quantity, and presumably in influence in affluent economies,is the output of Consumer Information (CI) agencies--organizations whose purpose is to dispense information about products in which they have no commercial interest. These organizations, typified by Consumers Union in the United States and Consumers' Association in the United Kingdom, have grown precipitously during the past decade both in number and size of organizations; the number of consumers reached directly and indirectly by the information outputs of the agencies has increased dramatically. [The growth and nature of CI organizations is examined in detail in H. B. Thorelli and S. V. Thorelli, Consumer information handbook: Europe and North America. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974.] The material which is summarized below is one facet of the International Consumer Information Survey--a five year study whose purpose was to gather an organized body of knowledge about CI agencies and the consumers which make use of their product information. Specifically, this portion of the investigation was designed to characterize and contrast the subscribers to three product test reporting magazines: DM and test in Germany, and Consumer Reports in the U.S.

Prior to this study, no comprehensive attempt had been made to identify users of product test reports and to study the ways and situations in which they used such information. There was ample evidence, however, that users-wherever found--tend to be much more affluent and better educated than the general population. [This has been consistently reaffirmed by the annual subscriber surveys of Consumers Union, Consumers' Association, and other organizations in the U.S. and EuroPe as well as in several independent surveys of such organizations.] The consistency of this finding coupled with the overall purpose of the survey determined the following objectives of the subscriber study:

1). To characterize the subscribers Of three major CI publications as to demographics and certain attitudes, and to gather data on their use of CI and other information sources.

2). To compare and contrast the subscribers of the three organizations, so as to isolate similarities and differences in subscriber characteristics among the different organizations.

3). To test the broad hypothesis that there exists a new breed of affluent, information-intensive consumers with consistent demographic and attitudinal patterns across cultural boundaries--a group to which we refer to as "The Information Seekers."

METHODOLOGY

The research described above can be characterized as a cross-cultural, comparative study of the subscribers to product test magazines. To fully meet the purposes of the study, it was necessary to make comparisons between subscribers and "average consumers" within countries and between groups of subscribers across countries. To accommodate these purposes and stay within reasonable budget constraints, the study was restricted to two countries, Germany and the United States and the multiple-sample research design described in Table 1. was used.

Six samples were selected as follows:

1) One nation-wide random sample of subscribers from each country for use in between-country comparisons. Over 600 usable mail questionnaires were received in each country from an initial ms; ling of 1000 (after two follow-ups).

2) One metropolitan random sample Of subscribers from each country for use in comparing with "average consumers." Professional market research firms administered a structured questionnaire to 100 subscribers.

3) One metropolitan random sample of "average consumers" from each country-drawn from the same area as the metropolitan subscribers, for within-country comparisons. Professional interviewers administered a structured questionnaire to 200 randomly-selected residents.

These six samples were administered a questionnaire which was basically the same for all samples. The mail questionnaires were shortened slightly by omitting a small section on convenience purchases, and two unaided recall questions were changed to aided. The German samples, Of course, received a translated version; care was taken by means Of pretesting, consultation with our German professional research firm, and careful supervision by the German national who is a member of our research team to assure compatibility in meaning between countries, and not Just literal translation. There were also minor changes required because of differences in products, information sources, and demographic characteristic categories between countries. Overall, much care was taken to insure maximum comparability in form and meaning among the mail-interview versions and the German-American versions. Two versions of each style questionnaire were prepared, with questions split and reversed where appropriate to avoid positive-negative bias by respondents.

TABLE 1

SUMMARY OF ALL SAMPLES INTERNATIONAL CONSUMER INFORMATION SURVEY

The questionnaires contained seven sections: General Attitudes; Durable Good Purchase Behavior; Auto Purchase Behavior; Convenience Good Purchase Behavior; Media Usage and Advertising Attitudes; CI Usage and Consumer Concerns; and Demographic Characteristics. The questionnaire was designed with attitude and purchase behavior questions in the beginning, before any overt reference to CI agencies, and care was taken in questionnaire design and interviewer training to mask the purpose of the study. (See Table 2). Purchase behavior questions were based upon the respondent's most recent purchase in the product category, and those with no purchase during the past year skipped the section altogether. Preliminary versions of all questionnaires were pretested, and after revision, were administered during the spring of 1970.

Analysis consisted primarily Of two-group comparisons between subscribers and average consumers within countries, and between subscriber groups between countries. Tests for statistical significance were performed, using the Mann-Whitney U Test where ordinal data were available, and the Chi-Square Two Sample Test when the data were nominal. [See S. Siegel, Non-parametric statistics, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1956.]

RESULTS

As illustrated in Figure I, the analyses in this study unfolded sequentially, starting with subscriber--average consumer comparisons of metropolitan samples in each country, followed by comparison of nation-wide samples of subscribers between countries.

FIGURE 1

DESCRIPTION OF COMPARISONS IN STUDY

In brief, the first major question was how do subscribers compare to average consumers in their own country?; the second was how do subscribers in one country compare to those in another? These will be examined in turn:

TABLE 2

MASTER QUESTIONNAIRE MAKEUP BY SECTIONS

Within-Country Comparisons

Out of the hundreds of paired comparisons performed between the subscribers and average consumers in the two countries, a number of strong patterns emeroe:

Demographic Characteristics The previous finding that users of CI are affluent and well educated was strongly supported. In both countries, subscribers were found to have much higher incomes and educational levels, and were higher in social class than average consumers. They uere also likely to be married, are slightly older in mean age (with heavy concentration in the 24-44 age bracket), and are much more likely to be in the professional and managerial occupational brackets. A summary of actual results making the same point with the national samples is included under Between Country Comparisons below.

General attitudes. There is also a striking pattern of similarity among subscribers in the two countries in a number of purchase-related attitudes which were measured by the survey.

TABLE 3

GENERAL ATTITUDE COMPARISONS

Subscribers were found to be more planful, more likely to be opinion leaders, with a more favorable attitude toward business, and less likely to be product innovators than average consumers. The liberal-conservative dimension, however, was decidedly culture-linked as we measured it, with German respondents overall much more sympathetic with liberal social and economic actions than Americans. There were no systematic cross-cultural differences between subscribers and average consumers here, though on the general liberalism screening question "You can't change human nature," subscribers in both countries were more liberal.

Media usage. In both countries, subscribers watched TV and listened to radio less, and read newspapers and magazines more than average.consumers. As would be expected from the education-income profile, subscribers showed higher readership of high brow magazines such as New Yorker and CaPital (Germany), and less for the "lower brow" Modern Romances and Neue Revue. There were also wide differences in radio-television weeklies (TV Guide, Hoer Zu!) where average consumer readership was much higher,and in other product opinion magazines (Mechanics Illustrated, Auto-Motor Sport (Germany), Good Housekeeping) which were read more by subscribers to product test magazines. Besides the usual income-education bias in media selection, there seems to be strong correlation in readership of magazines containing product information. Another finding of interest was that the product test magazines were well known to about 20% Of non-subscribers in each country, and that there is much evidence that product ratings and other information influence non-subscribers by means of borrowed copies, library usage, and word of mouth.

Purchase behavior. Subscribers own more autos and other durable goods than average consumers in both countries. Respondents indicated ownership from a list of fifteen of the most common durable goods items in each country. For all but one item (Black and white TV in Germany), subscribers were more likely to be owners, and they owned almost 1.5 times as many autos. This fact, combined with the opinion leadership finding above suggests that subscribers constitute a market segment whose economic importance may be disproportionate to its absolute size.

Respondents were asked to indicate perceived importance of various shopping criteria and information sources in the purchase of a specific durable good or auto. With thirteen shopping criteria, eight information sources, two types of purchases, and four samples in two countries, the data are obviously unwieldy to summarize,yet three fairly clear PatternS were apparent:

1. Subscribers regard themselves as more "rational" consumers in the traditional sense: Compared to average consumers, they consistently perceive themselves as giving greater weight in buying to performance--economic related criteria such as durability, service, price, and performance; and less to shopping convenience variables like dealer location and product availability. Operational economy was important to German subscribers, but not to American subscribers in this pre-energy crunch survey. We could guess that the answer would be different today.

2. Subscribers use more sources Of information in making purchases, and they rely heavily upon the product test magazines. In the U.S. over one-third of the subscribers cited Consumer Reports as an important information source (using unaided recall before mentioning Consumer Reports in the interview)--more than any other information source mentioned. Despite their experience as shoppers and their high educational level, subscribers perceive themselves as using past experience and personal Observation less than average consumers.

3. Subscribers cited Information Availability as an important shopping criterion in 75% of the shopping experiences examined in both countries, as opposed to about 50% in the case of average consumers. This is but another indication of the importance of information to this special group.

Satisfaction. The subscribers examined here have spent money to receive specialized product information, and apparently a large percentage spent the time to sort through the detailed and often-complicated findings included in the magazines. (See the perceived usage data under Between Country comparisons below). One interesting question is whether such expense and effort results in "better" buying behavior from the user's viewpoint. At least one recent study would suggest that increased effort should lead to higher satisfaction. [Richard N. Cordozo, An experimental study of consumer effort, expectation, and satisfaction. Journal of Marketing Research, Aug 1965, 2, 244-249.]

Satisfaction measures were taken from respondents on each purchase traced (durable, auto, and convenience) on three separate dimensions: satisfaction with the product purchased (e.g. "was all I expected"), with personal shopping activity ("could not have made better purchase, even with more information") and with information availability ("had plenty of information available").

A direct comparison of subscribers with average consumers in both countries revealed one interesting difference: German subscribers were generally better satisfied than average consumers with their overall buying behavior by the measures used, while U.S. subscribers were generally less satisfied. (See Table 4).

TABLE 4

SUMMARY OF SELECTED SATISFACTION MEASURES  (3 PURCHASE DECISIONS, 6 QUESTIONS ON EACH)

If this meant that subscription to Consumer Reports led to poorer purchasing, it was a disappointing outcome (particularly to Consumer Reports). Further analysis clarified the situation. Within the U.S. subscriber group, it was possible to separate those who perceived themselves as having used CR as an important input in the particular purchases examined from those who did not. When these groups were compared, perceived users were higher in satisfaction for 15 of the 1& measures. The implication is that while subscribers as a group are harder to satisfy than average consumers, they do increase their satisfaction in those particular instances where they perceive that Consumer Reports was an important input into the decision. Overall, U.S. subscribers thus seem to either set higher standards for products, or to evaluate performance more critically, or both. The interesting difference between German and U.S. subscribers noted here will be discussed more thoroughly in Between-Country Comparisons below.

Summary. Out Of the many findings in the within-country comparisons, it is particularly interesting given the purposes of this study to isolate variables in which both German and U.S. subscribers varied significantly from average consumers in their respective countries. For convenience, these may be divided into "Universals"--variables where German and American subscribers varied from average consumers in the same direction; and "Opposites"--where subscribers differed in each country, but in opposite directions:

Universals

Subscribers Higher than Average Consumers

Socio-economic             Attitudes

Income                         Planfulness

Education                     Opionion Leadership

Social Class                 Opinion of Business

Buying Behavior                                             Media Usage

Ownership of Durables and Autos             Print Media Readership

Purchase Ecperience                                 Product Tests as Information Source

Shopping Activity

Concern with Information Availability

Other

Subscribers generally more favorable to increased government activity in the several action areas listed (product testing, preventing misleading advertising, etc.)

Subscribers Lower than Average Consumers

Media Usage

Broadcast Media Usage (Radio-TV)

Opposites

German Subscribers Higher; U.S. Lower:

Attitude

Increased Government Control of Business

Satisfaction

All Satisfaction Measures.

U.S. Subscribers Higher; German Lower:

None

Selected ones of these Universals and Opposites will be examined in greater detail in the Between-Country Comparisons.

Between-Country Comparisons

The Within-Country comparisons suggested that subscribers in each country are high-income, well-educated, upper-middle social class consumers who are information sensitive, "rational," and--at least in the U.S.--hard to please. Comparisons of the nation-wide random sample of subscribers from the two countries added detail to this picture, and also gave a better opportunity to examine use of ratings and perceived effectiveness of the product testing organizations themselves.

Demographics. In Table 5, the basic demographic characteristics of subscribers are compared to census data. It is apparent not only that subscribers are sharply different from average consumers in each country, but also that they are quite similar between countries. Although no statistical tests were performed because of the differences in measures of income and education, it is apparent that subscribers are similarly over-represented in the highest income group, the highest educational group, the managerial-professional group, and the 25-44 age group. These findings have been consistently confirmed in other countries, as well. [Subscriber Surveys of Which, the publication of Consumers' Association in the United Kingdom, and a special survey in 1969 of subscribers to the Norwegian publication Forbruker-rapporten, for example.]

Attitudes. Attitudinal patterns for German and American subscribers were quite similar for most dimensions tested. Both groups were highly "planful," perceived themselves to be opinion leaders but not product innovators, and had moderately favorable attitudes toward business, as in the within-country comparisons. In the liberal-conservative area, however, the cultural differences between the two countries became obvious. The U.S. subscribers were substantially opposed to three liberal "action" areas--(increased government control of business more student power, welfare)--while the Germans strongly favored such policies.

Attitudes toward advertising in the two countries also present an interesting pattern: Americans are everywhere more favorable to advertising than Germans; but within-countries, American subscribers have a much less favorable attitude than average consumers, while German subscribers have a slightly more favorable attitude. Perhaps even more significant is the fact that while German criticism is "across the board," American respondents--particularly subscribers--express strong support for the economic aspects of advertising (is essential, raises standard of living), but are highly critical of what might be called social aspects (persuades people to buy unneeded products, does not present a true picture). The pattern again suggests that subscribers are critical of some business practices, but basically sympathetic with the business system. [The questions used in this section were identical to those used in a section of R. A. Bauer and S. A. Greyser, Advertising in America: The consumer view, Boston, Mass.: Division of Research, Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University, 1968. Results in the U.S. were similar to those obtained by Bauer and Greyser.]

TABLE 5

SELECTED DEMOGRAPHIC CHARACTERISTICS  -  SUBSCRIBERS COMPARED TO CENSUS DATA

Use of Product Test Reports

Table 6 summarizes the subscribers' perceived use of product test recommendations.

TABLE 6

PERCEIVED USE OF PRODUCT TEST RECOMMENDATIONS  -  NATIONAL MAIL SAMPLES  (AS % OF ACTUAL PURCHASES)

Though such perceptions may be overstated, the results show three trends that were consistent wherever measured in the study:

1). Subscribers perceive high usage of recommendations in making purchases. This was shown by unaided recall in the metropolitan samples besides direct questioning in various parts of the mail and interview surveys.

2). Use is higher in durables than for autos in both countries. Coverage of autos is spotty in the German magazines, but extensive in Consumer Reports.

3). There is high satisfaction with the magazines' recommendations by those who have purchased recommended products.

The between-country comparisons also added another dimension to the findings on satisfaction which were cited in the Within-Country section above. There it was noted that German consumers were more satisfied with purchases overall than average consumers, U.S. consumers less satisfied, but that every case of perceived use of product test reports in an actual purchase was accompanied by higher satisfaction with the product and the purchase process. These findings were strongly reinforced by the between-country comparisons. In the twelve possible comparisons (two products, three satisfaction dimensions, two questions each) German subscribers perceived themselves as better satisfied than Americans in all twelve. Either Germans are easier to satisfy or German information and products are superior. In comparing purchase decisions in both countries where there was perceived use of product tests, there was greater satisfaction in 20 of 25 measures--10 at statistically significant levels. None of the five measures where satisfaction was less was at a significant level.

Satisfaction with magazines and test reports. The subscribers to the product test magazines surveyed gave high performance marks to the magazines and the agencies which produce them. Figure 2 summarizes the results of twelve separate questions which were designed to measure three basic dimensions: Reliability-Credibility; Relevance-Timeliness; and Clarity. Two questions also measured general effectiveness.

FIGURE 2

SATISFACTION WITH MAGAZINES AND AGENCIES ON FOUR DIMENSIONS

The results are presented as a mean index, where 100 indicates all positive responses, minus 100 all negative. Though results are obviously highly favorable to the magazines. two interesting conclusions may be drawn:

1). DM , which is a commercial, comParatively flamboyant, popular style magazine which accepts advertising, gets higher ratings for clarity, but much lower marks on reliability and credibility than CR and test, both of which are rather straight-laced, non-profit, and assiduously avoid any commercial contact with business whatever:

2). All three magazines get the most criticism in Relevance and Timeliness-not testing often enough, testing too few brands or products, irrelevance of testing criteria (too much emphasis on safety in particular), and difficulty in finding recommendations at time of purchase.

It should be noted that these are relative weaknesses only, and that overall evaluation of magazines and agencies by subscribers was highly favorable throughout the study.

CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS

This study has taken an extensive cross-cultural look at a comparatively small, rather specialized group of consumers--those who subscribe to product test magazines. Some cross-cultural differences were noted among subscribers. The Germans, with a long history of government paternalism, were more sympathetic to government action on most issues. They also are a bit behind the Americans in the overall game of consumption, so they own fewer goods, have less purchase experience, and seem not to be as hard to please (despite their stereotyped reputation for being methodical and rational). Overall, however, subscribers proved to be a surprisingly homogeneous group who might be characterized as follows:

They comprise a consumer elite of high income and educational attainment, tending to be upper middle class managers and professionals, concentrated in the 25-44 age bracket. They are hard-to-please consumers, critical of advertising and some business practices, and anxious for more government activity in various consumerist areas. At the same time, their criticism is selective, and in other areas they show conservative leanings and basic sympathy with business and private enterprise. They own many goods, are experienced and vigorous shoppers who plan carefully, and they use "rational" (economic-performance related) shopping criteria. They are highly information-intensive, seeking out and using many different types of product information, [See H. B. Thorelli, Concentration of information power among consumers. Journal of Marketing Research, 8, 1971, VIII, 427-32.] and are particularly sensitive to the availability of "good" information in any given purchase situation. They use product tests extensively, believe in them and the agencies which dispense them, and are better satisfied when they use their recommendations. They perceive themselves to be opinion leaders, but not innovators in the use of products.

We have labeled this group "The Information Seekers." Some results in this study and others suggest that consumers with these characteristics may be found in all advanced, affluent economies, both within and without the ranks of subscribers to product test magazines. Common sense would dictate, and beginning evidence suggests,that some subscribers are not Information Seekers, and some Information Seekers are not subscribers, though the correlation between these two groups is probably high.

Subscribers to test magazines seldom comprise more than 3% of the households in a country (Norway is an exception) and there is insufficient data to suggest how much larger, if any, the Information Seeker group is likely to be. What is apparent is that from the standpoint of both sheer economic potential and capacity to influence others, this group probably has importance far beyond its . actual numbers. It should delineate an information-sensitive market segment of some importance to marketing decision-makers in the private sector. Perhaps even more importantly, from the public viewpoint, the Information Seekers may well contain the vigilantes of the modern market place--well-informed, interested, and vocal opinion leaders who serve as spokesmen and proxy purchasing agents for other consumers. In either role, they are an important group in our economy. They merit the further attention of both researchers and policy makers.

REFERENCES

Bauer, R. A., & Greyser, S. A. Advertising in America: The consumer view. Boston: Division of Research, Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University, 1968.

Becker, H. Consumer information and the image of advertising in Germany with significant comparisons to America. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Graduate School of Business, Indiana University, 1971.

Engledow, J. The Consumer RePorts subscriber: Portrait of an intense consumer. Indiana Business Review, Aug-Sept 1972, 32-40.

Engledow, J. The impact of Consumer Reports ratings on product purchase and post-purchase product satisfaction. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Graduate School of Business, Indiana University, 1971.

Thorelli, H. B. Concentration of information power among consumers. Journal of Marketing Research, 8, 1971, 427-32.

Thorelli, H. B. Consumer information programmes. International Consumer, Autumn 1972. 15-21.

Thorelli, H. B. Testing, labeling, and certifying: A new perspective on consumer information. British Journal of Marketing, Autumn 1970, 126-32.

Thorelli, H. B., & Thorelli, S. V. Consumer information handbook: Europe and North America. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974.

Thorelli, H. B., Becker, H. & Engledow, J. The information-seekers--an inter- national study of consumer information and advertising image. Cambridge, Mass.: Ballinger, in press.

----------------------------------------