An Examination of Shopping Scripts

Jeffrey J. Stoltman, Wayne State University
Shelley R. Tapp, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Richard S. Lapidus, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
ABSTRACT - The need to consider the variable nature of scripts is discussed and several characteristics of shopping scripts are examined. Different shopping scripts are identified as a function of contextual cues. Shopping script variability is revealed by examining the distinction between the common and unique, and between the core and peripheral actions which might be represented in any given shopping script. It is recommended that, in addition to examining differences in script development, future research should consider the variable nature of consumer scripts associated with the differences existing between various consumer behavior contexts.
[ to cite ]:
Jeffrey J. Stoltman, Shelley R. Tapp, and Richard S. Lapidus (1989) ,"An Examination of Shopping Scripts", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 384-391.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 384-391


Jeffrey J. Stoltman, Wayne State University

Shelley R. Tapp, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Richard S. Lapidus, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


The need to consider the variable nature of scripts is discussed and several characteristics of shopping scripts are examined. Different shopping scripts are identified as a function of contextual cues. Shopping script variability is revealed by examining the distinction between the common and unique, and between the core and peripheral actions which might be represented in any given shopping script. It is recommended that, in addition to examining differences in script development, future research should consider the variable nature of consumer scripts associated with the differences existing between various consumer behavior contexts.


The purpose of this study is to examine several recent developments regarding cognitive scripts and to expand the discussion of this concept in the consumer research domain. While many consumer researchers have been interested in this concept there has been little recognition given to the variability of scripts. We must begin to examine a wider variety of scripts and to examine the nature of the contexts and actions associated with specific consumer scripts. The study reported here promotes an expanded consideration and a more detailed analysis of shopping scripts.


In general, scripts are viewed as cognitive structures containing information about the nature of various events and activities (Abelson 1981). The marketing literature contains script-based insights into the nature of personal selling (Anglin, Stoltman and Gentry 1988; Leigh and Rethans 1984; Rittenberg and Mittelstaedt 1985; Schurr 1986; Schurr and Calder 1986), advertising effects (Puto 1985), and several other varieties of behavior (Bozinoff 1982; Smith and Houston 1985; Whitney and John 1983).

In the marketing and consumer behavior literature, scripts are primarily viewed as having a strong procedural/sequential structure and content that is shared by many (most) consumers. However, a different perspective has begun to emerge in the psychological literature where an effort has been made to broaden and refine the script concept by investigating the common and unique properties of many different types of scripts. Activities which have been examined include check cashing, vacationing, gift giving, buying a car, and grocery shopping which has been examined several times (Reiser 1986; Galambos 1986; Galambos and Rips 1982; Bower Black and Turner 1979). Interest in script variability has grown as the flexible and adaptive use of scripts has become accepted (see Galambos 1986; Markus and Zajonc 1985; Showers and Cantor 1985). A research focus on script variability must involve an examination of the variety of scripts which exist and their shared and distinctive properties.

This study involves the examination of various types of shopping scripts. To our knowledge, the Whitney and John (1983)-study is the only one which has examined this type of script in the marketing literature. The investigation of shopping scripts should yield interesting insights into patronage behavior because of the role scripts play in attributional processes (Read 1987), their influence on memory (Schank 1982), and because of the behavioral guidance they provide (Abelson 1981). Furthermore, because shopping behavior seems to reflect a high degree of learning, a certain degree of behavioral consistency, and a degree of communality regarding the various actions, goals, participants, props, and preconditions involved, it would appear to be an ideal candidate for script research (Abelson 1981).

Our emphasis in examining shopping scripts has been to identify the nature of script variability expected. Smith and Houston (1986) have noted that variability can arise from different levels of the script development (i.e., individual differences). An alternative (complementary) approach would be to study script variability as a function of contextual cues. Galambos (1986) has recently reported that individuals are able to make faster (and more accurate) discriminations regarding script content when contextual cues are provided, and even the sequential aspect of a script is now thought to be contextually determined (cf. Read 1987; Schank 1982). Most importantly, it has been noted that different scripts can be identified as a function of context. For example, the generic restaurant script is replaced by the ''fine dining" or "fast-food" restaurant script when the appropriate contextual cues are provided (see Galambos, Abelson and Black 1986). Similarly, shopping scripts will vary in important ways when different goals, preconditions and actions are considered. The present study focused on two varieties of shopping script. The grocery shopping script was examined partially because normative data are available and also because there are several different types of grocery shopping. We also attempted to reveal the existence of a department store shopping script. The same script development criteria are likely to be satisfied, and this type of script provides a logical point of comparison. Furthermore, different types of department store shopping are also likely to exist.

We examined the variable nature of these scripts as a function of the various entry conditions or action rules that may be used (see Abelson 1981; Galambos, Abelson and Black 1986). Specifically, we examined the impact of various task characteristics involved in shopping (see Punj and Stewart 1983). Shopping tasks can differ along (at least) two important dimensions: type, e.g. major and fill-in shopping trips (Kollat and Willet 1967), and purpose, e.g., personal vs. gift purchase (Ryans 1977). These distinctions were examined with respect to grocery and department store scripts, respectively.

Each type of shopping trip is expected to have a somewhat unique shopping script associated with it because of the different goals, actions, props, and participants involved. It must be recognized that shopping scripts may also contain common elements, and that these elements may constitute a more generic and necessarily abstract "shopping script." However, while general abstractions may exist, script sub-types or variants are also contextually defined, less abstract, and will possess certain unique properties (Abelson 1981; Schank 1982). The distinction between various levels of abstraction and between common and unique properties of conceptually related scripts is important to note because past research has typically involved more abstract structures. However, because of the role of context, it appears that scripts are used in their more specific form for the purposes of interpretation or behavioral guidance (Abelson 1981; Galambos Abelson and Black 1986; Schank 1982). Thus, it seems reasonable to shift the research focus to more specific and contextually richer levels of abstraction. The present study involves comparisons on two more specific levels of abstraction, and both the department store and the goal-specific conceptualizations are new to the literature.

Several approaches are available for examining the content (and the structure) of contextually differentiated consumer scripts. The direct examination of the properties of a script is now somewhat common and is typified by the work of Galambos (1986; see also the discussion by Smith and Houston 1986). When following the direct approach, the content of a script is isolated by examining three specific properties: the frequency of event/action occurrence in a given context, the importance of an action in carrying out the script, and the standardness of various actions, i.e., the degree to which an action is carried out in the same manner from enactment to enactment (cf. Galambos 1986; Mandler and Murphy 1983). A critical step involves the development of a pool of generalizable, specific, and irrelevant script actions/elements. The development of this pool has important conceptual implications as noted above. Since limited work has been done with respect to shopping scripts, this study was necessarily exploratory and descriptive in orientation.


Sample: As a means of obtaining extra credit, one hundred and sixty students enrolled in several upper-level business classes agreed to participate in this study. Approximately 58-percent of the sample were females. Given the exploratory nature of this study the use of this "convenience" sample was deemed adequate. However, the adequacy of this sample should also be judged in light of the fact that these students reported having a considerable amount of experience shopping in the various types of stores and contexts which were examined.

Measurement Instrument: The nature of shopping scripts was examined in a direct fashion using a questionnaire. A pool of script actions/items was developed to represent the distinction between: (1) general or common activities related to shopping; (2) activities which differ as a function of store type (e.g., unique to grocery store shopping); (3) actions unique to specific store types and tasks (within stereotape script differences); and, (4) irrelevant actions (i.e., items which are not associated with shopping activity and which served as a validity check). To develop this pool of items two steps were taken.

First, we examined the existing literature and identified actions common to several forms of shopping as well as those somewhat unique to grocery shopping. These are noted in capital letters in the tables which summarize our findings. Second, using free-elicitation techniques involving several types of probes (i.e., store types, shopping area types, and task variations) with a separate sample of subjects, these distinctions were verified and actions unique to department store shopping and to various shopping tasks were identified. The approximate wording of the items which were used is also revealed in the tables. The irrelevant items were identified using normative data reported by Galambos (1986) and Leigh and Rethans (1984). In all, thirty-eight items were used.

A set of general instructions included the manipulation of the context cue used to instantiate the specific shopping script. While there are various methods of instantiating a script, Reiser (1986), Galambos (1986), and Schank (1982) have all recommended the use of scene descriptions, script headers, or descriptions of general activities. Following these recommendations, four contextual/ situational cues were used: a shopping trip to the grocery store was defined as being either a major or minor/fill-in trip, while a shopping trip to the department store was defined as either being for a gift or personal clothing. Our primary interest was to examine the degree to which various actions/items were uniquely associated with these four types of situations. Subjects were randomly assigned to one of these four contexts/situations and responded to three measures which pertained to the same specific context.

We used an adaptation of Galambos' (1986) technique to provide subjects with a response frame which reminded them of the task and store contexts and provided a convenient way to obtain the information desired. Galambos has reported greater success with the following type of frame: "When you are in the process of _<TASK> _ how often do you..._<ACTION>_". The use of this type of frame requires a top-down recognition process and the <TASK> represents a contextual cue. While the <TASK> portion of the frame was varied to reflect each of the four contexts it remained the same across the three measures which were obtained. Each of these measures was obtained on a separate page with the response frame centered on the top of the page and the <ACTION> portion of the frame presented in list form down the side of the page. The wording of the response frame varied to reflect the measures being taken, i.e., how often was replaced by language appropriate to the three measures.

Whether an action belonged to a given script was partially determined on the basis of its distinctiveness and this was measured in terms of the frequency with which an action occurs in a given context. A 7-pt. scale was used with the endpoints labeled 1 = "never" and 7 = "always". Each item's centrality to a given script was assessed in terms of the importance of the action to completing the stated task. Importance was measured on a 7-pt. scale with the endpoints labeled 1 = "extremely unimportant" and 7= "extremely important". The content of various scripts is determined by the extent to which these measures indicate that certain actions belong more clearly to a specific script when compared across store types as well as within store type by task.

The flexible nature of a script was examined by measuring the extent to which each action is performed in the same way from one occurrence of a particular type of shopping trip to the next (e.g., from major grocery shopping trip to major grocery shopping trip). For each action this was measured using a 7-pt. scale with the endpoints labeled 1 = "across trips - very different" and 7= "across trips very similar". These three measures were completed in the same sequence by all subjects (i.e., frequency followed by importance followed by similarity). A different randomized ordering of the 38 items was used for each measure with all subjects receiving the same ordering of items.


Space limitations preclude a detailed discussion of the results of our analyses. Tables 1-3 have been constructed to provide the reader with maximum information. Discussion of findings will focus on patterns of relationships among the script elements in an effort to uncover both general shopping scripts and scripts associated with specific store types or shopping tasks. As a result, the irrelevant items will not be examined in depth. We merely note that they were neither perceived as occurring with sufficient frequency nor rated sufficiently important to consider them facets of general shopping behavior.

Tables 1-3 present the means and standard deviations of the frequency, importance, and flexibility ratings for the remaining 33 items. Analysis of variance procedures were initially used to examine differences across grocery shopping and department store situations. As expected, there were several actions (e.g. price and non-price comparisons, talking to companions, watching the cashier ring up the sale, etc.) that were common to both grocery and department store shopping scripts (see frequency ratings in Table 1). While several of these items were contained in previous reports of grocery shopping scripts, it is more appropriate to view these items as common shopping activities, applicable to a variety of shopping situations and stores. Thus they probably represent elements of a general shopping script.

On the other hand, many of the items previously identified as elements of the grocery script (e.g., getting a cart, consulting a list, walking up and down aisles, putting items in the cart, and check-out line activities), differed significantly (p<.05) when comparing grocery and department store shopping activity frequency data. Also, several actions were significantly more likely to be associated with department store shopping (e.g., browsing, looking at items, looking at merchandise for future needs, finding matching accessories, examining window and product displays for various purposes, finding salespeople, and returning items). Thus, this technique allowed the replication of the grocery shopping script which has been derived using traditional script elicitation methods, and allowed us to isolate the department store script. Traditional free elicitation methods could have produced a similar list of items, but not with the relative ease of this method.

Examination of the importance ratings (Table 2) reveals additional meaningful differences between the two scripts. For example, importance ratings for the action "enter store" were significantly different (p=.007), with this action regarded as more central to the grocery shopping script. With respect to department store shopping, the items identified by higher frequency ratings (i.e., browsing, looking at items and displays, etc.) also receive significantly higher importance ratings. Department store shopping apparently involves more examination of the store product offerings, window displays, and merchandise displays. If the subject is shopping for clothing or gifts, an examination of store window displays may allow him/her to determine that a particular store does not have the desired item. Thus, entering the store may indeed be less important for this type of shopping experience.

A further advantage of this approach to examining scripts is that it provides for a meaningful interpretation of scripted actions. Analysis of the similarity with which activities are performed from shopping trip to shopping trip (Table 3) indicates that grocery scripts are significantly less variable than department store scripts. In fact, the only actions which were significantly standardized in department store scripts were: looking at items, comparing items on a non-price basis, and finding matching accessories. This undoubtedly reflects the routinization and frequency of grocery shopping.

This method of script elicitation also enables the examination of the effect of different shopping goals on the nature of scripts with respect to a particular shopping situation. For example, actions such as "get cart" and "walk up and down aisles" are more likely to be associated with major grocery shopping scripts (i.e., exhibit higher means on both frequency and importance ratings) as compared to minor/fill-in trips. Similarly for department store shopping situations, clothes shopping is more likely than gift shopping to involve the actions "find salespeople" and "examine special displays for sales on needed items". These comparisons provide insights into the flexibility and variability of consumer scripts. That is, these data reflect how a basic grocery shopping script (department store script, or other shopping scripts) can change as shopping tasks/goals change.








In the present study, we both confirmed and expanded on the existence of grocery and department store shopping scripts. The need to recognize the variable and flexible nature of scripts was demonstrated since it was found that some actions are common to several different forms of shopping, yet, many differences arose as a function of store type and task. Since this study is limited in several ways, including potential problems generalizing from a college student sample and the use of a lengthy paper and pencil test, additional research will be needed to establish the reliability of these relationships. We note, however, the nature of our findings compares favorably to those obtained by Galambos (1986) using microcomputer technology. The computerized approach should be considered because it provides greater experimental control -- different randomized lists of items can be presented across subjects and across contexts -- and because one can measure reaction time.

Methodologically the present study differs from past research in two ways. First, we did not examine the procedural/sequential aspect of scripts. This feature, once thought to be the most defining characteristic of a script, has been called into question (cf. Galambos 1986; Mandler and Murphy 1983; Reiser 1986), with Abelson (1981) drawing a distinction between strong and weak scripts, the latter having a rather loose procedural quality. Shopping scripts exhibit one feature which has caused some difficulty in this regard: certain portions of the script can be enacted repeatedly (e.g., the selection, inspection, choice, and accumulation of products). Thus, such actions often have no fixed location in the sequence. Additionally, the ordering of the actions comprising a shopping trip can occasionally be arbitrary or dependent on situational factors, such as the layout of a particular store/store-type, crowding conditions, forgetfulness, etc. We should add that the general approach used here has been used to examine the sequential aspects of scripts (cf. Galambos 1986; Reiser 1986).

The fact that we did not elicit and code free elicitations represents a second departure from past research. With this approach we avoided many of the problems associated with elicitation, e.g., verbalization difficulties. Furthermore, we believe elicitation methods require more complete information regarding the existence and nature of various scripts.

Those interested in applying traditional methods should take note of the important role that context played in this study. While we used contextual cues to facilitate access to the scripts, many contextual elements were contained within the scripts. Shopping scripts are contextually rich when examined at a more specific level of abstraction. By continuing to operate at this level we may gain new insights into various patronage phenomena, such as store choice, in-store activity, and post-purchase satisfaction. The flexible and adaptive use of a shopping script repertoire probably underlies the way in which shoppers respond to various deviations (significant and other vise) from the expectations represented in the script (see Abelson 1981; Showers and Cantor 1985).

By way of a summary, we feel it is important to re-emphasize our belief that an attempt to investigate the nature of consumer scripts by moving to a higher level of abstraction is counterproductive. While past research appears to have followed this path, it seems highly unlikely that the scripts which have been revealed would offer a consumer much in the way of interpretive and behavioral guidance. The willingness to move to these less informative and less interesting levels of abstraction has occurred both as a consequence of our collective failure to think in terms of variability and contextual differences, and because the orientation has been to find "stereotypes" which are widely, even universally, shared. In light of the contextual differentiation of scripts, their adaptive use, and differences in script development, it would seem that the. more productive path to follow will involve the investigation of the unique -- as opposed to the normative or shared -- aspects of scripts.


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