An Historical Perspective Framework to Study Consumer Behavior and Retailing Systems

Erdogan Kumcu, Ball State University
ABSTRACT - The purpose of this paper is to develop a framework of retailing system evolution in response to changing consumer behavior patterns The historical comparative method is employed to this end This method can-help remedy some increasingly criticized limitations of current logical empiricist theory-building in marketing and consumer research.
[ to cite ]:
Erdogan Kumcu (1987) ,"An Historical Perspective Framework to Study Consumer Behavior and Retailing Systems", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 439-441.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 439-441


Erdogan Kumcu, Ball State University


The purpose of this paper is to develop a framework of retailing system evolution in response to changing consumer behavior patterns The historical comparative method is employed to this end This method can-help remedy some increasingly criticized limitations of current logical empiricist theory-building in marketing and consumer research.

Method Choice in Marketing and Consumer Research Recent criticisms of marketing theory, (Arndt 1981), in general, and of consumer behavior models (Firat 1985) or comparative distribution channel systems (Kumcu 1985), in particular, concentrate to a great extent around the following points 1 Neoclassical economic theory and positivist paradigms are the dominant paradigms in marketing Therefore, the studies have an unconscious yet pervasive ethnocentric and a dominant managerial-predictive orientation; 2 Buyer, not consumer, behavior is studied in consumer research; 3 The findings of methodologically different studies are generalized across time, space, and economic sectors or societies, thus abstracting events and behaviors from their historical and cultural context

In order to overcome problems stemming from the theoretical and methodological issues, an historical method is proposed to be used in marketing theory building (Savitt 1980 and 1984, Kumcu 1985) The perspective of the historical method could be used in the study of the events and activities of the past in order to understand the present circumstances, i e , studying marketing phenomena in light of their past This is not merely describing the events in their chronological order or studying these events to understand past attitude or behavior (Kumcu 1985, see also Lawrence 1984) This method permits a substantial description of change as well as the means for understanding and explaining the change process Such an approach would be employed, for instance, if one uses the historical economic and social data about the 1930s and the emergence of different grocery stores to understand and explain the problems of introducing new retailing systems elsewhere today

This paper employs historical and comparative methods to help develop a well-founded framework to study how and why consumer's behavior affects the retailing systems and vice versa hopefully, such a study will contribute to our understanding of the relationships between consumer behavior and emerging retailing systems as well as provide a better understanding of the influence of the mechanism of these variables on each other


The primary purpose of retailing-change theories is to describe the present status and predict the future patterns of retail development To accomplish this task, these theories define stages through which the retail establishments can be expected to pass during their lifetime -- emerge, grow, and finally decline and "die." These theories are presented as if the process is uncompromisingly determined by some uncontrollable factors, and valid in all industries, societies, and at all times Therefore, among other applications,the retail change pattern is being related to economic development

As Bartels (1981) points out, this theory depicts "that economic development is determinant of a number of actions and conditions in marketing From this it is deduced that with industrialization, economic systems and personalbehavior in developing countries tend to become like those in already developed countries" (1981, p 23, emphasis in original)

In this method, the available information from different countries that observe different development levels are aggregated Then, from this it is deduced that the phenomena experienced in the U S will occur elsewhere Methodological and logical problems of such works are reviewed by El-Ansary and Liebrenz (1982) Some authors contend that the marketing systems in those countries will and/or ought to look more like the North American structure Consequently, they recommend-that institutions and marketing practices of advanced countries should be introduced into other economies (Cundiff 1965, Slater 1965, Wadinambiaratchi 1965)

Influenced by the stages of the economic development model of Rostow (1969), this literature implies that all economies are likely to move through the same stages as they develop, and that a country or industry moves strictlY from one stage to the next through time

Further, the paradigms used are a product of, and are culture- specific and context-bound to the North American environment and economic conditions (Dholakia, Firat and Bagozzi 1980) Consequently, this literature implicitly assumes not only a cultural and economic similarity between various countries, but also a parallelism in their historical and future development - a fact that is highly doubtful (Kumcu 1985) The marketing literature offers many examples showing that diverse social and cultural environments shape and limit institutions' structures and their relationships differently (Boddewyn 1981) Indeed, developing nations that started from different bases are growing in a quite different environment than the industrialized countries Further, they seem to follow mostly different socio-economic development paths

As this discussion illustrates, the logical empiricist use of the temporal models, such as the stages of economic development model as assumed and applied in marketing, are a misrepresentation of reality and create more confusion than understanding to the solution of retailing development problems


As a social institution, retailing systems are formed and transformed through the interaction with their environment Therefore, they appear in various configurations in different societies and at different times in the same society However, the simplistic and deterministically mechanical explanation by retail-change theories fails to see the retailing change phenomenon as part of the integrated social, cultural and economic whole of societies (Markin and Duncan 1981, p 61)

In contrast, the historical method, with its holistic approach, inductive reasoning, and context-bound perspective, can better explain many of the problematic issues in retailing and consumer behavior

For the purposes of this paper, I will approach this problem through a conceptualization of four sets of variables

(1) Production relations through time,

(2) Evolution of consumer behavior,

(3) Formation and transformation of retailing systems,

(4) The underlying social, cultural, political and economic structures and their historical evolution.

The relations proposed from a historical perspective regarding these variables are depicted in Figure 1. This framework is based upon various premises: First, marketing systems attempt to satisfy consumption needs and wants of consumers and/or societies through exchange transactions (Bagozzi 1975) as well as other modes of want satisfaction (Enis 1973). Second, retailing system formation and transformation rests primarily on social relations. That is,-the changes in retailing systems can best be understood in terms of the tensions and contradictions between the units of the system, and the production relations in the society. Finally, to understand these changes, the link of historically/contextually specific marketing phenomena must be established with general socioeconomic, cultural, political and historical processes in the society. Note here that the time dimension is an integral part of the framework.



The framework in Figure 1 depicts a society's prevailing socioeconomic, political and technological systems, which determine the production relations, consumer behavior and retailing systems. It is important to note that this determination is not a one-time action, but rather a continuous process. Indeed, the needs, values, goals and interests of the market participants, such as consumers, manufacturers and distributive organizations, are defined by the value systems, institutionalizations, and the use of resources through time.

Consider that a "sudden" change in the political system of a nation has little influence on other systems in the short term. The new political authority needs time to alter the prevailing production relations, consumer behavior, etc. The low success rate of military governments illustrates that it is extremely time consuming to alter system structures, processes or behaviors.

Other environmental forces have similar impacts. The technological level of a nation defines the respective variables in the framework. Consider, for instance, that for a new technological application such as personal computers it took over five years to impact consumer behavior and retailing practices. Now, in technologically advanced countries, personal computer technology may play a determinant role. In other countries, traditional technology will continue to influence consumers and retailers .

The effect of these contextual and historical forces should not be generalized throughout a society. Different sections of a society may be influenced in different ways.

In a given socio-political context and history, production relations are important to the extent that they shape and limit the retailing systems as well as the historical context (Figure 1). The production relations in this framework demonstrate how the society organizes the production and how it controls the production means. Also, the nature and volume of production are critical in these relationships. The production relationships are dynamic and are influenced, in turn, by the consumers and transformation of marketing systems. The broken feedback arrows in Figure 1 reveal the reciprocal nature of the relationships among these variables.

The organization and ownership of production means have different facets in different societies and evolve in various ways. In rural areas of many developing countries, farming is still at self-sufficiency levels. Production means in many centrally-planned economies is controlled by the government. Indeed, in each of these cases, consumers develop appropriate behaviors. The retailing systems evolve correspondingly.

Consumer behavior is, to a great extent, shaped by the production relations. Consumer income levels and its distribution, demographic, social, psychological characteristics, and consumption patterns take different dimensions under various conditions. At a given time, consumers in various societies may have extremely different characteristics which influence the retailing systems. To understand, e.g., the decline of the traditional department store, in addition to its lack of adaptation to other environmental changes, one necessarily must observe the change in consumption patterns as well (Gist 1968, p. 85-86).

Certain changes in consumer behavior may be encouraging for some retailers and discouraging for some others. The increasing use of automobiles for shopping purposes is beneficial for suburban retailers. However, transportation forms have had adverse effects on downtown shopping centers. While a general income increase is desirable, its unequal distribution has contradictory results on different retailers. Different combinations of consumer characteristics may have totally different impacts under various contextual and historical conditions.

Formation and transformation of retailing systems, therefore, is determined by specific forces. One has to be extremely cautious to link them with general or macro indicators of economic development. It is not by accident that in retail practice, the innovations are introduced in small steps. It is generally agreed that retailing is an "industry" that must demonstrate high adaptability to circumstances. Revolutionary innovations have no room in retailing.

The success of new retailing technologies such as home shopping, home banking, mass retailing, etc. depend heavily on how much they will gain acceptance by the consumers. These new retailing forms may attract the "innovative" consumers to some extent; but the majority of consumers are not innovators.

In fact, the question is not to introduce or recommend technologies, institutions or structures which appear the best normatively, but rather to find out what the necessary conditions are to permit certain retailing systems to emerge.


Questioning of the logical empiricist paradigm in marketing and consumer behavior is conducive to introducing new paradigms. Among others, historical method framework offers a viable and relevant alternative perspective for marketing theory building.

The implementation of this framework, linking consumer behavior with retailing system evolution in their historical context, will aid in anchoring the formation and transformation of retailing systems to their historical origins. Further, it will bring the contemporary state of retailing systems in different parts of a country or of the world into clearer focus. For this purpose, the framework should be used comparatively, thus permitting a more relevant generalization. Finally, relevant retailing technologies and systems will be introduced with higher success rates. These, in turn, will help shape relevant public and managerial policies for domestic and international retailing.


Arndt, Johan (1981), "The Political Economy of Marketing Systems: Reviving the Institutional Approach," Journal of Macromarketing, (Fall), 36-47.

Bagozzi, Richard P. (1975), "Marketing as Exchange," Journal of Marketing, 39 (October), 32-39.

Bartels, Robert (1981), Global Development and Marketing, Columbus, OH: Grid.

Boddewyn, J. J. (1981), "Comparative Marketing: The First Twenty-Five Years," Journal of International Business Studies, 12 (Spring-Summer), 61-79.

Cundiff, Edward (1965), "Concepts in Comparative Retailing," Journal of Marketing, 29 (January), 59-63.

Dholakia, Nikhilesh, A. Fuat Firat and R. Bagozzi (1980), "The De-Americanization of Marketing Thought: In Search of a Universal Basis," in Theoretical Developments in Marketing, C. W. Lamb and P. M. Dunne, eds., Proceedings, Chicago: American Marketing Association, 25-29.

El-Ansary, A.I. and M.L. Liebrenz (1982), "A Multistage Approach to Comparative Marketing Analysis," Journal of Macromarketing, 2 (Fall), 59-65.

Enis, Ben (1973), "Deepening the Concept of Marketing," Journal of Marketing, 37 (October), 57-62.

Firat, A. Fuat (1985a), "A Critique of the Orientations in Theory Development in Consumer Behavior: Suggestions for the Future," in: E.C. Hirschman and M.B. Holbrook, eds., Advances in Consumer Research, 12, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research.

Gist, Ronald E. (1968), Retailing: Concepts and Decisions, new York: Wiley.

Kumcu, Erdogan (1985), "Historical Analysis of Distribution Systems: An International Research Agenda," in Marketing in the Long Run, S.Hollander and T.Nevett, eds., E. Lansing: Michigan State University, 98-111.

Lawrence, Barbara (1984), "Historical Perspective: Using the Past to Study the Present," Academy of Management Review, 9 (April), 307-312.

Markin, Rom J. and C.P. Duncan (1981),"The Transformation of Retailing Institutions: Beyond the Wheel of retailing and Life Cycle Theories," Journal of Macromarketing, 1 (Spring). 58-66.

Rostow, W.W. (1960), The Stages of Economic Growth, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Savitt, Ronald (1984), "An Historical Approach to Comparative Retailing," in: Comparative Marketing Systems, E. Kaynak and R. Sa Gist, eds., w York. Praeger, 147-155.

Savitt, Ronald (1980), "Historical Research in Marketing," Journal of Marketing, 44 (Fall), 52-58.

Slater, Charles C. (1965), "The Role of Food Marketing in Latin American Economic Development," in Marketing and Economic Development, Peter D. Bennett, ed., Chicago: American Marketing Association.

Wadinambiaratchi, G. (1965), "Channels of Distribution in Developing Economies," The Business Quarterly, (Winter), 74-82.