Misperceptions of Time in the Sales Transaction

Richard A. Feinberg, Purdue University
Peter Smith, Purdue University
ABSTRACT - Consumers and sales associates estimated transaction time in a retail environment. Consumers overestimated and sales associates underestimated transaction times. As a result, on a practical level, delivering timely and effective customer service is probably impaired by misperceptions of time. On a broader level, time perception may be a more significant variable in consumer behavior than witnessed by the scant literature focusing on this issue.
[ to cite ]:
Richard A. Feinberg and Peter Smith (1989) ,"Misperceptions of Time in the Sales Transaction", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 56-58.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 56-58


Richard A. Feinberg, Purdue University

Peter Smith, Purdue University


Consumers and sales associates estimated transaction time in a retail environment. Consumers overestimated and sales associates underestimated transaction times. As a result, on a practical level, delivering timely and effective customer service is probably impaired by misperceptions of time. On a broader level, time perception may be a more significant variable in consumer behavior than witnessed by the scant literature focusing on this issue.

While time perception has been extensively studied within psychology and called an important variable for marketing and for understanding consumer behavior (Gross, 1987; Graham, 1981) very few studies have focused on time perception in the consumer context.

Time is valuable simply because it is scare and inelastic. Goods and services carry time properties and these properties have important marketing implications. Engel, Blackwell, and Miniard (1986) define time-using goods as goods which require the use of time with the product (e.g., watching TV) and time saving goods as those which provide additional discretionary time. More and more marketers are using consumer's desire to save time as a marketing tool as Americans seem to be willing to spend increasing amounts of money in order to gain time. Fast food restaurants and convenience stores have flourished and many product purchases, such as microwaves are made because consumers want to buy time. These trends are believed to be increasing due to the increasing time poverty that consumers will find themselves under (Jacoby, Szybillo & Berning, 1976; Sheth, 1983). As a result, the importance of time in the consumer process may be increasing (Gross, 1987).

Time can also be viewed as a risk of product/service choice and the degree of risk consumers perceive can influence purchase strategy. Aside from the more well defined, physical, financial, social, psychological risks, Schiffman and Kanuk (1987) define time risk as the risk that time spent in product search is wasted if the product does not perform as expected.

Time perception has mostly been viewed in a cross-cultural, non-consumer context. In this work, time perception in one culture affects behavior in interesting ways. For example, in one of the most cited examples of problems resulting from cross cultural differences, Hall (1966) uses the example of a foreign executive keeping an American visitor waiting 45 minutes and thinking nothing of it. To the foreigner this wait is insignificant, while the American, who considers this to be an extraordinary inconvenience, is fuming.

Of the three categories of time-paid time, obligated time, and discretionary time (Voss, 1967), it is only from discretionary time that consumers can find flexibility. Shopping may fall within this discretionary category. indeed, when consumers are under time pressure, department stores have been shown to lose consumers to stores perceived as time savers - mass merchandisers and discount stores (Mattson, 1982). If time is valuable for consumers in shopping, than one aspect of good customer service is that once a customer has made a decision to make a purchase, retailers must complete the transaction quickly. The consumers' time is valuable and they have other priorities. Retailers must provide the sales systems, training, and sales associates to process the transaction promptly, without hassle (Sheth 1983). Indeed according to the Burgoyne National Study of Supermarkets (1980), slow check outs was tied with high prices as the number one complaint of supermarket shoppers.

In a study of line waiting in retail stores, Hornik (1984) found that individuals overestimate waiting time. As consumers overestimate their wait, retailers face a dilemma in serving and transacting business with consumers. For what in an objective measure of time might be effective customer service, in the subjective perception of the consumer who overestimates the time of the transaction process, it will not be.

This problem may be exacerbated further by an underestimation of time of transaction from the sales associate point of view. While Hornik (1984) measured the overestimation of time of the passive consumer as they wait in line, Hornik did not look at the perception of that same transaction from the point of view of the more active party - the sales associate. According to Cottle (1976), individuals overestimate passive durations and underestimate active durations. Thus in the sales transaction in a retail environment, the active sales associate may be underestimating the same time duration that the consumer is overestimating .

In this study, the actual time duration of a sales transaction was assessed with the perceived duration of the consumer and the sales associate in a retail environment. Similar to Hornik, it was predicted that consumers would consistently overestimate the duration of transaction. Going beyond Hornik, it was predicted that sales associates would consistently underestimate the same duration of transaction.


The procedure used was modeled after Hornik (1984). The data was collected from 110 shoppers on line in retail stores. Respondents were intercepted at any of 68 stores in a small regional shopping center. Two pairs of interviewers were used for this study. Intercepts occurred throughout the week at all times of the day. Interviewers were instructed to walk through the stores in the mall and select adult consumers who walk up to the cash register or counter (restaurants excluded). Every third customer to be found in this manner was to be included in the study. For each subject the length of time was recorded from the moment the individual entered the line or stopped walking at the counter. After leaving the counter/line each subject was approached and asked to indicate the amount of time they think it took the server to complete the transaction after they got to the counter/register (to the nearest minute). At the same time that the customer was approached the second interviewer went up to the sales clerk and at the first opportunity asked the clerk to estimate the amount of time it took to take care of the previous customer. There were twelve opportunities lost because the clerk immediately engaged another customer and could not be asked the question in a reasonable amount of time. These individuals were replaced in the sample. No sales clerk was approached more than once in the study and 62 stores had at least one consumer approached.





As predicted, consumers overestimated transaction time and sales associates underestimated transaction time, F(df= .,327)=32.18, p<.05 (see Table 1). Tukey tests showed consumers to significantly overestimate and associates significantly underestimate transaction time (p's<.05). Because males represented only 25% of the subject population in this study analyses assessing differences between male and female consumers may not be valid yet even though the transaction time of male and female consumers were equal males were found to marginally significantly (p's<.10) underestimate the estimate of female subjects: although males and females overestimated the transaction time, males perceived the transaction to be quicker than females. Hornik (1984) found no gender differences in estimation. Further, sales associates (who were all female in this study), similarly perceived the transaction with male consumers to be quicker than the transaction with female consumers (p<.10).

A chi-square completed on the number of associates and consumers to be correct, overestimate and underestimate the transaction time reinforces the findings above. While only a small and nearly equal percentage of consumers (10%) and sales associates (13%) correctly perceived transaction time, the percent of those over and underestimating the correct time was dependent on whether one was a sales associate or consumer, X 2=132 (df=2),p<.05 (see Table 2).

Although place in line (first, second, third, etc. was not treated in any systematic manner (except to select consumers in the manner described independent of place in line) 33 of the 110 subjects were second or more in line (21 second, 7 third, 1 fourth, and 1 fifth). These categories were combined to complete an analysis of time estimation as a result of being the first or second in line. Analysis of this data showed place in line to significantly affect actual time of transaction (p<.05): time to transact with the first consumer was, to no surprise, longer than to transact with the second on line. Consumers and sales associates were also sensitive to place on line for estimates of the length of transaction from both were significantly greater when second in line than when first (p's<.05).


Consumers have a tendency to overestimate waiting time. This replicates previous work by Hornik (1984) and suggests that delivering timely customer service is not as simple as reducing transaction time. Moreover, the problem is greatly exacerbated by the finding that while consumers are overestimating transaction time, sales associates are underestimating that time.

Beyond the practical, retail implications of these misperceptions of time, this study addresses an important and neglected area of consumer research time and time perception. It is clear that this study is limited in scope and in methodology. It goes without saying that it would be interesting to better control type of line (like Hornik), gender of consumer and sales associate, length of line, length of actual time (as examples) as independent variables. Only by systematically investigating these issues will a clear and valid picture started by this study emerge.

More importantly, the empirical literature on time and time perception has for the most part been disappointing in light of the proclaimed importance of time and time perception in understanding aspects of the consumer process (Graham, 1981). There has been relatively little in what seems to be an interesting and fertile area of study.


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