Defining and Evaluating Quality: the Consumer's View

Ellen Day, University of Georgia
Stephen B. Castleberry, University of Georgia
ABSTRACT - Market conditions are causing marketers to re-examine quality of products and services as a means of achieving a competitive advantage. Despite extensive research, however, relatively little is known about consumers' perceptions and evaluation of quality. Therefore, a research project has been undertaken to investigate the role of "quality" in consumer purchase and consumption activities. This paper describes the initial findings from focus group interviews, which reveal interesting, if tentative, insights into the meaning of "quality" and how quality of products and services is evaluated before and after purchase/consumption.
[ to cite ]:
Ellen Day and Stephen B. Castleberry (1986) ,"Defining and Evaluating Quality: the Consumer's View", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, eds. Richard J. Lutz, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 94-98.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 13, 1986      Pages 94-98

DEFINING AND EVALUATING QUALITY: THE CONSUMER'S VIEW

Ellen Day, University of Georgia

Stephen B. Castleberry, University of Georgia

ABSTRACT -

Market conditions are causing marketers to re-examine quality of products and services as a means of achieving a competitive advantage. Despite extensive research, however, relatively little is known about consumers' perceptions and evaluation of quality. Therefore, a research project has been undertaken to investigate the role of "quality" in consumer purchase and consumption activities. This paper describes the initial findings from focus group interviews, which reveal interesting, if tentative, insights into the meaning of "quality" and how quality of products and services is evaluated before and after purchase/consumption.

INTRODUCTION

Unstable economic conditions, combined with intense foreign competition and changes in consumer demand, have forced many American businesses to reconsider their strategic focus. The competitive potential of quality, for example, is receiving considerable attention as evidenced by both the academic and popular press (e.g., Garvin 1984; Phillips, Chang, and Buzzell 1983; Reich 1980).

By maintaining a high degree of quality or implementing a program to increase the relative quality of the product or service, many firms have positioned themselves in a profitable strategic niche. Several reasons for the success of such a strategy can be cited. For one, producing "higher quality" goods and services allows a firm to compete more effectively against foreign competition (Blum 1981; Gale 1983). In addition, demand for "high quality" goods and services increases among some consumer segments during unstable economic times (Reich 1980; Bohr 1980), and changes in consumer values are being reflected in a greater focus on quality ("Social Changes..." 1984).

Given this renewed interest in quality, there is considerable discussion-cum-debate as to just what "quality" means, as well as what role quality plays in gaining a strategic advantage (Garvin 1984). This situation notwithstanding, relatively little research to date has directly addressed issues related to quality from the consumer's perspective. Therefore, the purpose of this paper is to present the initial findings from a research project that reopens and reinvestigates the meaning of quality in consumer purchase and consumption activities.

PURPOSE OF THE STUDY

The purpose of the first (exploratory) stage of the research project was to investigate (1) the meaning of "quality" from the consumer's perspective and (2) consumers' evaluation of quality before and after purchase takes place. Because of the nature of the inquiry, no particular definition of "quality" was assumed. "Quality" was simply viewed as a hypothetical construct that plays an instrumental role in consumers' efforts to minimize perceived risks (i.e., financial, social, psychological, physiological, ant/or time) in the purchase of goods and services. In other words, quality, per se, is not the ultimate concern in the evaluation of products and services, except perhaps in cases of "conspicuous consumption." Rather, prepurchase evaluation of "quality" is a means by which consumers make judgments about the likelihood of a product or service fulfilling some perceived need, and postpurchase evaluation of quality is the means by which consumers assess whether their expectations have been met or exceeded. However, there was no a priori assumption that (conscious) evaluation of quality takes place either before or after a purchase, since consumers may pursue alternative means of reducing perceived risks before a purchase (e.g., obtaining recommendations from others) or simply feel satisfied and not make an explicit evaluation of quality after a purchase.

Since little research to date has directly explored consumer perceptions and evaluation of quality, the specific objectives of this preliminary investigation were:

- To determine, in general, what the word "quality" means to consumers;

- To determine if consumers' definitions of quality vary across product/service categories;

- To determine if consumers evaluate quality before purchasing, and if so, how;

- For those consumers who do not evaluate quality before purchasing, to determine what, if any, alternative prepurchase behavior replaces explicit consideration/evaluation of quality;

- To determine if consumers evaluate quality after purchase/consumption, and if so, how;

- To determine if perceptions and evaluation of quality appear to vary across subjects.

REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE

Given the importance of the topic, it is not surprising that a great deal has been written about quality. Because space limitations preclude a comprehensive review (see Castleberry 1985), only the literature that is germane to the objectives of this exploratory study will be discussed here.

Unlike the approach taken in this paper, many authors have offered definitions of quality. For example, Crosby (1979) defined it as "conformance to requirements," while Kotler (1983) defined it as "the rated ability of the brand to perform its functions." Others have highlighted aesthetic considerations. Thus, Bohr (1980) notes that quality "...also means aesthetic and sensuous pleasure as well...it is timeless style, simple elegance and a sensation that makes people feel comfortable and satisfied to be near it." Garvin (1984), however, concedes that the definition of quality "remains a source of confusion." He states that quality often is equated with conformance to tight manufacturing standards but that there are many other dimensions of quality as well, to wit: performance, durability, reliability, serviceability, the "bells and whistles," and aesthetic elements. In a similar vein, Gronroos (1984) acknowledges the need to define quality of services in terms of consumer perceptions and suggests that service quality may be a function of a number of variables, i.e., consumer expectations, technical and functional characteristics, and image.

After classifying definitions of quality that have appeared in marketing and other disciplines, Holbrook and Corfman (1985) developed a definition of quality within the framework of value theory, specifically: quality is the "extrinsic, self-oriented, passive value." An empirical test of their conceptual definition was only marginally successful and the authors concluded that they had provided only a partial answer to the question of the meaning of quality. Years ago Wittgenstein (1953) stated that to understand quality from the consumer's standpoint (which is one of the objectives of the current study), one must be concerned with the everyday use of the word. However, as evidenced by examples from the literature, researchers generally have not adopted this approach. Moreover, no study was found which explored the extent to which consumers' definitions of quality depend upon the product or service being considered.

Another line of inquiry in the current study is whether consumers evaluate quality before and/or after purchasing a product or service ant, if so, how. Economists, who probably have contributed most to this topic, are divided into two groups. Wilde (1981) represents those who feel quality is a search attribute (i.e., quality perceptions are formed before purchase). Others (e.g., Hey and McKenna 1981), however, feel that perceptions of quality are formed only after purchase and hence quality is an experience attribute. Thus, the current study can provide additional insight into this controversy.

Of the many issues relating to quality, consumer researchers seem to be most interested in how consumers evaluate quality. Most work has explored the effects of various cues and cue combinations on perceptions and evaluation of quality (see Olson 1972, Olson 1977, and Monroe and Krishnan 1985 for reviews). Recently, Gronroos (1984) and Parasuramen, et al. (1984) have developed conceptual motels of service quality and have identified possible determinants of perceived service quality. The fact that these are service quality motels suggests that the evaluation, as well as the definition, of quality is likely to be context-bound. Gronroos, however, has only tested his model with a sample of service business executives, and the Parasuramen, et al. motel is now being tested empirically. Therefore, considerable work must be done before a better understanding of the meaning and role of quality from the consumer's perspective is achieved.

METHODOLOGY

As the first step in the study of consumers' perceptions and evaluation of quality, semi-structured focus group interviews were conducted. Four such interviews - each lasting approximately 90 minutes - were completed, with a total of 36 subjects. Two groups comprised white-collar and professional persons recruited from a church organization; one group comprised a cross-section of graduate student volunteers; and the fourth group constituted volunteers from an undergraduate marketing class.

Questions directed to the groups related to three main topics: (1) the meaning of the word "quality" for four product and service categories, specifically laundry detergents, physicians, refrigerators, and restaurants; (2) whether "quality" is evaluated before ant/or after a purchase, and if so, how, for banks, (over-the-counter) colt medicines, automobiles, and hairdressers/barbers; and (3) the meaning of "quality" in general. Particular products and services were selected so as to represent a sampling from a tangibility-intangibility continuum, where a refrigerator exemplifies a tangible (ant very functional) product and a hair style is more of an intangible (and sensory) service. In addition, a series of questions was asked about the meaning of "quality," in general, in order to encourage subjects to provide other examples of what "quality" means and if/how quality is evaluated. Content analyses of these (tape-recorded) interviews were then performed. The results are presented in some detail in the following section.

RESULTS AND DISCUSSION

Because only qualitative research has been conducted so far, the findings must be considered preliminary and tentative. This situation notwithstanding, the initial findings have been illuminating and suggest the viability of exploring the concept of quality from the perspective of consumer risk reduction. At the same time, the findings suggest the complexity of the research questions.

The Meaning of Quality

With respect to the general meaning of the word, "quality" appears to relate to performance, to how well something "does what it's supposed to do." This situation is true even in the case of a haircut, which is supposed to look good and to make the consumer feel more attractive. "Quality" also appears to be perceived as a property or inherent characteristic of a good or service (which is consistent with the definition in The American Heritage Dictionary, if not that of other researchersC e.g., see Monroe and Krishnan 1985), along with attributes such as style, color, and size. In addition, subjects indicated that they judged quality along a continuum from low to high quality.

Subjects suggested that "no quality" meant that the product or service simply did not perform the function for which the product or service was intended. Similarly, "high quality" meant that the product or service did what it was supposed to do very well, and "low quality" meant that the product or service performance was marginal, or barely adequate.

Not surprisingly, subjects tended to describe or define quality of products in terms of construction, durability, and performance; in contrast, "quality," as it related to more intangible services, typically was defined in terms of the person(s) rendering the service. With respect to the particular products and services investigated, subjects defined quality in laundry detergents as "it gets the job tone; it cleans," for physicians as "he/she shows concern, is trustworthy, is knowledgeable," in refrigerators as "well-mate, has a warranty, is maintenance-free," and for restaurants as "attentive service, pleasant ambiance." In short, while subjects could offer conceptual definitions of quality, quality was equated to specific components or characteristics when subjects were provided a product or service context.

Evaluation of Quality

It became clear in the interviews that the subjects did not always (consciously) evaluate quality before, or even after, a purchase, which is consistent with Wilde's (1981) findings. Situations in which quality was not explicitly considered included the purchase of a specific designer label (a specialty good) and the purchase of products perceived to be commodity goods ! e. R.. milk.

In other cases quality was evaluated indirectly through the use of surrogate indicators, e.g., brand name (or other extrinsic cues) and recommendations of significant others Less often, quality was directly assessed through inspection or examination of the product or through an evaluation of the results of services rendered to others, i.e., through the use of intrinsic cues.

For the particular set of goods and services investigated, subjects indicated that they primarily evaluated quality in banks on the basis of service (courteousness, expediency, and accuracy), colt medicines on the basis of efficacy and/or brand name, automobiles on the basis of reputation of the manufacturer and workmanship, and a hairdresser/barber on the basis of concern for the customer, conscientiousness, and advice on proper style and care. However, it was clear that different subjects used different means to evaluate quality before a purchase. To illustrate the complexity of quality evaluation, across the four groups subjects mentioned the following considerations in evaluating the quality of automobiles: reputation of the manufacturer (one component being the number of recalls), duration and terms of warranty, gas mileage, construction and workmanship (e.g., how much plastic was used and how "solid" the automobile appeared to be), performance, reliability, design/style, and trade-in value. Obviously, some of these characteristics could only be evaluated after purchase or consumption, suggesting the difficultyCbut not necessarily the absence ofCprepurchase evaluation of quality.

Indeed, some subjects explicitly referred to the difficulty of evaluating the quality of services before purchase, one person stating, "it's really hard to tell [about the quality] until you have tried them [banking services]." That consumers may perceive prepurchase evaluation of services to be more elusive is not too surprising, considering (1) the lack of meaningful--or familiarCquality-connoting cues such as brand name, (2) the inability to inspect most services beforehand, and (3) the person rendering the service possibly changing from one purchase to the next. However, subjects did say that they often evaluate the quality of services after purchase/consumption

One important observation was that subjects would sometimes form an affective rather than quality judgement after purchase or consumption. That is, persons were "pleased with" or "liked" the results emanating from the consumption act, though subjects were not always cognizant of an assessment of the "quality" of the product or service. Clearly the perceptions and evaluation of quality were dependent upon the product or service category. In other words, although "quality" generally related to overall performance (or "excellence") of a product or service, specific mention of a product or service category evoked particular associations (see Exhibit I), as might be expected. While there was considerable agreement among subjects, the meaning and assessment of quality did vary somewhat. That is, typically there was a consensus among participants with respect to attributes associated with "quality" for a particular product or service, while differences across respondents represented more a matter of emphasis than debate. These situations suggest that definitions, perceptions, and evaluation of quality are likely to be somewhat Product/service-specific and person-specific.

EXHIBIT I

THE MEANING OF QUALITY FOR FOUR PRODUCT/SERVICE CATEGORIES: RESULTS FROM FOCUS GROUPS INTERVIEWS

Lest the inference be drawn that future research on consumers' perceptions and evaluation of quality may be intractable, there was sufficient similarity across product groups, service groups, and individual subjects to suggest that additional research can contribute to a better understanding of quality from the consumer' perspective.

Price and Quality

In the majority of cases, subjects appeared to employ some implicit reference point, such as price, when discussing and defining quality. That is, there appeared to be some set of expectations evoked by a reference point and "quality" seemed inextricably linked with whether the product or service exceeded, met, or fell short of those expectations. Nevertheless, subjects did seem to have a notion of a quality continuum across a product or service category, e.g., Rolls-Royce representing "high quality" among automobiles.

Although subjects rarely made explicit reference to a price-quality relationship, they appeared to use a price-quality heuristic when discussing purchases. As an illustration, one subject explained that she would on occasion intentionally buy a product that she perceived to be of "lower" quality because she restricted herself to a certain (low-end) price range, e.g., in buying faddish clothing.

That the price-quality relationship becomes a preoccupation with consumers, marketers, and researchers might be explained by the fact that price so often is the first delimiter, or evaluative criterion, in the purchase decision process. It follows that if quality is a considered criterion then quality likely is evaluated relative to the price. Moreover, in the absence of (other) quality-connoting cues, it seems reasonable to assume that price will be viewed as a quality indicator (Enis and Stafford 1969; Jacoby, Olson, and Haddock 1971). While these points were not specifically explored in the interviews, such behavioral patterns could reasonably be inferred from the discussions.

A theme that permeated the group discussions was that of getting value for the money, of getting "your money's worth" [which suggests that Holbrook and Corfman's (1985) approach has considerable merit]. Here again, the implication appears to be that quality is evaluated relative to the price, which, in turn, influences consumers ' expectations. However, subjects stressed that the product or service must possess some "quality," since "no quality" was equated to "junk" and to inadequate performance.

Evaluative criteria employed and the relative importance of same were not directly investigated; however, it became apparent that price was often the primary criterion in delimiting the range of options considered and then some attempt at maximizing quality for the acceptable price point/range was made. However, other criteria sometimes were considered to be relatively more important than price or perceived quality, based on the primacy, emphasis, and frequency of evaluative criteria mentioned by the subjects. That is, subjects were willing to trade some perceived quality for some other attribute they considered more salient. For example, in general subjects related quality of banks to various service dimensions (e.g., courtesy, speed, accuracy). But some subjects deemed convenience and accessibility to be most important in their current choice of banks, while complaining about the "lousy" service!

Quality and Risk Reduction

When subjects were queried as to why "quality" is important, why they evaluate quality, responses typically related to one or more types of risk that might be incurred in making a purchase. Comments such as "I don't want to get a lemon [automobile]" suggested the perception of financial risk. "I want the [hair] cut to look good; I don't want to be embarrassed by it" implies social and psychological risk. The notion of perceived physiological risk was conveyed through remarks such as "there shouldn't be any harmful side effects [from cold medicines]" and that safety features were important in evaluating an automobile. Although the time risk is less often cited in scholarly discussions of perceived risks , several subjects expressed a concern about the amount of time that might be "wasted," especially in the consumption of services. For example, speed of teller service and transaction processing was important in the evaluation of the quality of banking services. In addition, subjects indirectly referred to the time risk when they talked of not wanting to "waste two hours watching a bad movie" or having to wait a week or more for a bad haircut to grow out. However, "quality" was not the only means of trying to reduce risk, e.g., buying a particular designer label because it was "the thing to do" (read: reducing/avoiding social and psychological risks).

Other Insights

Two additional questions led to enlightening discussions with respect to consumers' perceptions and evaluation of quality. When asked if they believed and were influenced by the claims of quality in advertising, virtually every subject responded that he/she generally attached little believability to such claims, particularly if unsupported. However, although claims of quality appeared to have little impact on subjects' evaluation of quality, the fact that a brand was highly advertised did seem to positively influence the assessment of quality (to quote one subject, "they couldn't advertise it if it were a really bad product"). Another line of questioning pertained to perceived quality in generically branded goods, i.e., how "quality" was assessed in the absence of brand-name surrogates. There was consensus that quality was highly variable across product categories, based on beliefs and actual experience, and that trial was the primary means of evaluating quality of generic or store (house) brands.

FUTURE RESEARCH

It is obvious that this exploratory study has only begun to address important questions regarding consumer perceptions and evaluation of quality. For one, even though the findings suggest that quality is not always consciously evaluated before a purchase which is consistent with Olshavsky and Granbois' (1979) contention that a cognitive decision process does not necessarily precede a purchase], it is importantCboth to theoreticians and practitionersCto identify those types of purchases, and possibly consumers, for which explicit prepurchase evaluation of quality does not take place. Some possibilities include: when there are no alternatives (e.g., in the purchase of emergency goods or services); in routine or habitual purchases; in the purchase of low-involvement (read: low-risk) goods and services; when trial is intended or forced by the lack of relevant evaluative information; and when one purchase is tied to another and therefore is nondiscretionary (e.g., the tires on a new automobile).

A myriad of other questions and issues need to be addressed as well. For research to be actionable, it will be necessary to investigate the more specific meaning and evaluation of quality for particular product/service categories. This study clearly indicated that quality cannot meaningfully be judged without considering specific tangible or intangible characteristics of a product or service. That is, "quality" is an abstract notion that must be operationalized in some way and that appears to be multidimensional. If this is true, then considerable research to date has yielded rather vacuous results, e g., perceptual maps of products using "quality" and some other dimension. Certainly there are perhaps somewhat disturbing implications for marketers who attempt to differentiate offerings on the basis of quality and for advertisers who tout quality without equating the term to those product and service characteristics consumers use in evaluating quality. Soon a cross-sectional consumer survey will be undertaken in order to test hypotheses formulated on the basis of findings from the first stage of this research. While somewhat speculative at this point, it is likely that hypotheses will represent more refined statements of the following (tentative) propositions:

- consumers do not always evaluate quality of a product or service before purchase;

- quality is more likely to be evaluated through the use of surrogate indicators, i.e., indirectly, than directly through inspection;

- the process by which quality is evaluated will vary across product and service categories;

- prepurchase assessment of quality is a means by which consumers attempt to reduce or avoid perceived risks in a purchase/consumption act;

- the types and levels of perceived risk will vary across different demographic and/or psychographic groups;

- the process by which quality is evaluated will vary across different demographic and/or psychographic groups.

Investigating these propositions should contribute to a better understanding of the importance and role of quality in consumer decision-making and, in turn, contribute to theory development in consumer behavior. The most significant contributions are likely to emanate from investigating these and other propositions from a particular theoretical or conceptual perspective, such as Holbrook and Hirschman's (1982) "experiential consumption" view.

Further research on consumer's perceptions and evaluation of quality should also result in important implications for marketing managers. That is, an awareness of the relative importance of quality and the manner in which quality is evaluated over a range of goods and services can help direct the practitioner in the design, pricing, and promotion of a particular marketing offering It is likely that findings from future research also will provide valuable insights into more effective market segmentation. Moreover, it is anticipated that additional research will lend clarity to some conflicting and inconclusive findings from previous research relating to quality, in particular, the price-quality relationship.

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