The Effect of Stress on Price Sensitivity and Comparison Shopping

Linda K. Anglin, Mankato State University
J. Kathleen Stuenkel, University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse
Lawrence R. Lepisto, Central Michigan University
ABSTRACT - Stress is a common issue for many consumers yet little attention has been paid to the role of stress in consumer research. This paper empirically examines the role of chronic stress on price sensitivity and comparison shopping. Results indicate that measures of time consciousness, life events, and marital satisfaction have a positive and significant effect on price sensitivity and comparison shopping. The need for novelty was also positively related to both behaviors, while locus of control contributed only to the price sensitivity equation.
[ to cite ]:
Linda K. Anglin, J. Kathleen Stuenkel, and Lawrence R. Lepisto (1994) ,"The Effect of Stress on Price Sensitivity and Comparison Shopping", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 126-131.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 126-131


Linda K. Anglin, Mankato State University

J. Kathleen Stuenkel, University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse

Lawrence R. Lepisto, Central Michigan University


Stress is a common issue for many consumers yet little attention has been paid to the role of stress in consumer research. This paper empirically examines the role of chronic stress on price sensitivity and comparison shopping. Results indicate that measures of time consciousness, life events, and marital satisfaction have a positive and significant effect on price sensitivity and comparison shopping. The need for novelty was also positively related to both behaviors, while locus of control contributed only to the price sensitivity equation.


The role of stress in the day-to-day lives of people has received extensive coverage in the lay press and in academic research. While stress has been shown to be a potent issue in the lives of many people, little has been done to examine the role of stress in consumer behavior. The purpose of this paper is to study empirically the effect of stress on price sensitivity and comparison shopping.


The issues of stress are extremely complex due in part to the conceptualization of stress. A clear delineation has not been made in the literature between stress and stressors. Morse and Furst (1979) note that although Seyle coined the term "stressor" for causative factors in 1950, other researchers since then have failed to differentiate between factors and reactions (stress) thus leading to the current situation where both the cause and result are called "stress". Adding to the confusion, stressors can be classified as physical, social and psychological (Morse and Furst 1979); and in terms of intensity and duration (Schafer 1978). While physical stressors are external factors such as drugs, food, and noise; social stressors or life-change events result from the interaction of the individual with his/her environment (e.g., death of a loved one, divorce, job loss, or financial difficulty). Psychological stressors are intense emotions (e.g. worry, anger, or fear) that are brought on by physical or social stressors. Stress intensity reflects a continuum from the 'little hassles of daily life' to the more intense pressures such as death or divorce. Finally, duration refers to how long the pressure exists. Short-term stressors (e.g., last minute shopping) are acute or momentary conditions, while chronic stressors (e.g., managing career and household, income conditions, or family strains) last over a longer period of time.

Maes, Vingerhoets and Heck (1987, p. 546) define stress as "a state of imbalance within a person, elicited by an actual or perceived disparity between environmental demands and the person's capacity to cope with these demands." This definition suggests that stress can be examined in consumer behavior as a situational influence (Lepisto, Stuenkel and Anglin 1991). When examined from the interactionist approach, stress can be included as a person-bound variable (a predisposition or stressor brought to the situation) or as a response to some situational cue (even not in the presence of a stress-related predisposition).

While acute stressors could be considered to affect some specific aspects of consumer behavior, more chronic stressors may affect those behavioral characteristics that tend to be more enduring in the consumer (e.g., their price sensitivity or tendency to comparison shop). In addition, situational (acute) stress can be avoided by avoiding the issue whereas chronic stress is more permanent and, therefore, present in all situations. Three types of stressors were selected for inclusion in this study: life events and marital satisfaction (chronic social stressors) and time consciousness (chronic psychological stressor).

Correlates of Stress

Life Events. It is widely accepted in the social science literature that life status changes have a profound psychological effect on individuals (see, for example, Hendrix, Steel, and Schultz 1987). While these effects are generally deemed as detrimental to a person's well-being, these more chronic stressors, may actually diminish the effects of daily hassles (Caspi, Bolger and Eckenrode 1987). These researchers suggest that experience in coping with major life events provides the individual with feedback on effective and ineffective ways to cope with stress. Such experiential learning may then carry over to subsequent stressors and coping strategies on the daily level.

While consumer behavior may be less dramatic in context, elevated stress levels induced by life status changes can have important potential effects on buyer behavior. Andreasen (1984) suggests that stress may lead to increased dissatisfaction with life in general and with product and service choices in particular, and this can lead to changes in consumption behavior or cause consumers to cling to present patterns of behavior as a means of coping.

Marital Satisfaction. Considerable research has documented an association between marital stress and occupational stress (Burke 1986); marital stress and depression, psychological symptoms, self-dissatisfaction, self-reported health, and activity scope (Chiriboga and Dean 1978); and marital stress and the consumption of alcohol (Bromet et al. 1988).

It is clear that the role of marital satisfaction as a stressor has been widely documented under a number of conditions. Even though no study has addressed the role of marital satisfaction as a stressor in the consumer behavior literature, it does appear likely, given its wide spread effect, that marital satisfaction would also act as a stressor in a consumption situation.

Time Consciousness. In keeping with the framework of situational influence, Belk's (1974) temporal characteristic relates to stress due to time constraints. Time and stress are related when a disparity between environmental demands and the person's capacity to cope with these demands exists. This disparity of demands and available time is common in such situations as two-income households (Burke 1986, Lewis and Cooper 1987) and in persons experiencing job-related stress. In contrast, for older consumers, the excess of available time associated with retirement is often found to be stressful (Palmore et. al., 1979).

Coping With Stress

When a consumer is in a stressful situation, efforts are made to cope with that stress. In general, coping is seen as being either problem-focused or emotion-focused (Folkman and Lazarus 1988). Problem-focused coping is done when individuals address a problem directly by gathering new information and/or learning new skills. On the other hand, emotion-focused coping focuses on managing the emotions aroused by the stressor. According to Scheier, Weintraub, and Carver (1988), individuals manage emotion by seeking social support (moral support, sympathy, or understanding).

The literature generally identifies coping in response to acute (vs. chronic) stress as inhibiting effective decision making and information processing (e.g. Goldberger and Breznitz 1982; Janis and Mann 1977). However, it is important to note that stress does not always have a negative impact. In some situations stress can be an energizer resulting in increased motivation (Kahn et al. 1964) or an incentive that forces a person to be more thorough and complete (Janis and Mann 1977). Chiriboga and Dean (1978) suggest that stress (measured as life events) may well be associated with long-term growth. In Sjoberg's 1981 life situation study, "instrumental actions" (toward a goal) tended to be deeper in intention, and also tended to be carried out in somewhat more tense and unpleasant moods.

Stress and Price Sensitivity

According to Monroe (1973), "Price perception research has progressed from single-cue studies to investigations where the influence of several other variables has been examined. However, many of these studies have not considered adequately the influence of the specific context or situation on the price perception task" pp. 49. Belk (1975) suggests that adaptation-level theory provides a framework from which to study contextual influences on buyers' perception of price.

The adaptation level (AL) provides a frame of reference to which behavior is relative (Helson 1964). According to Monroe (1973), focal stimuli, when applied to pricing, refers to the stimuli to which a consumer directly responds, whereas the contextual stimuli are all other stimuli in the situation which provide the context within which the focal stimuli are judged. Although, in a pricing context, AL has been typically defined as a reference price, some difficulty has been encountered in trying to establish an exact definition of reference price (McConell 1968; Olander 1970; Shapiro 1968).

Thus according to Monroe and Petroshius (1981) the concept of situational influence can be used to evaluate price perception because it has been established that consumers judge prices differently depending on the context prevailing at the time and the predisposition (e.g., being more or less stressed) the buyer brings to the purchase situation.

Having established that price perception should be studied situationally and that stress can be viewed as a situational influence (Lepisto, Stuenkel, and Anglin 1991), it would follow that the degree to which consumers are predisposed to be stressed can affect their perception of price. The manner in which the individual responds to stress constitutes the coping mechanism. When shopping, a stressed consumer may search for a lower price to serve as an indicator of a good purchase decision which will increase the consumer's inner sense of control and self-confidence (problem-focused coping). On the other hand, stressed individuals may use low prices to serve as public indicators of good shopping habits (emotion-focused coping). Given this reasoning, the following hypothesis has been developed:

H1: Consumers experiencing higher stress levels will demonstrate a higher level of price sensitivity.

Stress and Comparison Shopping

Individuals shop for more complex reasons than simply acquiring a product. Diversion from routine activities, exercise, sensory stimulation, social interactions, learning about new trends, and even acquiring interpersonal power have been reported as nonpurchase reasons for shopping (Bellenger and Korgaonkar 1990; Tauber 1972). Given these differing motivations for shopping, Moschis (1976) observed that shoppers possessing different orientations and motivations for shopping also demonstrate different information needs.

While many factors influence the amount of external search performed by the consumer, the major determinants of the degree of external search include costs vs. benefits of information, the choice situation (such as the difficulty of the choice task, and time pressure) and individual differences (such as in-store vs. prior processing, abilities, and concern with optimality of the choice) (Bettman 1979). From this description, it would appear that comparison shopping also can be viewed in a situational context. Specifically, from Belk's (1974) view of situational influence, a consumer's mood and antecedent state can have a major influence on purchase decisions, including a consumer's decision to comparison shop. Therefore, the level of stress a consumer brings to the shopping situation may impact their propensity to comparison shop.

Comparison shopping and search are forms of information seeking. Information seeking, a major component of problem-focused coping (Ashford 1988), enhances the predictability of a situation and this is thought to help individuals avoid future difficulties, deal with present ones, and increase their sense of control and confidence. Consistent with this idea is Tauber's (1972) identification of shopping as an arena where consumers derive satisfaction from finding exactly what they have been looking for, and that satisfaction serves two types of motivations, namely a sense of achievement and mastery over the choice environment. As such, comparison shopping may reflect growth in consumer decision making.

When considering emotion-focused coping, consumers may view shopping as role enactment which describes the motivation to identify with and assume a culturally prescribed role regarding the conduct of shopping activity. Generally, these roles prescribe normative behavior, such as careful product and price comparisons, searching for optimum value, etc. Thus, these shoppers seek ego-enhancement by adding satisfying shopping roles to existing self-concepts (Westbrook and Black 1985).

Chiriboga and Dean (1978) suggest that the readjustment demands of the life events fall within the capabilities of the organism to cope, stress may well be associated with growth. The data implies that stressors may be associated with long-term growth and development in certain situations. As such, comparison shopping may reflect growth in consumer decision-making.

H2: The higher the level of stress, the greater one's propensity to comparison shop.

Individual Characteristics

Although it is reasonable to assume that higher levels of stress have an overall negative physiological and psychological effect on individuals, it would seem likely that these effects vary from person to person and are mediated by specific individual difference variables. In this regard, two such predispositions were selected for inclusion, locus of control and need for novelty.

Locus of Control. Locus of control refers to an individual's subjective perception of a reinforcing event and evaluation as to whether or not that event is contingent upon ones own actions. Externals interpret an event as "luck, chance, fate, as under the control of powerful others, or as unpredictable: while internals interpret an event as contingent on one's "own behavior" or "own relatively permanent characteristics" (Rotter 1966). Numerous studies have documented the moderating effect of locus of control on stress (Caldwell, Pearson, and Chin 1987; Morgan et al. 1986). Common findings suggest that internals experience less distress in response to stressors than externals and achieve better outcomes to the stressful situations than do externals (Parkes 1984) due to more use of task-centered coping mechanisms (Anderson 1977).

Thus stressed internals would be more likely to perceive comparison shopping and searching for lower prices as positive activities leading to a positive outcome. Stressed externals, on the other hand, would be more likely to perceive comparison shopping and searching for lower prices as useless activities since externals do not believe that their own behavior affects the outcome.

Need for Novelty. Joachimsthaler and Lastovicka (1984) report that optimal stimulation level and personality traits (locus of control) directly affect consumer exploratory behavior. Hirschman (1980) suggests that novelty seeking serves as a means of self-preservation. The individual may find it useful to create a "bank" of potentially useful knowledge. Because the future is unknowable and unexpected, consumption problems are almost inevitable; the consumer may wisely decide to seek information that is not "useful" now, but may assume great importance in the future.

A second complementary explanation for novelty seeking is that it functions to improve problem-solving skills (problem-focused coping). That is, the consumer may seek information pertaining to presently adopted products and consumption situations in an effort to improve his/her performance. Additionally, individuals with high stimulation ideals may seek information because of a genuine desire to explore something unfamiliar, while individuals with low stimulation needs may seek information to reduce the risk of trying an unfamiliar product (Raju 1980; Price and Ridgway 1982).

A stressed consumer may be more predisposed to engage in novelty seeking in order to enhance the predictability of future situations and maintain a sense of control and confidence. By "banking" product information a consumer may feel more confident about making good decisions under all circumstances.



The data for this study were taken from the national Adult Longitudinal Panel, Central Michigan University. Of the 28,000 surveys mailed, 4,131 adults responded for a 15 percent response rate. Due to missing data, the effective sample size was reduced to 3031 for this analysis.


Indicators of Stress. Measurement scales and their respective descriptive statistics can be found in Table 1. All scales were factor analyzed for psychometric properties. Selected indicators of stress include time pressure, marital satisfaction, and the occurrence of major life events. Perceived control over one's time was measured using a three item Time Consequences Scale. Marital Satisfaction, an index of 10 items, reflects one's satisfaction with different facets of marriage including communication, conflict resolution, financial position, parental responsibility, and relationships (Olson, Fournier and Druckman 1981)

The third indicator of stress, the presence of life change events during the past 12 months, was measured via the commonly used Social Readjustment Rating Scale (Holmes and Rahe 1967). The original scale containing 43 events was reduced to 42. This study added the events without weighting each event because previous findings suggest both approaches generate similar correlations with behavior (Grant et al. 1978; Zimmerman 1983).

Price Sensitivity. Price sensitivity was evaluated using a three-item scale that assessed the degree to which consumers prefer and search for lower prices.

Comparison Shopping. One's propensity to comparison shop was measured via six items which reflect the extent to which one compares products and prices.

Individual Characteristics. Locus of Control was measured using items adapted from Rotter's scale (1966) for internal versus external control. Five items reflecting one's desire to try new and different products were used to operationalize one's Need for Novelty.


Five independent variables were used in two multiple regression analyses with price sensitivity and comparison shopping as the dependent variables. Correlations among the independent variables are reported in Table 2.


The regression results, summarized in Table 3, indicate that both price sensitivity and comparison shopping are related positively to the three measures of stress. As people experience increased conflict from how they manage their time and incur more stress producing events, the more likely they are to be price sensitive and the greater their likelihood to engage in comparison shopping. While one would expect increased marital satisfaction to indicate a less stressful situation, it too contributed significantly to the regression equations. As the need for novelty increases, so does ones price sensitivity and their propensity to comparison shop. Although locus of control acted as a mediating variable for price sensitivity, it was not a significant variable in the shopping equation.


Findings tended to support the notion that consumers in high stress situations would demonstrate higher levels of price sensitivity and comparison shopping. Specifically, those individuals that suffered from time pressures and a high number of life status changes tended to spend more time comparison shopping and were more price sensitive. While intuitively this may seem backwards, an examination of coping patterns suggests that stressed individuals engaging in either problem-focused or emotion-focused coping would tend to gather information, although for different purposes.

Marital satisfaction, on the other hand, did not perform as expected. Although the relationships between marital satisfaction and comparative shopping, and marital satisfaction and price sensitivity were significant, the expected direction of each relationship was different. It was expected that high degrees of marital satisfaction would result in less stress for the individuals and, therefore, less comparison shopping and less price sensitivityCnegative relationships. However, weak positive relationships were found indicating that high marital satisfaction contributed to a greater propensity to comparison shop and a greater propensity to be price sensitive than high levels of marital stress. This surprise may be due in part to the nature of marital satisfaction. Chiriboga and Dean (1978) found that marital stress was the only one of nine preoccupation measures to consistently and universally result in a decline in all measures of psychosocial adjustment and that the magnitude of the relationships were in each case strong. Moreover, the effects of marital stress did not vary over time as did all other measures of negative preoccupation. In light of this finding, it is possible that marital stress actually constitutes a high enough level of stress to cause an individual to engage in coping mechanisms that are not as constructive as emotion- or problem-focused coping. In either case, information seeking and processing would be impaired to such a level that even moderate levels of comparison shopping and price sensitivity may seem high in comparison.



Locus of control served to mediate the relationship between stress and price sensitivity. Interestingly, the relationship was positive indicating that externals were more likely to be price sensitive than internals. This specifically supports the notion that searching for and finding a lower price serves as social support for emotion control. No significant relationship was found between locus of control and comparison shopping. On the other hand, novelty seeking resulted in a significant and positive relationship with price sensitivity and comparison shopping. Consumers are likely to seek out new products that will help reduce their stress. Those suffering from time pressures might seek time-saving products while those suffering stress from a divorce or lost spouse might seek out new products that would make life easier for them.

Future research can take direction from suggestions offered in the stress literature. Specifically, research needs to be done to develop methods of measuring stress in a consumer behavior context. While a variety of measurement approaches are available (and used for this study), it is still not clear which scales will be most appropriate for consumer research. In addition, measures addressing consumer coping mechanisms should also be developed.





Once scales have been developed, the roles of chronic and acute stress must be differentiated. This is a very complex issue that must be examined from a temporal perspective. Chronic stress would be expected to relate more to long-term lifestyle changes while acute stress would likely cause more defined short-term alterations in behavior. While existing literature places a high degree of importance on the role of temporal factors, most empirical studies have looked at stress as a static variable, and have overlooked the adaptive capacities of consumers.


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