Price Awareness of Consumers Exposed to Intense Retail Rivalry: a Field Study

Kathleen Seiders, Texas A&M University
Carolyn L. Costley, University of Miami
ABSTRACT - Following the simultaneous market entry by 3 supermarket chains, we conducted a field study to explore consumer responses to this intensified retail competition and price warfare. We investigated consumers' use of price for store choice and the accuracy of their perceptions about retailer price positioning. A content analysis of pricing tactics determined that communications to consumers changed substantively after the entry event. Price basket comparisons among all chains indicated distinct actual pricing positions. Finally, a consumer survey provided evidence that price played an unusually prominent role in store choice decisions and that consumers had very accurate perceptions of market pricing.
[ to cite ]:
Kathleen Seiders and Carolyn L. Costley (1994) ,"Price Awareness of Consumers Exposed to Intense Retail Rivalry: a Field Study", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 79-85.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 79-85


Kathleen Seiders, Texas A&M University

Carolyn L. Costley, University of Miami


Following the simultaneous market entry by 3 supermarket chains, we conducted a field study to explore consumer responses to this intensified retail competition and price warfare. We investigated consumers' use of price for store choice and the accuracy of their perceptions about retailer price positioning. A content analysis of pricing tactics determined that communications to consumers changed substantively after the entry event. Price basket comparisons among all chains indicated distinct actual pricing positions. Finally, a consumer survey provided evidence that price played an unusually prominent role in store choice decisions and that consumers had very accurate perceptions of market pricing.

Consumers are increasingly confronted with intense marketplace competition. Saturation, overstoring, and a rapid proliferation of new formats have changed the competitive dynamics in many retail markets. As established chains defend marketshare against low cost/low price operators, price warfare has become prevalent. The impact of price-focused competition on consumer perception and retail patronage is relevant across a number of marketing contexts.

Prior research on consumers' responses to retail price positioning spans two literature streams C pricing and retail selection. The influence of various price factors on consumer price perceptions has been examined extensively. Areas of study include types of price appeals (Della Bitta, Monroe, and McGinnis 1981; Mobley, Bearden, and Teel 1988); the use of reference prices (Grewal and Compeau 1992; Liefeld and Heslop 1985; Mazumdar and Monroe 1992; Urbany, Bearden, and Weilbaker 1988); and the magnitude of price discounts (Berkowitz and Walton 1980; Leigh and Varadarajan 1991). Retail patronage literature addresses the patterns of consumers' purchasing behavior and the determinants of store choice (Spiggle and Sewall 1987; Black 1984). Consumers' retail selection processes traditionally have been examined using estimation models to identify and rank determinant attributes (Arnold, Oum, and Tigert 1983; Louviere and Gaeth 1987; Craig, Ghosh and McLafferty 1984). Attributes determined to be the most critical for patronage decisions include convenient location, price, assortment, service, product quality, and shopping environment.

An issue which has not received significant attention within either the pricing or patronage literature is the nature of consumer responses to intensified competitive environments characterized by price battling. We present research focusing on the following question: how does increased competitive rivalry, with widespread price warfare, affect consumers' price sensitivity and price perceptions? To capture the realism of marketplace dynamics, we investigated consumers' response to competitive turbulence in a field setting. We focused on a critical incident which forced a stable competitive environment into disequilibrium and price jockeying.

To establish that price battling occurred, the first stage of the study examined changes in retailers' pricing behaviors. We measured changes in consumer-directed communications (about price) before and after the pivotal event. We also measured the actual price position of competitorsCas opposed to the implied advertised price positionsCjust after entry but before price adjustments and again after the market had a chance to adapt (seven months later). In the second stage we evaluated consumer responses in terms of 1) their use of price for store selection and 2) their perceptions of retailers' actual price positions.

Reseach Context: Simultaneous Entry of Retail Chains

Within a 4-week period in the winter of 1991, a southwestern city (approximately 100,000 population) saw three major supermarket chains enter a market previously served by three competing chains. The established competitors were Appletree (3 stores), Kroger (2), and Winn-Dixie (2); the newcomers were Albertson's (2), H.E.B. Pantry (3), and Randall's (1).

Typically, when a firm enters a market, its objective is to change consumers' buying patterns. New entrants must attract consumers to their stores for trial and continued patronage. Entrenched firms must minimize erosion of market share (customer share; dollar share) by retaining existing customers. The phenomenon of simultaneous entry of multiple firms with multiple locations magnifies the challenges for both the new entrants and the entrenched chains. This event appropriately represents the type of competitive shift central to this study.


Evaluating retailers' communications to consumersCbefore and after the critical event of chain entryCrequired a longitudinal perspective. We conducted a 12-month content analysis of print advertisements to 1) note the content changes in pricing communications, 2) measure the emphasis on various types of messages, and 3) delineate differences in the approaches of the 6 supermarket chains. All supermarket advertisements in the city's only daily newspaper were catalogued. The approximately 600 advertisements (3000 pages) included both promotional inserts and in-paper ads. Exhibit 1 displays the data.

Seven categories of retail pricing practices, representing the most frequently used price tactics, structured the content analysis. The categories are described as follows:

1. Weekly/Biweekly Specials: sale-priced items, both national and private- or store-label brands, representing all store departments.

2. Weekend/2-Day Specials: selected, high-turnover items offered at dramatically deep discounts.

3. Storewide Price Reductions: store- or category-wide "permanent" reductions.

4. Competitive Price Comparisons: retailer's price on particular items compared to competitors' higher prices.

5. Discount/Rebate Offers: programs awarding percentage discounts for minimum purchases over consecutive periods.

6. Coupon Redemption: manufacturer coupons redeemed for double value and acceptance of competitors' store coupons.

7. Product Giveaways: merchandise free-of-charge with minimum or required purchase of other specified items.

The frequency counts reported in Exhibit 1 correspond to the number of mentions of a particular category by an individual chain. No more than one count per category was recorded from a single advertisement. Exhibit 1 is divided into 4 time periods of equal duration. Time period I was prior to the multiple entry event; Periods II, III, and IV were subsequent to entry.



Changes in Price-Oriented Communications

Two content analysis categoriesCWeekend or 2-Day Specials and Storewide Price ReductionsCwere non-existent prior to the entry. Competitive Price Comparisons were minimally existent with only three mentions by Winn-Dixie. Weekend Specials were introduced by Appletree and Randall's, the market's highest-priced competitors. These specials were advertised on Fridays and Saturdays, independently of regular weekly specials advertised on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Storewide Price Reductions first occurred after the critical point and were used more for positional than for promotional purposes. While Randall's and Kroger used the tactic to adjust to lowered market prices, Winn-Dixie used store-wide reductions to maintain its Everyday Low Price (EDLP) positioning image.

Competitive Price Comparisons represented the most directly combative attempts to establish EDLP supremacy. Frequency of these advertisements increased as competition among the chains intensified. Price comparisons accounted for 4% of total mentions in Period I, increasing to 12% in Periods II and III and to 15% of total mentions in Period IV. The comparative ads varied along two factors: the object of the attack (a single competitor or a set of competitors), and the length and content of the printed price lists (e.g. 75 items across-categories; 20 produce items; 30 items from a customer's "shopping list"; 150 items comprising an entire product category). H.E.B. Pantry, Albertson's, and Winn-Dixie, the chains which employed this tactic, complemented comparative newspaper advertising with in-store signage listing competitors' prices adjacent to store unit-prices. Because of recent interest in consumers' use of reference prices (Biswas and Blair 1991; Grewal and Compeau 1992; Monroe, Grewal, Compeau 1991; Urbany, Bearden, and Weilbaker 1988), it may be especially rewarding to examine consumers' responses to this prominent use of comparative price ads.

Retailer Coupon Redemption practices qualitatively changed after the entry event. Kroger offered double redemption prior to the market attack, and both Appletree and Randall's adopted the tactic in Period II. Albertson's introduced the practice of honoring all competitors' store coupons at face value (Period II). The EDLP chains (HEB Pantry, Albertson's, Winn-Dixie) eschewed double couponing in their advertising, warning consumers of the double coupons/higher prices trade-off.

Weekly Specials, Discount and Rebate Programs, and Product Giveaways remained relatively stable as competition intensified with only two exceptions. One exception was the increasingly deeper discounting of weekly specials between Periods II and IV by Randall's, Kroger, and Albertson's. In addition to chainwide weekly specials, these chains tailored sales specifically to the local market (e.g., "prices available only at ___ stores."). A second exception was Appletree's Period IV launch of a major program encouraging customer loyalty by awarding customers 10% discounts on consecutive weekly purchases.

Summary. Numerous price-based communication changes occurred as a result of multiple chain entry and increased competitive intensity. Tactics changed with the introduction and extensive use of major new pricing initiatives. Message content changed as advertising became more and more promotional and directly competitive. Specifically, bold pricing tactics such as storewide reductions, competitive comparison ads, and price-slashed specials seized prominent roles. Individual chains battled for differentiation by creating tactical portfolios intended to fortify various price images. The cumulative effect of retailers' continuing and concerted shifts in price emphasis was an environment of full-blown price warfare.

Price Basket Comparisons

We compared price baskets among the supermarket chains in order to rank competitors in terms of actual price position. These rankings may then be used to evaluate the accuracy of consumer perceptions of the various chains' price positions.

Basket prices were collected and calculated in December of 1991, when the new chains first entered the market, and again in July of 1992. The second appraisal coincided with the related consumer survey. The price basket, designed to cover all major supermarket categories, is commonly used in private market studies. Of the 126 items, 76 are packaged national brand groceries, 15 are general merchandise, and 35 are commodities and perishables. Basket prices are presented in Table 1. Item categories have been aggregated into one Total Basket price.

Results show that all chains remained consistent in their pricing over the 8-month period with the exception of Winn-Dixie, which attempted an EDLP repositioning using highly advertised storewide price reductions. H.E.B. Pantry was the market price leader; Albertson's and Winn-Dixie (in the July survey) trailed by only 2%, an imperceptible distinction (Tigert 1985, 1989). Kroger prices were approximately 6% above H.E.B. Pantry's. Randall's and Appletree shared the high-end of the price spectrum at 15% and 18% above, respectively. It thus appears that there were four distinctly different price positions in the market. This provides empirical evidence of the price variation in the market and confirms the fierce conflict among the 3 EDLP chains for perceived price position leadership.


Our content analysis provided evidence that retailers increased price promotion and price positioning activity after three new chains entered the market. The chains varied in their tactics to attract and retain customers. Because of the emphasis on price in general, and the relative emphasis on price comparisons in particular, it would be reasonable to expect consumers to pay more attention to price. This prompts us to express three general hypotheses. 1) Consumers will reevaluate what constitutes "low" price. 2) Consumers will become more price sensitive, re-ordering the importance of choice determinants, giving greater weight to price and lesser weight to other attributes. 3) Consumers will accurately evaluate actual price positions. These expectations guided the empirical second phase.

Evaluation of Low Price

It is likely that the extremely low prices produced by price warfare would change consumers' perceptions of all prices. In other words, consumers' concept of "low" price conforms to the context. Adaptation-level theorists posit that when new information varies over a wider range than consumers' internal reference ranges, it changes those reference ranges (Monroe, Grewal, and Compeau 1991). We would, therefore, expect consumers' standards to change following price warfare. A previously "low" price might no longer be perceived as such. We expect this change to manifest itself in consumers switching to lower-priced stores.

Consumers might be persuaded to switch to the new low price stores unless loyalty keeps them from it. Research has shown, however, that consumers' store loyalty is divided at best (Steenkamp and Wedel 1991; Keng and Ahrenberg 1984). Thus, we don't expect that loyalty will override price sensitivity in this price warfare environment.



Reweighting Determinant Attributes

It is likely that rampant price communications will cause consumers to place relatively more importance on price than on other attributes for determining store patronage. Previous research suggests that attribute determinacy is indeed subject to market dynamics. Arnold, Oum, and Tigert (1983) used a multinomial logit model to identify and rank determinant attributes in store choice decisions across a variety of conditions. Logit coefficients consistently were highest on convenient location, low price, assortment, fast checkout, courteous service, shopping environment, best weekly specials, and meat quality (in approximate rank order).

Increased price variation may also cause attribute reweighting. In a study of context effects on parameter estimates, Eagle (1984) found that expanded variation of one attribute among stores increased that attribute's impact on market share. Consequently, the impact of unchanged attributes decreased. This reinforces our expectation that attribute reweighting will occur when price variation increases as in our price warfare scenario. We expect price to increase in importance for store choice.

Accuracy of Perceived Retailer Price Positions

For consumers to perform inter-store price comparisons usually requires that they retain price information in memory for later recall. Mazumdar and Monroe (1992) note that it is difficult to simplify retailers' price comparisons because there are few printed price lists and advertisements feature a small proportion of merchandise. Furthermore, advertisements often report only sale prices, leaving consumers uninformed about retailers' "everyday" price levels.

While inter-store price comparison is usually a complex consumer task, the price comparison tactics employed in our study context greatly simplified it. Extensive comparative price advertising and in-store signage offering comparative price data facilitate inter-store price comparisons for consumers. Print ads listing items and various retailers' prices allow consumers to compare stores without having to remember prices while they shop around. So, while research has shown that shoppers normally make limited use of price and price status information (Dickson and Sawyer 1990), simplifying the task may change that. We expect that an increased percentage of shoppers will use price information for store choice in this environment where comparative advertising and signage were pervasive.

Being exposed to so much comparison price data and the increased likelihood of using price data should make consumers knowledgeable about retailers' price behavior. Comparative price messages not only should affect consumers' perceptions of retailers' price positions (Urbany, Bearden and Weilbaker 1988), but should make them more accurate judges of actual price positions.

Survey Method

A survey of area consumers was conducted in July of 1992, approximately 8 months after the entry of the supermarket chains. Using random-digit dialing, we completed telephone interviews with 500 primary household food shoppers (approximately 80% response rate). Here, we report on the questions related to consumer price perceptions and store choice attributes. ["Which food store has the lowest overall prices?" "Which food store has the highest overall prices?" "Please tell me the single most important reason why you shop at the store where you shop most often for groceries." "Please tell me the second most important reason..."]

Respondents were asked their primary and secondary reasons for shopping the chains they reported to shop the most frequently. We expected for responses to these open-ended questions to show price to be particularly determining of store choice. We also expected that other choice attributes would show decreased importance.

Other questions asked respondents to identify the supermarket chain with the highest prices and the chain with the best or lowest prices. We asked respondents to identify the superior chain on each attribute (e.g., price, location, assortment) rather than to rate each chain on all attributes. This neutralizes halo effects of store image on all attributes (Arnold, Oum, and Tigert 1983). We expected respondents' perceptions of the chains' price positions to be fairly accurate. Consumers' ranking of the chains should reflect the ranking designated by the price basket comparison survey.




Evaluation of Low Price

Assorted evidence suggests that consumers became sensitized to price and probably reformulated their concepts of "low" price. Consumers' reevaluation of low price would likely be manifested by erratic or shifting patronage behavior. When asked to identify which chain they primarily patronized prior to the entry event and which chain they patronized afterwards, over 50% reported shifted patronage. Those who shifted patronage said that price was particularly important to their store choice (Table 2 Part B). This suggests that reconceptualization of "low" price probably triggered behavioral changes.

An impetus to reevaluate the market and gain new price knowledge would logically follow from a redefinition of what constitutes "low prices." The accuracy of consumers' perceptions about retailers' price positions (Table 2 Parts C and D) indicates that they were very knowledgeable. The evidence indicates that consumers paid attention to price information in this market.

Choice Determinacy

Table 2 contains the results used to evaluate our expectations about consumer responses. Result (A) shows the five primary choice determinants for this market and the percentages of respondents choosing these attributes as the primary or secondary reasons for store choice. Because the list of determinant attributes is partial, percentages presented in the table do not total 100%. Price is only 5% below location/convenience as a primary determinant. The combined percentage, used to evaluate overall attribute importance, is 4% higher for price than for location (p<.05).

To judge the importance of these results, we compared them to other markets that were similarly measured. Chicago and Ohio markets (Tigert 1985, 1989)Clarger markets than oursCwere affected by the entry of only one (Chicago) or 2 (Ohio) new chains. Competitive structure, therefore, was relatively less altered than in our study context where the number of competitors literally doubled. These studies reported the following:


Comparing the Chicago and Ohio studies to our results (Prices: 28% 23% 51%) reveals a substantially higher consumer awareness of price in our turbulent market. Fifty-one percent of our respondentsCcompared to 30% and 33% of Chicago and Ohio respondentsCreported that price was the first or second most important determinant of their store choice. This suggests that price sensitivity has increased as a result of intensified competition and price warfare.

The shift in the weighting of determinant attributes, represented primarily by the location/price dyad, is also apparent from these results. Location was important to 63% and 54% of respondents in the comparison studies, but to only 47% in our study.

Additional support for the magnified role of price is contained in Part (B) of Table 2. Respondents who shifted their patronage allocated more importance to price as a choice determinant than those who did not shift (54% versus 45%) (p<.01). The difference is most pronounced in the "second most important attribute" category (25% versus 19%). The weighting for location was stable across the two groups. Consistent with past research, location continued to dominate, yet price became relatively more important in the store choice decision.

Perceived Price Positioning

Respondents' perceptions of the highest and lowest-priced chains in the market are contained in Parts (C) and (D) of Table 2. Part (C) captures price perceptions for the total sample, and Part (D) reports perceptions for the individual chains' primary shoppers. Both analyses are required because the chains have differential market shares and primary shopper perceptions are needed to capture true strengths and weaknesses. A Lowest Priced/ Highest Priced Ratio combines the two mentions for the total sample, providing a more refined overall measure of perceived price position. A summary of the results follows:



We compared these rankings with the Price Basket Survey results in Table 1 (July 1992) to gauge the accuracy of consumers' perceptions of retailers' price positions. Respondent rankings are highly accurate, particularly the more sensitive Ratio and Primary Shopper measures. H.E.B. Pantry is the indisputable price leader; Appletree and Randall's cluster as the highest-priced competitors. Primary shopper perceptions of price image for H.E.B. Pantry and Winn-Dixie are notable, at 91% and 87%, respectively. Examination of the data in Table 2 shows the primary respondent misperception to be Winn-Dixie's price differentiation from Albertson's. In fact, the prices of the two chains are virtually indistinguishable. Their communication strategies however, as indicated by the content analysis, were very different.


Price warfare's influence on consumer behavior merits investigation. The Wall Street Journal (12/8/92) described the "new breed of thrifty consumer, who willingly treks from supermarkets to warehouse clubs" as having a "frugality habit." The speculation underlying this study is that retailers, by placing extreme emphasis on price through a variety of initiatives and communication tactics, are advancing price sensitivity among consumers.

While controlled laboratory experiments are capable of isolating and testing relationships between variables, a common concern is that freely varying factors in the marketplace may obscure those relationships. In the field study reported, we are able to explore consumer behavior in a dynamic, "noisy" setting that cannot be simulated. We attempted to evaluate the effects of changed competitive structure (particularly price warfare) on consumer responses.

Under "real world" conditions, consumers appeared to change their reference point for "low" price. Those who switched stores said that price was particularly important to their store choice. This is consistent with reference price research based on adaptation, prospect and assimilation theories. Changes in advertised reference prices apparently caused consumers to adjust their price standards.

Increased price variation also caused price to gain relative importance in determining store choice. Price became a more important attribute both within this market context and when compared to other markets of lower competitive intensity. This provides field study support for Eagle's laboratory findings that increased variation in one attribute enhances that attribute's impact on market share (1984).

Accurate knowledge of actual price positions in the marketplace indicates that consumers paid attention to the increased price advertising. Behavior changes reportedly based on price indicate that the increased advertising changed consumers' price sensitivities. This addresses Urbany, Bearden, and Weilbaker's recommendation to examine the accuracy and effects of consumers' price expectations (1988).

Retailer use of competitive comparative price advertising was a particularly intriguing market phenomenon. Conceptual relevance of this practice stems from the current activity in reference price research. Of practical interest is the potential effectiveness of the format. Supermarket chains apparently are dedicating substantial resources to support this type of advertising. An interesting correlation in this study is the heavy usage of competitive comparison advertising by the perceived price leaders, H.E.B. Pantry and Winn-Dixie. Albertson's adopted the comparison ad format midstream, using it with less frequency than the other two EDLP chains.

While field research benefits from external validity, it sacrifices control over relevant variablesCsuch as nonprice promotions, service enhancements, etc.Cwhich contribute to consumer store choice decisions. Relative lack of comparative data with which to evaluate the results was another drawback. It might be useful to pursue more elaborate survey methodologies that could capture variation in consumer price sensitivity in diverse competitive retail contexts.


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