Some Evidence For Additional Types of Choice Strategies

Surjit Chhabra, Indiana University
Richard W. Olshavsky, Indiana University
ABSTRACT - Consumer researchers now recognize that brand choices are mate in a variety of ways. Recently, it has been suggested that the repertoire of consumer choice strategies is even broader in scope and involves the use of surrogates, recommendations and imitation in addition to those choice rules uncovered so far. This paper presents the results of a laboratory study that investigated brand choice strategies (using protocol analysis) for a variety of products; considerable support for the occurrence of these additional choice strategies was found.
[ to cite ]:
Surjit Chhabra and Richard W. Olshavsky (1986) ,"Some Evidence For Additional Types of Choice Strategies", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 12-17.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 12-17


Surjit Chhabra, Indiana University

Richard W. Olshavsky, Indiana University

[Doctoral Student in Marketing and Professor of Marketing, respectively. Both authors contributed equally. In addition, Ms. Teresa Storm's help in transcribing the protocols is gratefully acknowledged.]


Consumer researchers now recognize that brand choices are mate in a variety of ways. Recently, it has been suggested that the repertoire of consumer choice strategies is even broader in scope and involves the use of surrogates, recommendations and imitation in addition to those choice rules uncovered so far. This paper presents the results of a laboratory study that investigated brand choice strategies (using protocol analysis) for a variety of products; considerable support for the occurrence of these additional choice strategies was found.


Consumer researchers grappling with the complexities of consumer choice processes have increasingly come to recognize that choices are made in a much more varied fashion than heretofore theorized (Bettman 1979; Kassarjian 1978; Krugman 1965; Olshavsky and Granbois 1979; Payne 1982; Zajonc and Markus 1932). It is now generally accepted that choice occurs by a variety of rules other than the "linear additive" rule made popular by the research efforts of Fishbein (1967), Fishbein and Ajzen (1972), Ajzen and Fishbein (1977); Wilkie and Pessemier (1973). (Although some theorists maintain that all of these rules can be subsumed by an appropriately specified expectancy-value model.)

Specifically, researchers have uncovered choice rules such as "affect referral" (Wright 1975), in which the evaluation process is wholistic and based on preferences retrieved from memory. In addition to the classic linear additive rule, certain other compensatory rules such as the "additive difference" and "attribute dominance" have been identified (Tversky, 1969). Certain noncompensatory choice rules (e.g., "conjunctive," "disjunctive," and "lexicographic") have also been identified (Bettman 1979). Further, there is evidence that consumers use "phased" rules in certain situations; here, two or more rules are applied in sequence (e.g., lexicographic first, followed by linear additive) (Wright 1974; Wright and Barbour 1977; Russ 1971).

Recently, Olshavsky (1985a; 1985b) has proposed an integrated information processing theory of choice that incorporates an even greater range of choice strategies. Olshavsky suggests that in addition to the rules just described, consumers simplify choice by using certain cues (such as price, country of origin, or store) as an index to the quality of a brand.

While a considerable amount of research has been done on the price-quality relationship (with price alone or with price in combination with other cues) nearly all of this research is atheoretical ant separate from the mainstream of research on choice (Olson 1977; Rao 1984). Olshavsky (1985a) classifies the use of surrogates as another type of choice strategy and thereby integrates the stream of research on price-quality within a single, systematic information processing theory of choice. Olshavsky refers to all of the choice strategies described so far as "own based."

Olshavsky also proposes that consumers can "decide not to decide." That is. a consumer can "subcontract" a choice to another person or organization (Olshavsky ant Rosen 1935). He calls these types of choice strategies "other based." Two major types of other based choice strategies exist -- "following a recommendation" and "imitation."

Again, while there has been a considerable amount of research done on the effects of interpersonal influences (e.g., opinion leadership, word of mouth) and while various theorists have recognized these influences, these theorists treat interpersonal influences primarily as another source of "attribute-value" type information (e.g., the color of the shirt is blue). Information of this type received from sources such as friends is then assumed to be processed in some "own based" fashion (e.g., Bettman 1979; Engel and Blackwell 1932). Olshavsky acknowledges this type of influence, as well as normative influences (Bearden and Etzel 1982), but proposes that in addition, in some cases, the friend or organization actually does the decision making and the consumer simply accepts that friend's or organization's choice in the form of a recommendation (but, of course, recommendations are not accepted in all cases and not without some qualification of the referrer's expertise). Similarly, imitation of others may involve acceptance of brands used by others, with or without the acquisition of attribute-value type information from those being imitated. Indeed, for various reasons (such as losing face), a consumer may studiously avoid acquiring attribute-value information from those being imitated.

Olshavsky further proposes that surrogate based and other based choice strategies can be and frequently are combined with one or more of the choice strategies already identified. A "hybrid" strategy is one that combines an own based strategy with an other based strategy; e.g., a consumer may engage in some form of own based evaluation, but this evaluation process may be limited to only those alternatives recommended by one or more referrers. Other forms of combined strategies are possible, e.g., combining two or more own based strategies (as in a phased strategy) or combining two or more other based strategies (as in following a recommendation and imitating the brand purchases of others). Table 1 summarizes the various choice strategies proposed by Olshavsky.

Considerable evidence can be and has been cited by Olshavsky (1985a) for the occurrence of both surrogate based and other based choice strategies, but nearly all of this evidence is indirect. Few of the studies cited in support of this broadened taxonomy of choice were explicitly concerned with the identification of choice strategies or combinations of these strategies per se. Thus there exists a need for exploratory research on consumer choice processes to test the validity of Olshavsky's proposed taxonomy. The present paper reports the results of a laboratory study designed to enable the observation of one or more of all of the choice strategies described above in a variety of brand choice situations involving several disparate products.

If evidence is found for the existence of these additional strategies, then this result can be taken as support for Olshavsky's broadened theory of choice. This theory should help us to integrate at least three important streams of research related to choice strategies: 1) traditional research on decision making, 2) the price - quality literature, and 3) the literature pertaining to interpersonal influences. Some specific research directions that are implied by this theory are described in the discussion section.





Ten students participated in this study. All were volunteers. Sample size was purposely small because of the large amount of time involved in protocol collection and analysis; this is consistent with prior research utilizing this approach (Payne, Braunstein, and Carroll 1978).


Products were selected that, on theoretical grounds and on the basis of past research, were judged likely to increase the likelihood of occurrence of a wide range of choice strategies. Specifically, the importance of "number of alternatives" in determining choice strategy has been demonstrated empirically and has been given a theoretical explanation in terms of short term memory constraints (Bettman 1979; Lussier and Olshavsky 1979; Newell and Simon 1972; Payne 1976). Recently, for instance Malhotra (1982) has shown that the probability of correct choice decreased significantly as the number of alternatives was increased from five to ten or more. The "amount of information" about alternatives (Cox 1972; Jacoby, Speller and Kohn 1974a; 1974b; Lee 1971; Russo 1974; Summers 1974; Malhotra 1982), the "format" of information (Bettman and Kakker 1976; Russo, Krieser and Mijashita 1975; van Raiij 1977), and the "complexity" of the product (Olshavsky 1979) were also taken into account in the selection of products to be included in this study.

Table 2 presents the ten products selected; for each, the number of brands presented and the number of attributes about which information was explicitly presented is also indicated.




The instrument used in this study was the 1983-1984 General Merchandise Catalog from Service Merchandise. This catalog was used because it features national brands (permitting the occurrence of affect referral) and is more realistic than the information display boards, matrix displays ant 5" X 7" cards used by researchers in the past (e.g., Payne 1976; Lussier and Olshavsky 1979). (The recent rapid growth in direct marketing and especially the increase in catalog sales is another consideration that increases the realism of these materials.)

The subjects were interviewed one at a time for about one hour each. The order of presentation of the ten brand choice tasks was counterbalanced across subjects. Each subject was handed a copy of the 1983-84 Service Merchandise catalog. The experimenter then asked the subject to go to the relevant pages and to make a choice of a single brand in that category and to use whichever choice method s/he normally would use.

Data Collection

The data collection technique utilized was the simultaneous "think aloud" verbal protocols. The collection of verbal protocols is conceptually a straightforward method of obtaining data. The subject is asked to give continuous verbal reports while performing the task in question. The advantages and disadvantages of protocol analysis have been discussed in detail elsewhere and will not be repeated here (see e.g., Bettman 1979; Ericsson and Simon 1980; Newell and Simon 1972; Nisbett and Wilson 1977; Payne, Braunstein, and Carroll 1978).

Data Analysis

The recorded protocols were first transcribed and then they were broken up into short phrases, each phrase corresponding to an assessment of what constitutes a single task assertion or reference by the subject (Newell ant Simon 1972).

The two authors classified the strategies utilized by each subject for each brand choice task based upon the classification of choice strategies proposed by Olshavsky (1985a; 1985b;). Specifically, each protocol was coded as affect referral, own-based (including decision making and surrogate based), other based (including following a recommendation and imitation), or some combination of these rules. While coding, the entire protocol for each brand choice situation was read carefully and attention was paid to the overall context of the protocol. This procedure avoids distortions in the picture of processing that finally emerges (Bettman and Park 1980; Biehal and Chakravarti 1982). No attempt was made to classify the own based, decision making rules into the specific rules involved (i.e., linear additive, additive difference, conjunctive, etc.) since this was not essential to the purpose of this study.


Initial agreement between the two coders was 85%. After discussing those cases involving disagreement, agreement was increased to 92%. The principle source of these disagreements raises a basic issue that is taken up in the discussion section.

Table 3 summarizes the frequency of occurrence of the various choice strategies employed by these ten subjects across the ten products.



Affect Referral

In 9% of the cases, the subjects used affect referral to make their choice. In affect referral, as typically defined, a subject simply elicits from memory a previously formed overall evaluation for one or more of the alternatives and selects that alternative with the highest overall evaluation (Bettman 1979, p. 179; Wright 1976). Typical of the protocols classified as affect referral in this study was the protocol for a watch for Subject 10:

"probably would like an Elgin watch because I have an Elgin now

And, again, for choosing a hairdryer, Subject 10 stated: "page 248, number 2, the Chairol ... I guess the reason I say that is because I have a Chairol hot burners and they are fine"

Own Based Strategies

In a majority (62%) of the brand choice situations, some type of own based choice strategy was employed. These strategies were further sub-classified as either decision making or surrogate based.

Decision Making

Subjects frequently (47%) employed some type of decision making rule. Most of the decision making strategies previously described were observed to occur either alone (e.g., conjunctive or lexicographic) or in combination with others (e.g., lexicographic followed by conjunctive). No attempt was made however to classify these protocols at this level of detail.

Surrogate Based Strategies

In 15% of the cases, subjects employed a surrogate based strategy. Cues such as price and store were used as indices of quality and the choice was ostensibly made on that basis. For example, the protocol for bicycles for Subject 3 included these important utterances related to price as a surrogate of quality:

"the 'Carrera' is a 10 speed also..."

"that is real cheap ... its only $87."

"that tells me, the $87, that that bike is not going to last me too long for that kind of price."

"I guess what I am doing here is ... inferring quality based on price, which might not be correct but for that low of a cost I have to believe that bike is not going to give me long life.

Other Based Strategies

In 5% of the cases, the subjects used an other based choice strategy. Whenever choice was based on recommendation or imitation, it was classified as an other based strategy. (This type of strategy was observed even though no recommendations or information about the behavior of others with respect to these brands was provided; this aspect of the study will be discussed further in the discussion section). For example, the protocol for Subject 7 for hairdryers reproduced in part below indicates that this subject is using an imitation strategy:

"... although I do have a friend who has 22 here, Clairol Son of a Gun ant they are happy with this."

"and since there is not too much difference in these, I would choose #2."

"because I know a friend that has one of those ... #2."

Use of recommendation in choice was demonstrated by Subject 2- in choosing a tennis racquet:

"I know very little about tennis racquets -- I would probably consult someone about buying one.'

Hybrid Strategies

In another 5% of the cases, subjects were fount to engage in a strategy involving both own based and other based strategies in some combination. For instance, Subject 5 seems to be using such a hybrid strategy (i.e., surrogate and recommendation) in choosing a tennis racquet as revealed in the following excerpts:

"Well, I think with these, #13 and #14...I think at this point, they might just be a little too cheaply priced"

"and you start to wonder that you are probably not getting a quality racquet"

" I think I would consult some of my friends who play tennis more than I to ant I would probably have them come to the store with me and to look at these ant see what they think about it.

Combined Strategies

A surprisingly large percentage of choices (10%) involved a choice strategy that combined affect referral with an own based strategy. (This assumes that affect referral does not preclude the possibility of having more than one strongly preferred alternative. This issue is discussed below.) As an example, the complete protocol for Subject 1 for tennis racquet is reproduced in Table 4.



Intra-Subject, Intra-Product Regularities

Even though the sample size was small, some intra-subject and intro-product regularities were apparent. For instance, Subject 10 used an affect referral strategy in 6 out of the 10 choice situations. Subject 5 used a hybrid strategy in 3 out of the 10 brand choice environments.

Juxtaposing subjects' choice rules with the types of products, it was also evident that for color T.V. and cassette player, subjects were using combination strategies almost as often as decision making (e.g., linear compensatory, lexicographic, etc.) strategies. Typically a recommendation) or a combination strategy (involving affect referral with an own based choice rule) was being used for these two product categories.


As expected, based on prior research ant theory, subjects in this study were observed to use a variety of compensatory and noncompensatory decision making strategies alone or in some phased combination. Also, several instances of affect referral (in the strong sense of a single preferred alternative) were observed. Of greater interest however for the stated purposes of this study was the observation of choice strategies involving surrogates, recommendation, and imitation. We interpret these results as lending initial support to Olshavsky's position that theories of choice must be broadened to encompass these additional types of choice strategies.

In several instances, subjects were observed to use affect referral in combination with other choice strategies. Other researchers have reported observing phased strategies to simplify choice (e.g., Bettman 1979, p. 184). However, in all of those situations two or more decision making strategies (usually a noncompensatory strategy is followed by a compensatory strategy) were utilized. This result raises an important conceptual issue concerning Wright's (1976) definition of affect referral; clearly, a consumer can have a very strong preference for a single alternative or strong preferences for more than one. In the latter case some additional type of choice strategy must be brought to bear unless the consumer elects to buy more than one brand. (This option was not permitted in this study.) Similarly, subjects may not have a strong preference for any brand yet they may have "positive feelings" for two or more brands that are used to quickly narrow town the number of options.

Another issue for future research that arose from the disagreements (8%) between the two coders concerned the interpretation of the meaning of "reputation of the manufacturer." In some instances, it was clear from the context that reputation was used as a surrogate for quality; yet in other instances, the use of the term reputation seemed to be closer to "recommendation" (i.e., my friends recommend it). Here too, as with affect referral, in future research much greater attention must be paid to the definition of terms.

This study is obviously limited due to the small sample size, the particular subset of products investigated, the subjective nature of the protocol analysis technique, and the fact that our procedure did not provide subjects with recommendations or knowledge of how others behaved toward these brands (a limitation which makes our results on the occurrence of other based strategies even stronger).

In spite of the stated limitations, we believe that these results can be interpreted as providing strong, although preliminary evidence for the occurrence of the types of additional choice strategies postulated by Olshavsky. It is our hope that these results will encourage other researchers to now study the contingencies proposed by Olshavsky (1985a) between these strategies and consumer and task environment factors.

Space does not permit a detailed description of Olshavsky's theory and the contingencies proposed therein (see Olshavsky 1985a for details.) Briefly though, Olshavsky postulates (as does Bettman (1979)) that the selection of a specific choice strategy or combination of these strategies is contingent upon the characteristics of the consumer (e.g., beliefs, information processing constraints, skills, knowledge) and the characteristics of the task environment (e.g., the number of alternatives present, the amount and quality of information available, and the nature of the products/services involved). For instance, it can be hypothesized that consumers will be more likely to adopt a surrogate based strategy involving price if the consumer believes that price is an index of quality (Cox 1962; Olson and Jacoby 1972). And consumers are more likely to adopt a recommendation strategy when the marketplace provides very little or very low quality information about the product or service involved, as with physicians or life insurance (Formisano. Olshavsky and Tapp 1982).


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