Voluntary Performance Information Disclosures: Economic Perspectives and an Experimental Test

Lawrence A. Crosby, University of Nebraska
Sanford L. Grossbart, University of Nebraska
ABSTRACT - This paper discusses the economic and behavioral considerations involved in the disclosure of product performance information. Economic implications of regulated versus voluntary information disclosure are reviewed and experimental results are presented. The evidence indicates that disclosure increases preference for performance rated brands.
[ to cite ]:
Lawrence A. Crosby and Sanford L. Grossbart (1982) ,"Voluntary Performance Information Disclosures: Economic Perspectives and an Experimental Test", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 09, eds. Andrew Mitchell, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 321-326.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 9, 1982      Pages 321-326

VOLUNTARY PERFORMANCE INFORMATION DISCLOSURES: ECONOMIC PERSPECTIVES AND AN EXPERIMENTAL TEST

Lawrence A. Crosby, University of Nebraska

Sanford L. Grossbart, University of Nebraska

ABSTRACT -

This paper discusses the economic and behavioral considerations involved in the disclosure of product performance information. Economic implications of regulated versus voluntary information disclosure are reviewed and experimental results are presented. The evidence indicates that disclosure increases preference for performance rated brands.

INTRODUCTION

Sellers have often been criticized for not disclosing the kind of information which consumers need to make quality judgements. This information relates to intrinsic or "hidden qualities" of a product that affect performance. Examples might include the cost of operation of an appliance, the expected tread life of a tire, or the wear characteristics of a carpet. The information which is provided through the seller-dominated marketing communication channels (advertising, personal selling, packaging etc.) is assumed to be heavily biased. Critics maintain that it is of little use to consumers predicting brand performance. As a consequence, they argue, there is a significant "information gap" in the marketplace (Thorelli 1977, p. 27).

On the surface, it seems that sellers have little incentive to voluntarily disclose objective information about performance characteristics. The only time it would be advantageous to disclose such information is when it presents a favorable picture of the firm's offering. The result is that while positive quality information might be used for promotional purposes, negative quality information is suppressed. mere 19 also a strategic explanation of why firms do not disclose performance information. If a firm is practicing a strategy of product differentiation it may not be to its advantage to disclose this type of information. Product differentiation involves using differential tangible or intangible features in a brand as a basis for commanding a premium (Kotler 1976, p. 144). Whether it is advantageous for a firm using this strategy to disclose performance data, depends on how its brand is being differentiated and how competitors' brands are perceived (Beales et al 1981). If the firm has successfully cultivated the belief that its brand is of superior quality, when in fact there is no objective basis for this belief, then disclosure of performance information could be disadvantageous.

SOURCES OF PERFORMANCE INFORMATION

A counterargument would suggest that sellers are an important, but not an exclusive, source of information for consumers. Buyers may obtain performance information from personal and independent, as well as, commercial sources (Thorelli 1977). Yet these alternative sources would also appear to be inadequate.

Marketers have long recognized the importance of personal information sources, not only for their information they provide, but also for their potential impact on consumer behavior. From a social welfare standpoint, however, there are two major problems with personal sources of information. First, each individual consumer's experiences are necessarily limited and may not provide a representative sampling of the potential outcomes of purchase. Thus, when a person asks two or three friends how long their Brand X color televisions lasted, there is a relatively large sampling error associated with the average that is obtained. A second problem is that psychological mechanisms are always operative that tend to affect the way that consumers interpret consumption experiences. Post decision dissonance reduction is a good example of such a mechanism (Margulis and Songer 1969). As a result of these psychological mechanisms, a statistical bias may exist in the information obtained from personal sources.

It is probably safe to assume that independent sources such as Consumers Reports are motivated to provide consumers with unbiased information about product performance. Whether they succeed in this endeavor depends largely on their ability to develop testing procedures that consumers view as providing accurate and valuable indications of how the product would perform in an actual consumer-use context. Another major limitation of this source is simply the vast array of products, brands, and models about which consumers desire quality information. Finally, the number of organizations engaged in this activity is limited by unfavorable economic conditions which are partly attributable to a lack of audience exclusivity. It is difficult to exclude non-buyers of product rating publications from the benefits of product use since an interested consumer can obtain and copy the information through the public library at minimal expense. Ultimately, the development of computerized data bases may provide these organizations with greater audience exclusivity (and lower dissemination costs) thus increasing the importance of this source.

STIMULATING COMMERCIAL SOURCES

It seems clear that, in the near future, significant reductions in the consumer information gap cannot take place without the involvement of sellers. The question is whether sellers should be required to disclose information by government edict (Crosby and Taylor 1981). To some, required disclosure might seem to be an extreme measure to be used only after other, more moderate approaches had been tried without success.

Requiring disclosure of information appears to present a number of difficulties and dangers. The public policy maker who adopts this method faces serious problems of determining the socially optimal amount of information and causing exactly that amount to be supplied through regulation. There is the real danger of creating an oversupply of information above the level that consumers desire or are capable of processing. Preliminary research suggests that consumers may not use additional information (Nourse and Anderson 1973; Jacoby, Szybillo, and Busato-Schach 1977; Jacoby, Chestnut, and Silberman 1977) or may "overload" when too much is provided (Jacoby, Speller, and Berning 1974). While evidence on consumer responses to overload has been disputed (Russo 1974; Summers 1974; Wilkie 1974), creating an oversupply would have the effect of wasting resources and could lead to a net loss in utility for consumers.

If it seems desirable to increase the voluntary supply of objective product performance information from commercial sources, it is best to begin by examining factors that determine the supply of information and identifying those barriers that impede greater supply. Specific programs could then be designed to remove these barriers. Although this might not result in the optimal amount of information being voluntarily produced, continued dependence on the market mechanism might avoid the dangers of oversupply. In addition, the market mechanism allows consumers to "bus" as much information as theY want, thus adjusted for individual differences in the utility of information.

AN ECONOMIC PERSPECTIVE

Conventional supply and demand analysis may be helpful in understanding how the output of commercial information is determined . This type of analysis has been previously applied in the area of advertising (Telser 1966), which is one component of commercial information. An advantage of this approach is its explicit recognition that information will not be voluntarily provided unless consumers demand it. In addition, it recognizes that information cannot be supplied without cost. [Certain assumptions will be made in order to facilitate this analysis. First, it was assumed that information is provided as a joint product with the related good or service. Second, a direct distribution system linking producer and consumer (no resellers) was assumed to exist. Finally, consumers' perceptions of the utility of information and producers' perceptions of the cost of supply were assumed to vary from their true values due to imperfect knowledge.]

Figure 1 depicts a simplified situation where the typical consumer is allocating a fixed budget M between a divisible product and information about that product. [The analysis implies that the consumer has some flexibility in the decision as to how much information to buy from the commercial source. Even though the information is provided as a joint product with the related good or service, this flexibility will exist when there are many brands offering various amounts of information. The information decision can then be viewed as coupled with the brand decision.] At an initial product price of PPo, the consumer could spent the entire budget on the product itself and buy M/PPo units. At an initial information price of PIo, up to M/PIo units of information (e.g. bits) could be purchased. Any point on or inside Line A represents the feasible budget set. Utility would be maximized by buying qpo units of product and qio units of information which represents the tangency of the budget line with the highest possible indifference curve u3.

FIGURE 1

ANALYSIS OF CONSUMER'S DEMAND FOR A PRODUCT AND INFORMATION ABOUT THAT PRODUCT

An actual example of this process might involve the purchase of carpeting for the home. The fixed budget M represents the proportion of its discretionary income that the household wished to allocate to the purchase of carpeting. Information can be purchased to help determine the wear characteristics of the carpet, how easy it is to deep clean, and so forth. However, as more money is spent on buying information, fewer square yards of carpeting can be purchased.

By systematically varying the price of the information, noting how the utility maximizing amount of information changes and summing over all consumers, the industry demand curve can be developed. This appears as curve D1 in Figure 2. The supply curve S1 relates the quantity of information supplied to the price of the information. [This industry supply curve for commercial information (S), assumes that the number of firms in the industry remains constant (-n). Since information is supplied as a joint product with the related good or service, it is reasonable that "n" is fairly stable in the short and possibly long run. The industry output at different price levels will then be S =" x s, where "s" is the output of the typical firm.] PI may be viewed as the information component of the price paid by consumers for the related good or service. According to this analysis, demand and supply interact to produce an output QIo of information at a price of PIo.

FIGURE 2

THE DEMAND AND SUPPLY OF CONSUMER INFORMATION FROM COMMERCIAL SOURCES

To close the "information gap", it is necessary to shift the output of information to the right of QIo. There are three ways that this can be accomplished: (A) controlling the output of information at some point QIc > QIo through regulation, (B) shifting the demand curve to the right of D1, or (C) shifting the supply curve to the right of 51- Each alternative is briefly considered below.

Consider the alternative of regulating the amount of information at some higher level, QIc. Without regulation, producers would supply this account of information only at the price level PIC. This, of course, is based on their perception of the cost of supplying different quantities of information as represented by the supply curve S1. If this perception is accurate, they can supply the additional information QIc = QIo and protect their profits only by increasing the price of the information by PIc = PIo.

Setting output at QIc could have negative consequences, as shown in Figure 1. Since cost increases are likely to be passed along to consumers, the budget line shifts from A to B as PIo increases to PIC. Given the new price of information, the consumer's utility would be maximized at the tangency between U2 and Line B. If the consumer's utility perceptions are correct, then U2< U However, qil may not be the regulated amount of information that the consumer is required to buy. For example, if policy makers err in the direction of oversupply (QI > QI1), then the consumer realizes utility U1 where U1 < U2 < U3.

Now it might be argued by the public policy maker that either consumers' perceptions underestimate the utility of more information and/or producers' perceptions overestimate the cost of supplying more information (Ratchford 1977). While this is possible, perhaps a better target for policy action would be to change consumer and supplier perceptions. In this way, the output of information could be increased while allowing the market mechanism to function freely.

The policy approach of consumer education could be used to increase the demand for information at any given price. Because consumers have imperfect knowledge, they may undervalue having added information. If successful, consumer education could have the effect of shifting indifference curves, as represented by U' in Figure 3.

FIGURE 3

POSSIBLE IMPACT OF CONSUMER EDUCATION ON THE DEMAND FOR INFORMATION

Not surprisingly, there has been recent discussion of the interface between consumer information and education (Staelin 1978). Jacoby (1977), for example, contrasted results of surveys indicating that a high percentage of consumers use nutritional label information with other findings that suggested the information has a negligible impact on purchase behavior. Based on laboratory experiments which showed that consumers tend to understand or acquire little nutrition information, Jacoby concluded that consumer education was a necessary prerequisite for interpreting and using performance information. Similar results have also been found in other disclosure areas (Nourse and Anderson 1973). Yet, perhaps too little attention has been given to communication quality. Disclosure, after all, is a form of marketing communication and the matter of educating customers to use information should not supercede the issue of how to provide information in a more usable, and less technical, form (Mazis et al 1981). Both actions are likely to shift D1 to D2.

If producers are correct in judging that disclosure of added information will increase costs, government subsidies or tax relief would probably be necessary to shift S1 to S2. However, the potential welfare effects of these measures would require close examination. For example, the costs of these programs would be generally shared by consumers whether or not they were in the market for the particular product. It might be argued that those who would benefit from the information should be required to pay for it.

It is likely that some producers would experience decreased costs after they disclosed performance information. In these cases, for reasons to be discussed, sales volume might increase in response to more information being made available. As a result, the fixed costs of supplying information would be distributed over a larger number of units of output. This would tend to decrease the information component of price, PI. Competitive pressures might then force other firms to disclose added information. As customers became more aware of performance differences, certain firms which lost sales and experienced increasing costs, would be driven out of the market.

This line of reasoning again suggests the need for an educational effort by government, in this case, directed at the producers whose products meet consumers performance needs. The disclosure advocate would need factual evidence to make a persuasive case with these producers that additional information would cost less rather than more to provide.

RECAPITULATION

Required disclosure of information to consumers is a drastic means of closing the information gap in the marketplace. The previous analysis suggests other options which place greater emphasis on the market mechanism. In general, the more feasible alternatives call for an educational effort by government to change consumers' perceptions of the value of information and/or producers' perceptions of the costs of supply. This latter strategy, however, is based on an assumption that the disclosure would be an effective competitive weapon for the producers of products having superior performance characteristics. Unfortunately, little is known about the nature of consumer response to the voluntary disclosure of performance information. It is reasonable to expect that producers of superior products would be hesitant about disclosing even some negative quality information [Any legitimate testing procedure would reveal performance variance across the product line. Presumably, higher priced models and varieties would exhibit correspondingly better performance. Evidence that not all models in the product line provide "maximum" performance could be taken as negative quality information.] (in the face of non-disclosure by the producers of inferior products) and would need some assurance of an overall favorable response by consumers.

CONSUMERS RESPONSE POSSIBILITIES

Disclosure provides opportunities for firms to realize long-run and short-run gains. A major source of consumer dissatisfaction is high performance expectations which are disconfirmed through actual usage (Anderson 1973). If unrealistic expectations result from inadequate information, then disclosure should add some realism to consumer beliefs and lead to less frequent disappointment in product performance. As a result. consumer satisfaction, brand loyalty and long term profitability are likely to increase.

In the short-run, disclosure of some negative performance ratings might increase the perceived value of seller information and thereby stimulate its use. Thus, the benefits of whatever positive information was disclosed would tend to be enhanced. As long as the information was predominantly favorable, the net effect should be positive. In addition, disclosure may make it easier for customers to buy products that fit their needs. Consumers are likely to be just as concerned with over-buying as with under-buying performance. Voluntary disclosure, therefore, might appeal to those persons who want assurance that the brand or model they select is appropriate for their needs.

Given these consequences, as Day (1976, p. 45) has suggested, consumers should feel more confident about their decisions and develop more favorable attitudes toward producers and sellers. Research conducted by Jacoby, et. al (1974) tends to support this premise. These researchers found that subjects felt more confident about their choices at higher levels of information. One limitation to achieving these gains from disclosure is that consumers may not believe the information provided to them. Not without reason, they may mistrust the motives of the source. However, one way they might evaluate the validity of the information is to compare it to what they would expect. As long as the information does not strongly disconfirm their expectations or otherwise seem suspicious, they should be inclined to believe it.

AN EXPERIMENTAL INVESTIGATION

An experiment was conducted to provide some preliminary data regarding the nature of consumers' short-run response to voluntary disclosure. The principal hypothesis was:

Providing seller initiated performance disclosures will have a positive impact on consumer preference for a firm's offerings.

There are a number of variables that could mediate the impact of voluntary disclosure on consumer choice. These factors fall into three classifications: 1) content factors (the extent to which the information is positively or negatively valued), 2) communication factors (e.g. lack of awareness, comprehension, credibility, etc.) and 3) motivational factors (e.g. relevance of disclosed information). Any attempt to predict the impact of voluntary disclosure must take these factors into account. The approach taken in this study was to create a situation that was "ideal" for information use. If the hypothesis was not supported under highly favorable condition , then there would seem to be little point for extending the research to other realistic and less favorable situations.

METHODOLOGY

Product

Residential carpeting was the test product used in this research. Carpeting was chosen because consumers are likely to regard carpet choice as a major purchase decision involving substantial social and financial risk. Moreover, the product contains significant hidden qualities, especially with regard to wear performance. These factors suggest that consumers would consider performance information to be relevant for this product and would be motivated to use it.

Subjects

The sampling frame was residents who had purchased a home in the previous two years. It was felt that the population of new homeowners would have a relatively high incidence of persons who had recently purchased carpeting or had plans to do so. Subjects were selected systematically from city tax records on an every n-th name basis and recruited by telephone. Contact was made with 86: of the names, 67% of those contacted were qualified, and interviews were completed with 58% of those who were contacted and qualified. In all, 24 couples were involved in the experiment. They are referred to as decision making units (DMU's) below.

Design

A two factor mixed design with repeated measures on one factor was employed (Edwards 1960). This is basically combination of the completely randomized design and the treatments-by-subjects design. It permits a comparison of experimental condition (disclosure of different levels of carpet performance) in terms of scores on the dependent variable. It also permits examination of the differences in scores across the experimental trials (before and after disclosure) and how this may differ by experimental condition.

Procedure

The experiment itself was conducted in subjects' homes. Couples closely examined 5 varieties of carpeting then were asked to reach a joint decision on the likelihood they would buy each carpet for a specific high traffic room in their homes. Subjects could base their preferences on the physical characteristics of the carpets or on information provided about them including price ($9 or $12 per square yard) and surface texture (saxony, twist, or cut and loop). In the next stage of the experiment, all subjects received performance information about some of the carpets. They were told that 2 out of the 5 carpets were manufactured by Brand As Furthermore, they were told that Brand A rates its carpets on wear-ability and discloses these ratings to consumers while Brand B does not disclose performance information. Subjects read a two page description of the rating system and were provided with wear ratings for the 2 carpets. The DMU was then given an opportunity to modify its preferences in light of the new information. The assignment of 2 out of the 5 carpets to Brand A was rotated form couple to couple. This rotation of carpets between Brands A and B served to control all other product cues that might affect preference. All carpets were identified as Brand A approximately an equal number of times.

SubJects were required to engage in other activities during the experiment so that the purpose of the study became less obvious. In addition, an in-depth debriefing revealed that none of the persons involved was aware of purpose of the exercise or attempted to modify their behavior to meet any supposed research objective. Thus it was unlikely that demand artifacts were responsible for the results.

Treatments

The information treatment consisted of providing subjects with actual wear ratings provided by the carpet manufacturer. These ratings are presently disclosed to consumers. To help the subjects interpret the meaning of these ratings, they were provided with an information processing aid that related the ratings to the traffic levels of various rooms in the house (see Figure 4). Carpets used in this study were rated as II, III, or IV. Three rating combinations (IV and IV, IV and III, and IV and II), which approximated product line mixes in the marketplace were utilized.

FIGURE 4

CARPET PERFORMANCE RATING SYSTEM

Measures

Couples indicated their preference, both before and after disclosure, using a purchase probability scale (PPS). The PPS requires subjects to estimate the probability that they would purchase each carpet variety. The actual instructions given asked the couple to assign 100 points to the five alternatives as though they were placing bets on the likelihood they would buy each carpet (for the specified high traffic room).

RESULTS

Mean probabilities of purchasing Brand A carpets (PPSs), before and after disclosure, are presented in Table 1. As shown, the likelihood of purchasing increased for all information content groups. ANOVA results are summarized in Table 2. A significant trials main effect was found (p<.025), indicating a significant increase in PPSs after disclosure. As expected, neither a significant conditions main effect (information content of disclosure) or trials by conditions interaction (disclosure x content) was present. As indicated in Table 1, while PPS's increased for all groups, these differences were only significant (p<.05) in the group which received consistently high ratings (IV and IV) and the group for which the most inconsistent information was disclosed (IV and II). Thus the hypothesis was generally supported.

TABLE 1

TOTAL PPS POINTS DMU ALLOCATED TO BRAND A CARPETS BEFORE AND AFTER DISCLOSURE BY INFORMATION CONTENT GROUP

TABLE 2

ANOVA RESULTS

DISCUSSION

While several implications are suggested by these findings, it is important to recognize the limitations inherent in the design of the study. Since the effects of voluntary disclosure have been the subject of limited research interest, an exploratory investigation was needed. Obviously, market conditions were not duplicated in this experimental context and the need for adequate controls limited the number of decision making units involved. Moreover, the procedure involved a belief change rather than a belief formation paradigm. Subjects were provided with performance information after they had a chance to form purchase intentions. Therefore, utilization of disclosed information required a possible modification of beliefs and cognitive structure. Consequently, resistance or mental inertia could have mediated the full impact of information disclosure. Certainly future research, as discussed below, can shed light on the significance and effects of these factors.

Still, both the prior reasoning and these preliminary results suggest that voluntary disclosure can have a positive impact on consumer preferences. The actual impact of disclosure on sales will likely depend on the mix of performance levels represented in a firm's product line. Barring major differentials in margins for items in the product line, a firm is most interested in impact on total sales. In the experimental situation sales of each hypothetical product line increased, although only two of the three cases proved to be significant.

It might be argued that the changes in purchase probabilities in Table 1 are too small to be of practical importance. Yet changes of this magnitude are often associated with successful marketing communication strategies. The managerial question is whether the margin contribution from added sales exceeds the largely fixed costs of voluntary disclosure. Equally important perhaps, is the fact that disclosure does not appear to be a disruptive market influence. There were no massive shifts in purchase intentions. Instead, disclosure of actual performance ratings appeared to reinforce the judgement of subjects. If this leads to fewer disconfirmed expectations and greater consumer satisfaction, these long-run benefits may even outweigh the marginal short-run gains of added sales. Marginal profitability and increased customer satisfaction would certainly provide meaningful incentives for voluntary disclosure of product performance information.

A separate issue concerns the apparent ease with which consumers utilized the disclosed information. They reported that they found it to be both easy to employ and helpful. Previous research which indicates that consumers neither understand nor use performance information may, by implication, be providing a negative evaluation of the manner in which information was presented or its salience. Disclosure is a form of marketing communication rather than technical specification. Thus, a relevant research issue is how to provide salient and interpretable performance information which benefits consumers, firms and the economic system. In the present case the information voluntarily developed by one carpet manufacturer seemed to prove helpful.

There is a need to replicate and extend this research. Replication should involve the use of other products in addition to carpeting. Extension could involve more levels of product line variability in the disclosure information. Also, various wordings and nonverbal cues for the rating categories might be tested to see how signs and symbols affect information handling. For instance, to consumers tend to ignore seller provided information when even the lowest ratings have positive connotations (e.g. firm, extra firm, and double extra firm mattresses). Further work might also involve adding external validity through field experimentation. The sampling frame could be carpet dealers who carry a particular brand. They could be carefully screened based on sales volume and breadth of product line, then randomly assigned to an information (e.g. ratings on carpet labels) or no information condition. Dealers could then be compared in terms of brand sales and customer satisfaction.

CONCLUSION

Perhaps the optimal solution to the consumer information gap is for government to be only minimally involved and private industry to take the initiative in improving the information environment. The societal advantage of seller initiated disclosure would be that consumers could decide whether to purchase the information or not. Not only is this consistent with the notion of consumer sovereignty, but it would help ensure that information is directed to those who can use it. Consumer researchers can provide a valuable service to all parties involved by identifying the nature of information which consumers desire and testing alternative forms of presentation.

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