Selecting an Appropriate Standard of Comparison For Post-Purchase Evaluations

Joseph A. Cote, Washington State University
Ellen R. Foxman, Washington State University
Bob D. Cutler, North Texas State University
ABSTRACT - Current models of consumer satisfaction/ dissatisfaction are limited in that they do not take into account time-related factors, purchase situation variations, and individual difference factors which may result in the use of different standards of comparison in post-purchase evaluations. It is suggested that a variation of the expectations model using current versus prior expectations will yield better predictions of post-purchase evaluation outcomes.
[ to cite ]:
Joseph A. Cote, Ellen R. Foxman, and Bob D. Cutler (1989) ,"Selecting an Appropriate Standard of Comparison For Post-Purchase Evaluations", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 502-506.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 502-506


Joseph A. Cote, Washington State University

Ellen R. Foxman, Washington State University

Bob D. Cutler, North Texas State University


Current models of consumer satisfaction/ dissatisfaction are limited in that they do not take into account time-related factors, purchase situation variations, and individual difference factors which may result in the use of different standards of comparison in post-purchase evaluations. It is suggested that a variation of the expectations model using current versus prior expectations will yield better predictions of post-purchase evaluation outcomes.

Consumer satisfaction results from a comparison of product performance to some evaluation standard (Cadotte, Woodruff, and Jenkins 1987). While several types of standards have been proposed (Miller 1976; Morris 1976; Westbrook and Reilly 1983; Woodruff, Cadotte, and Jenkins 1983a), no consensus exists concerning which standard might be most appropriate (that is, which standard best predicts product satisfaction). The prevailing satisfaction paradigm uses prior expectations about product performance on desired attributes as the standard of comparison (Oliver 1980; Olson and Dover 1979). Several different theories exist concerning the exact nature of these prior expectations (Oliver 1980; Cadotte, Woodruff and Jenkins 1987), but a key element of each theory is that expectations about brand performance are formed during the prepurchase process and are later used as a standard of comparison. In other words, the standard of comparison is prior performance expectations.

Westbrook and Reilly (1983) have proposed value-percept theory, an alternative view of postpurchase evaluation processes. They suggest that satisfaction is determined by evaluating a product's ability to fulfill one's current desires, wants, and needs. In their view, there are no prior standards of comparison -- only current needs and desires are considered.

These two views of the standard of comparison are not entirely unrelated. Assuming sufficient information, prior expectations and need fulfillment should be closely related. At the time prior expectations are being formed, consumers usually will determine what kind of attribute performance is necessary to satisfy their needs. They select a particular brand because they have formed prior expectations regarding the brand's performance on these selected attributes. Since attribute performance determines the extent to which desires are fulfilled, there is a close relationship between prior expectations and need fulfillment. In other words, if prior expectations are met, consumer needs and desires should be satisfied. To the extent that prior expectations are not met (positive or negative disconfirmation), then needs and desires will be satisfied to a greater or lesser degree than expected.

All other things being equal, comparing prior expectations or perceived needs to post-purchase product performance should yield the same results; clearly, however, this does not always happen. In some cases, comparing prior expectations to postpurchase product performance correctly predicts satisfaction or dissatisfaction; in other cases, current needs are a better standard for comparison. Given the close relationship between prior expectations and consumer needs and desires, why' do they not always predict satisfaction/dissatisfaction equally well? The purpose of this paper is to answer that question, first by outlining the limitations of current theories of satisfaction, and then by offering an alternative to them.


As noted earlier, under normal conditions there is a close link between attribute importance and need fulfillment. Examining the factors which affect this relationship provides insight into the limitations of the prior expectations and value-percept models of satisfaction. By identifying the limitations of the current models, an alternative model can be constructed which overcomes these limitations.

Three general factors can influence the standard of comparison used by a consumer: time-related factors, purchase situation factors, and individual differences. Each of these is discussed in more detail below.

Time Related Factors

Time-related factors often will not influence the standard of comparison because prepurchase search, purchase, use and disposition of the product usually occur over a short period of time. In such cases, a close relationship between needs and expectations will still exist. However, when the purchase/use process is extended over time, shifts in the standard of comparison may occur. In particular, either needs may change, or performance for the product class may change over time.

It is not uncommon for consumer needs to change over time. For products consumed over relatively short periods of time, such changes may be taken into account when prior expectations are formed. However, if the product is used over long periods of time, the similarity between needs and prior expectations may change. For example, when purchasing a car, a young couple's expectations ma be based on needs related to excitement (performance), status, or style. If the couple starts a family, however, needs are likely to change and interior space may become more important. Although the car the couple purchased may perform as originally expected, it no longer meets their current needs and their satisfaction with the vehicle is likely to decrease. In this case, the value-percept model should be more appropriate in predicting and explaining satisfaction/dissatisfaction outcomes, because it compares post-purchase performance to current, postpurchase needs.

A similar problem may occur when needs do not change, but the way in which a need is expressed changes over time. This commonly occurs when the performance of all brands in the product class improves. Recent example; of this include microcomputers and digital sound equipment, where technological advances have made previous products or models obsolete. In these cases, original expectations may be consistent with current product performance. However, dissatisfaction may occur because the product does not meet the current standard of comparison (product norms). Changing fads will also change how needs are expressed (Swan and Combs 1976). In such cases, the value-percept model should be superior to the disconfirmation of expectations model, since prior expectations no longer reflect the product's ability to satisfy current needs.

In summary, the amount of time between information search or purchase and current use can, in part, determine the appropriate standard of comparison. The above arguments suggests that the value-percept model may be more appropriate if market offerings change frequently or a product has been owned over a long period of time.

Purchase Situation Factors

Earlier, it was assumed that there would be a match between attribute importance (expectations) and needs. However, there are cases where this link does not exist. Consumers do not always buy the "optimal" product. Compromises are often made when selecting a brand. The consumer can recognize that the product attributes will not completely satisfy their needs, but purchase the product anyway. Pour such cases are: tradeoffs between need fulfillment and price; unavailability of preferred brand; "satisficing" when no brand perfectly satisfies needs; and the case of conflicting needs (LaTour and Peat 1979; Westbrook and Reilly 1983). In such cases, a discrepancy between needs and expected product performance will exist. In particular, the consumer will know that needs are not being satisfied as well as they might be satisfied -- however, dissatisfaction should not occur if the product performs as the consumer expects it to perform. The consumer is aware of the discrepancy and has made a conscious decision to purchase the product in spite of it. In these cases, an expectations-based model should be more appropriate than the value-percept model.

Individual Differences

Numerous individual difference factors may influence the standard of comparison a consumer uses (Day 1977; Kennedy and Thirkell 1983; Westbrook 1980). Only three will be discussed in this paper: variety seeking, the tendency toward hedonic or experiential consumption modes, and product involvement. Consumers may sometimes engage in behavior based on variety seeking (McAlister and Pessemier 1982). In these cases the consumer expects novelty, but is likely to have insufficient information to permit formulation of specific expectations. The formation of "best brand" or "brand" expectations cannot occur; at best, a consumer may be able to develop "product based" expectations. In such cases, however, it seems most likely that the consumer will evaluate product performance in light of how well it satisfies his/her desire for novelty. In other words, the value-percept model is likely to be more appropriate when variety-seeking drives purchase behavior.

It has been suggested that the predisposition to engage in hedonically driven consumption constitutes an individual difference factor (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982), presumably because the hedonic response can be a characteristic way for the individual to respond to purchase tasks. The effect of hedonically driven consumption on the standard of comparison and the evaluation process is similar to that observed in variety-seeking behavior: the consumer seeks "multisensory images, fantasies and emotional arousal" (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982, p.93), not levels of particular product attributes related to functional needs. In the post-purchase evaluation process, product performance is compared to this need for sensory stimulation and emotional arousal, and consequently the value-percept model should provide better prediction of satisfaction or dissatisfaction. This is consistent with Hill's (1985) suggestion that some products have "experience quality attributes" which would only be considered during or after consumption. He argues that precise expectations are difficult to develop for these types of products.

Levels of involvement may affect the standards of comparison used. Hunt (1983) suggests a value-percept model might better fit a high involvement product, while an expectations model might be more appropriate for low involvement products. Though Hunt does not develop any rationale for this position, it does deserve further consideration. Involvement may influence the process used to evaluate performance in numerous ways, affecting the clarity and strength of prior expectations, the perceived similarity between needs and expectations, and the range of acceptable performance (Barber and Venkatraman 1985; Oliver and Bearden 1983). Any or all of these may help determine which model is appropriate to evaluate consumer satisfaction.


The limitations of the disconfirmation and value percept models indicate that neither provides a sufficient explanation of satisfaction in all situations. An alternative model could incorporate both a prior expectations component and a value percept component. However, this may be unnecessarily cumbersome. A more parsimonious approach is to adapt the expectations model so that current expectations (expectations at the time of evaluation), rather than prior expectations, are used as the standard of comparison. This minor change should allow an expectations model to account for all the problems presented above. Current expectations should be more closely related to current needs and should also account for satisficing decisions. Below we clarify what is meant by current expectations and discuss how this adapted expectations model can account for the problem situations discussed earlier.

Several types of prior expectations have been proposed, including product norm, "best brand," and brand expectations (Cadotte, Woodruff and Jenkins 1987). Our conception of current expectations is most similar to product norm expectations. They are expectations about brands in the current evoked set. Current expectations differ from prior expectations in the timing of the measurement. Rather than assessing expectations at the time of purchase, current expectations assess product norm expectations now (at the time the respondent answers the question). Current expectations would match performance and needs since consumers' expectations regarding the brand's performance will be closely related to need fulfillment. They will also include those factors that restrict purchase such as limited resources or other satisficing behaviors. The construct could be measured by identifying those brands in the respondent's current evoked set. They would then compare the performance of the product they now own to products in their current evoked set. In the case where the owned brand and the brand(s) in the current evoked set are identical, the model would be identical to a prior expectations model.

Our conception of current expectations may be clarified by an example. Suppose a person owns an Osborne Executive computer. This product may have performed quite well, meeting expectations that were formed at the time of purchase. However, technology has progressed rapidly and the consumer may be very dissatisfied with the machine since it is heavy, incompatible with current technology, and lacks power. If the person were making the purchase in today's market, their expectations would be very different than in 1983. The current evoked set might include laptop computers like the Toshiba 1200, NEC Multispeed HD, and Zenith 183. These machines would represent a balance between performance and cost, whereas machines like the Gridcase, Toshiba 5200 and 1000, or the IBM convertible might not be in the evoked set for numerous reasons including cost, availability, and performance factors. While the Osborne may meet prepurchase expectations, it would not compare favorably with the respondent's current expectations which are derived from the performance characteristics of current machines.

The use of current expectations should help eliminate several problems inherent in both the prior expectations and value-percept models. The relationship between needs and expectations can be affected during the passage of time by changes in needs or changes in product class performance. As needs change, the importance of various product attributes will also change. As a result, prior product expectations are no longer appropriate standards of comparison. Current product expectations, however, change as needs and product class performance change. Using our earlier example, the young couple's current expectations about "desirable" cars would reflect the increased importance of roominess, whereas prior expectations would not. Current expectations would more accurately reflect current needs and should predict satisfaction better than prior expectations and as well as value-percept models.

Both the current expectations and value-percept models can account for the effect of time-related factors on evaluation processes. However, as noted earlier, the value-percept model has difficulty accounting for situations where compromises are made when purchasing a product (tradeoffs between need fulfillment and affordability; unavailability of preferred brand; "satisficing" since no brand perfectly satisfies needs; and the case of conflicting needs). Prior expectations or current expectations models would both be superior in compromise situations, and in many cases, current and prior expectations would perform equally well. However, the current expectations model could better account for changes in purchase restrictions. For example, as income increased, the tradeoff between need fulfillment and affordability would be less restrictive. Satisfaction with the owned product would be reduced, as the preferred product can now be purchased.

When the desire for variety drives consumption, the post-purchase comparison process will involve evaluating the extent to which the product or service purchased fulfills that desire. As noted earlier, it may not be possible for consumers to formulate specific prepurchase expectations regarding product attributes or performance, but current expectations will exist with respect to fulfilling the need for variety. In addition, to the extent that factors limit choice, the current expectations will be superior to the value-percept model. When consumption is hedonically driven, essentially similar relationships should exist.

The current expectations model will also perform better than (or at least as well as) other models under varying levels and types of involvement. Consider the case of situational product involvement: purchase behavior under situational involvement focuses on prepurchase evaluation and is unlikely to involve changes in performance expectations between pre- and post-purchase evaluations (Bloch and Richins 1983). All other things being equal, the current expectations model should perform at least as well as other models. Under conditions of enduring involvement, however, consumers' level of involvement with products persists long after the actual purchase, and may be associated with changes in the post-purchase standard of comparison. In such cases, the current expectations model should perform better than prior expectations and at least as well as the value-percept model.


Two general models of consumer satisfaction have been proposed, prior expectation models, and the value-percept model. Both these models are limited since they do not take into account time-related factors, purchase situation variations, and individual difference factors. These factors affect the appropriateness of the models (see Table 1). In particular, prior expectation models may be inappropriate if consumption occurs over a long period of time or meaningful expectations are not be formed. The value percept models may be inappropriate if tradeoffs are made at the time of purchase. It is suggested that a variation of the expectations model using current versus prior expectations will yield better predictions of postpurchase evaluation outcomes (see Table 1).



Previous research has implicitly defined satisfaction as an end result of a single evaluation procedure. We propose that satisfaction is more usefully viewed as dynamic and that it changes over time. It may be measured at any given point in time; therefore, a person's level of satisfaction will depend on the point at which it is assessed. This complicates how satisfaction is viewed. A number of types of satisfaction may be distinguished, for example, satisfaction with past use experiences, satisfaction with current performance, or anticipated satisfaction with future product or service use. An example may best illustrate the problem. A car may have provided years of exceptional service. However, it currently | has 120,000 miles and often breaks down. When asked about satisfaction, a subject may reply, "It was a great car and I'd buy another one, but it's pretty much a piece of junk now." The subject was satisfied with past performance, but is not currently satisfied with the product, and questions its ability to perform satisfactorily in the future.

All of these types of satisfaction may be of interest to researchers. In order to predict satisfaction accurately, the expectations measured must be time consistent with use. That is, prior expectations would be more appropriate to assess satisfaction with past experiences and current expectations would be appropriate for current or future product satisfaction. Thus, while measurement issues remain as much an issue in satisfaction/dissatisfaction research as they do in other areas of consumer research (Cote and Buckley 1987; Peter 1981; Woodruff, Cadotte and Jenkins 1983b), the present discussion focuses our attention on an additional dimension of measurement: not only must we be concerned with what is measured (e.g., expectations or values and needs) and how, but when constructs are measured (especially expectations).


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