A Reinforcement-Affect Model of Mall Patronage

Jennifer Meoli, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
Richard A. Feinberg, Purdue University
Lori Westgate, Purdue University
ABSTRACT - Learning theory provides a basis for understanding and predicting consumer attraction to a mall. The stimulus response relationship between stores in a mall and attraction to a mall can be theoretically modeled as a mathematical function. Quantifying consumer attraction to a mall as a function of the reinforcement potential of the array of stores, provides a way to reconcile the absence of consumer based variables in applied patronage models. Market variables dominate patronage prediction equations despite researchers efforts to blend image measures into the retail gravity model. The reinforcement-affect model is proposed as a -guide to understanding the relationship between consumer preferences and patronage in the context of marketplace variables.
[ to cite ]:
Jennifer Meoli, Richard A. Feinberg, and Lori Westgate (1991) ,"A Reinforcement-Affect Model of Mall Patronage", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 441-444.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 441-444

A REINFORCEMENT-AFFECT MODEL OF MALL PATRONAGE

Jennifer Meoli, Indiana University of Pennsylvania

Richard A. Feinberg, Purdue University

Lori Westgate, Purdue University

ABSTRACT -

Learning theory provides a basis for understanding and predicting consumer attraction to a mall. The stimulus response relationship between stores in a mall and attraction to a mall can be theoretically modeled as a mathematical function. Quantifying consumer attraction to a mall as a function of the reinforcement potential of the array of stores, provides a way to reconcile the absence of consumer based variables in applied patronage models. Market variables dominate patronage prediction equations despite researchers efforts to blend image measures into the retail gravity model. The reinforcement-affect model is proposed as a -guide to understanding the relationship between consumer preferences and patronage in the context of marketplace variables.

INTRODUCTION

The purpose of this paper is to introduce an alternative approach to incorporating consumers' feelings of attraction into the process of understanding and predicting retail mall patronage. Sheth (1983) and Darden's (1979, also Darden and Dorsch 1989) comprehensive theoretical models of patronage provide insight and direction for untangling the complex organization of factors influencing consumers' shopping motivation and behavior. In contrast, Huffs (1964 and Huff and Rust 1984) retail gravity model, provides a formula for predicting mall patronage based on the principle of cost (accessibility) verses utility (size). The strength of retail gravity model is that, by using essentially two variables to predict patronage behavior, it is an elegantly simple tool for managerial decision making. Infusing a measure of consumers' feelings of attraction into the retail gravity model would be expected to contribute to the power of the prediction equation, as well as to the understanding of how patronage patterns are influenced by accessibility, size and consumers' differential preferences.

Including a quantified measure of consumers' feelings of attraction to a mall, based on the combined pull of specific retailers, may become a necessary component of retail patronage models. The challenge of accurately predicting mall patronage has been heightened by the anticipated increasingly intense competition between various types of malls within market boundaries (e.g., Milford 1989, "Shopping Centers Suffer" 1986, "Overbuilding" 1987). Industry growth and innovation have stimulated spiraling increases in the density of shopping center alternatives in many geographic regions. These changes in the marketplace diminish the predictive power of retail gravity models by accentuating the limitations of relying on size and location to predict patronage share between relatively equally accessible alternatives of comparable size (Bucklin, 1971). Size, as measured by square feet of selling space, provides a convenient operational definition of attraction for retail managers (Mason and Mayer, 1990). In an overmalled market, when consumers have choices for variety and several shopping center options for multiple purpose trips, the need arises for a measure of attraction which grasps the essence of consumers' liking, and can also be practically applied.

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN STORES AND PATRONAGE MODELING

Implicit in the retail gravity model is the assumption that a larger mall, with a greater number of stores, is more attractive to consumers. As increased alternative shopping centers with location accessibility reduce the cost aspect of patronage, malls within a market area turn to manipulating the utility function by increasing the number of stores. Consistent with the assumption that size defines attraction for consumers, developers' objective in altering the tenant mix has been to design larger malls that have a greater number of stores, and to reduce the size of each store (Peterson 1989). Older malls have manipulated size by reducing the square foot of each store by 30-40 percent, slivering into a plethora of downscaled stores. Revising the definition of utility to reflect preferences for particular retailers may necessarily yield strategic implications which contradict the recommendation that a mall should maximize tenant occupancy.

There is a basis for assuming that consumers may be attracted to a mall by feelings evoked by qualitative aspects of a particular amalgam of stores, rather than by the illusion of variety a large quantity of stores, with limited width and depth of merchandise, may present. Considering the generally homogeneous national chain stores common to most large malls, size and variety, as defined by the number of stores may not be a sustainable advantage. Mall choice may be a function of attraction to particular stores which consumers have identified as rewarding enclaves in an overwhelming stimulus environment. The idea that mall choice may be a function of attraction to particular stores or types of stores has been asserted by several researchers (Nevin and Houston 1980, Stanley and Sewall 1976, Sheth 1983, Weisbrod, Parcells and Kern 1984). While the need to incorporate consumers' subjective preferences for certain stores has been identified as a way to better understand and predict individual and aggregate mall patronage, a theoretical underpinning to guide the application of this idea has not been established.

In efforts to account for consumers' subjective attraction, measures of the unified image of a mall have been included as a component of retail patronage models. Image, as a concept representing the qualitative attractiveness of a retail unit, although useful in predicting attraction to a store, has not been successfully applied to the problem of predicting attraction to a mall (e.g. Gentry and Burns 1977-1978, Nevin and Houston 1980, Peterson and Kerin, 1983). Quantifying the overall image of a mall presents methodological and practical problems because the concept of store image does not translate smoothly into mall image. Image is measured by mostly store specific attributes, such as prices and salespeople (Lindquist 1974-1975). Asking consumers to describing the image of a mall, which has an array of stores all with their own varied images, may be forcing a definition of the qualitative attractiveness which is not a realistic reflection of how consumers formulate their feelings of attraction. (Howell and Rogers 1981). Image research leads to the implication that stores should be treated as units with identity and meaning that consumers' readily discern (Meoli 1989).

THE REENFORCEMENT-AFFECT MODEL

The theoretical basis for a reinforcement-affect model of mall patronage is Byrne's (1971) landmark reinforcement-affect model of interpersonal attraction. Byrne used behavioral learning theory as a guide to understanding and predicting interpersonal attraction. Byrne demonstrated that attraction was a function of the proportion of reinforcing stimuli present in another person. The stimuli Byrne used in controlled experiments was attitudes. Similar attitudes in a stranger are reinforcing stimuli which can be modeling in a mathematical function to predict attraction. To make the analogous comparison, attraction to a mall would be a function of the proportion of reinforcing stimuli in a mall. The stores which compose a mall are the relevant basis for stimulus reinforcement, both from a theoretical and practical point of view. Stores which a consumer likes or prefers shopping in represent reinforcing stimuli contributing to the attraction response toward the mall. If it can be established that the same structural relationship between stimulus cues and attraction that has been successfully used to illuminate interpersonal attraction, can be applied to retail malls, then Byrne's work can serve as a guide for retail patronage research.

The initial exploration of the congruence between interpersonal attraction and attraction to a retail mall followed the progress of Byrne's work (Meoli and Feinberg 1989). This series of experiments, the latter two using hypothetical malls, accomplished three objectives;

1. A measure of attraction to a retail mall adapted from the measure of interpersonal attraction was developed and validated. The mall judgement scale (MJS) is a two item assessment of feelings of attraction, and feelings about spending time in a mall. Comparing two malls which consumers reported regularly shopping at, malls with a greater share of reported patronage had significantly higher MJS scores.

2. The hypothesis that attraction to a retail mall is a linear function of the number of liked stores in the mall was confirmed. Holding the number of stores constant, a mall with a greater number of liked stores is more attractive than a mall which has an equal number of stores, but those stores are not preferred.

3. The hypothesis that attraction to a mall could be modeled as a function of the proportion of reinforcing stimuli present in a mall was tested. Attraction was a function of both proportion and the absolute number of liked stores. Attraction to a mall is a function of the relative number of liked stores among the total stimulus array. Larger malls, with a greater number of stores, were not necessarily more attractive than malls with fewer stores. The reinforcement potential of the composite stores influenced the attraction response.

This preliminary set of studies were controlled experiments in which the array of combined stores was manipulated using hypothetical malls. Experimental design was the optimal way to test the theoretical relationship between liked stores and attraction that was predicted by the reinforcement-affect model. If this relationship was not observed in this context, the reinforcement-affect model would not be expected to be observed in the actual marketplace context of mall patronage. There were differences between interpersonal attraction and attraction to a mall in the slope of the response--function and the significance of the number, as well as the proportion of reinforcing stimuli influencing the attraction response. However, both relationships can be understood by behavioral learning theory, and by considering the nature of the difference between attraction to a person and attraction to a place.

THE REINFORCEMENT-AFFECT MODEL AND PATRONAGE MODELS

The relationship between liked stores and mall attraction is consistent with concepts proposed in theoretical patronage modeling. In Sheth's (1983) theory, personal value determinants of patronage lead into shopping motives, and then marketplace determinants. Darden and Dorsch (1989) describe a hierarchical "bundle of benefits" which shifts according to patronage intentions. Defining personal determinants of patronage by preference for stores is a strategy to integrate the recognized role of personal values and benefits sought and the influence of store image. The image of the mall is embedded in the feelings toward the stores. We can expect that a consumers will have preferences for stores which are compatible with personal value systems and have meaningful benefits.

FIGURE 1

REVISING THE RETAIL GRAVITY MODEL

The results of this study have major implications for mall development strategy if the theoretical relationship between the number and the proportion of liked stores and attraction can be demonstrated in an applied patronage model. In order to test the effectiveness of the reinforcement-affect model of mall patronage, a measure of the number and the proportion of liked stores must be input into the retail gravity model. The predictive ability of mall image inputs was tested in the context of accessibility and size variables (e.g. Gautschi 1981, Howell and Rogers 1981, Nevin and Houston, 1980). The revised model, including the reinforcement inputs is presented in Figure 1.

DIRECTIONS FOR FUTURE RESEARCH

The next stage in theoretical modeling would be to explore how the liking for certain stores or types of stores may be weighted. Byrne (1971) showed that while attraction was a function of the proportion of similar attitudes in a stranger, similar attitudes on issues of importance to the individual, were a more salient positive reinforcement, and therefore had a greater impact on the attraction response than similar attitudes toward trivial matters. In the corresponding stimulus response relationship between an individual and a mall, certain stores or types of stores, perhaps tied to purchase intentions, may have greater reinforcement potential and impact on patronage.

The reinforcement affect model poses the possibility that stores in a mall can be negative reinforcement, as well as positive. A store that is not liked, or not compatible with the values or the benefits sought by the target served by the mall, may inhibit attraction to a mall. While it is understood that consumers limit the focus of the stores they visit when shopping at a mall (Rothenberg 1986), the idea that stores which are not liked in a mall could have an inverse impact on attraction has not be considered.

Drawing a plan to operationalize conceptual research so that it may be translated into a guide for managerial decisions is an exceptionally difficult challenge. Marketplace determinants muddy the clarity of understanding consumer choice patterns. The reinforcement-affect model is presented as a reworking- of the same underlying concept of personal preference for qualitative differences, which image embodied. The advantage of the reinforcement-affect model is that it is developed from a history of behavioral learning theory applications. The reinforcement-affect model of mall patronage can follow the application of learning theory to interpersonal attraction. However, this model can only serve as a guide to understanding the relationship between stimulus cues in the mall and patronage if empirical support for the revised retail gravity model demonstrate that the stimulus response relationship between the stores in the mall and attraction is maintained in the environment of competing marketplace variables.

REFERENCES

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