Predicting Buyers' Selection of Interpersonal Sources: the Role of Strong Ties and Weak Ties

Pamela Kiecker, Texas Tech University
Cathy L. Hartman, Utah State University
ABSTRACT - The construct of social support is used to explore buyers' motivation for selecting interpersonal sources. The paper reports a study of buyers and purchase pals (interpersonal sources operating at the point-of-purchase) that examined (1) the strength of ties in buyer-pal relationships and (2) buyers' perceptions of the type of social support provided by purchase pals. Findings suggest that the type of interpersonal source selected for support can be predicted by the strength of tie between the buyer and the source.
[ to cite ]:
Pamela Kiecker and Cathy L. Hartman (1994) ,"Predicting Buyers' Selection of Interpersonal Sources: the Role of Strong Ties and Weak Ties", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 464-469.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 464-469


Pamela Kiecker, Texas Tech University

Cathy L. Hartman, Utah State University


The construct of social support is used to explore buyers' motivation for selecting interpersonal sources. The paper reports a study of buyers and purchase pals (interpersonal sources operating at the point-of-purchase) that examined (1) the strength of ties in buyer-pal relationships and (2) buyers' perceptions of the type of social support provided by purchase pals. Findings suggest that the type of interpersonal source selected for support can be predicted by the strength of tie between the buyer and the source.


Numerous studies have shown that buyers employ others as interpersonal sources of information and/or support in their decision making processes (e.g., Assael, Etgar, and Henry 1983; Midgley 1983; Furse, Punj, and Stewart 1984; Price and Feick 1984; Sanders 1985; Hartman and Kiecker 1991). The individuals that buyers use as sources form a diverse set and serve a variety of functions. Examples include the fashion expertise offered by paid wardrobe consultants (Solomon 1987), automobile recommendations provided by insurance agents (Formisano, Olshavsky, and Tapp 1982), and information regarding product innovations from opinion leaders and early adopters of new products (Arndt 1967; Engel, Kegerreis, and Blackwell 1969). Price and Feick (1984) found substantial evidence of the use of interpersonal sources, where 91% of the respondents in their study reported they are likely to use knowledgeable friends, relatives, or acquaintances as information sources.

Buyers vary in terms of their relationships with the various individuals providing them with information and support. For example, wardrobe consultants and insurance agents likely represent weak ties, while close friends and relatives represent strong ties. It also is likely that buyers' selection of a particular source will depend on the nature of their relationship with these individuals, as well as the specific decision task at hand. Buyers' selection of interpersonal sources is explored in this study by focusing on the buyer's purchase decision at the point of sale. By virtue of this focus, we examine relationships between buyers and purchase pals, where the term "purchase pal" is used to specify "individuals who accompany buyers on their shopping trips in order to assist them with their on-site purchase decisions" (Hartman and Kiecker 1991, p. 462).

This research uses the construct of social support to explore buyers' motivation for selecting particular individuals as purchase pals. We begin by providing a brief review of the literature on social support and interpersonal sources. We then report the research methods and findings of a study that examined (1) the strength of ties in buyer-pal relationships and (2) buyers' perceptions of the type of social support provided by purchase pals. These findings suggest that the type of interpersonal source selected for support can be predicted by the strength of tie between the buyer and the source.


Social Support

Individuals are generally motivated to seek support for a reason. That is, supportive interactions generally are meaningful and positive for recipients (see Cobb 1976; Caplan 1976; House 1981; Moss 1973; Tolsdorf 1976). While it is likely that supportive interaction also benefits the provider, specific definitions and functions provided in the literature have generally focused on the benefits for the recipient. Central to most conceptualizations of support is the notion of uncertainty reduction. That is, supportive communication can be seen to help people by decreasing the anxiety and stress caused by unknown situations. By reducing perceptions of uncertainty, supportive communication helps the receiver develop a sense of control over potentially stressful circumstances. According to Eyres and MacElveen-Hoehn (1983, p. 3), support occurs when "information and resources from others in the environment . . . minimize the perception of threat, maximize actual and perceived mastery, and facilitate direct action and anticipatory modes of coping."

Extending the notion of social support to buyers' purchase decisions, the experience of uncertainty and ambiguity in the context of a purchase situation motivates buyers to seek the support of others. The information provided by others might include product attributes, prices, distribution outlets, and available alternatives; support may be derived from others' product expertise and negotiation skills.

The dyadic relationship involved in the giving and receiving of support occurs in a socially constructed network of both strong ties and weak ties. Tie strength is indicated by several variables, including the importance attached to social relations, frequency of social contact, and types of social relations (Granovetter 1973; 1982; Weimann 1983). Support from so-called "weak ties" may be provided by buyers' acquaintances, co-workers, or others in the community whom they may not know well but who are able to help because of some generalized cultural or role expectation. Those individuals closest to buyers (i.e., close friends and family members whom buyers know at a psychological level) represent "strong ties." Their support helps buyers because they can discriminate buyers' distinctive needs and, based on this information, determine what is (and is not) effective for them. In other words, individuals representing close ties have the requisite knowledge for understanding buyers' unique perspectives and can use this knowledge to assist them.

The manner in which uncertainty is reduced by the use of strong and weak ties varies. In the close relationships formed by strong ties, uncertainty is reduced via extensive exchanges of personal information, similarities, and interaction with the other person's network (e.g., Berger and Calabrese 1975; Parks and Adelman 1983). Social comparison theory suggests that buyers are most likely to choose "co-oriented peers"-those whose outlook and values they consider to be similar to their own-for comparisons. (It also is likely that those who are perceived as similar in terms of outlook and values will be the same people selected as close friends and spouses). Marketing research that supports this hypothesis includes a study of women's choice of cosmetics. Moschis (1976) found that women were more likely to seek information about product choices from similar friends and to trust the judgments of similar others. This same relationship also was found for evaluations of men's suits and coffee (Burnkrant and Cousineau 1975). Similarly, Brown and Reingen (1987) found individuals more likely to use homophilous ties (than hetero-philous ties) for word-of-mouth referrals.

In contrast to strong ties, individuals representing weak ties are detached from the center of the individual's social circle. Consequently, they are unlikely to transmit information back to the individual's primary network of strong ties. In the matter of risk reduction, this distance enhances perceived anonymity and allows people to seek information and support without having to deal with the uncertainty of how those in primary relationships might respond. Weak ties also make it easier for the individual to experiment with new behaviors and new identities without being held accountable by those one sees more regularly. Further, because of their relative detachment from strong ties in a network, weak ties serve to extend the range of information to which the individual has access. These factors have lead researchers to acknowledge the strength of weak ties in social networks (e.g., Granovetter 1973).

This literature base suggests that the selection of an interpersonal source will depend, at least in part, on the strength of the tie between the buyer and the source. The following section reviews the relevant literature on interpersonal sources in order to place the role of tie strength within the general literature on buyers' selection of sources. Special attention is given to the limited research that has specifically examined purchase pals as interpersonal sources.

Interpersonal Sources

Previous research examining interpersonal sources indicates that buyers use purchase pals to reduce the risk and uncertainty they associate with the shopping task. For example, Bell (1967) found buyers with little confidence in their car buying talents were likely to use personal friends and acquaintances for product information, while Midgley (1983) identified men's use of their spouses to increase their confidence in clothing purchases. In another study, Sanders (1985) recognized the role of interpersonal sources in the reduction of risk for tatoo consumers.

Research also has shown that buyers' selection of a purchase pal depends on the type of risk associated with the decision process. For example, Kiecker and Hartman (1993) found that buyers who perceive social/psychological risks to be associated with a product purchase are more likely to use family members whom they have known for a significant period of time as purchase pals; when buyers perceive functional risks to be associated with product purchases, they are more likely to use non-family members whom they have known for less time (fewer than three years).

Other studies indicate that the selection of a particular purchase pal might be influenced by the buyer's perception of the source's credibility. For example, Furse, Punj, and Staelin (1984) found individuals selected as purchase pals were perceived by buyers to be more knowledgeable and experienced than themselves. They suggest that purchase pal assisted-shoppers appear willing to substitute the expertise of purchase pals for their own perceived lack of expertise. And, as indicated above, the type of information or expertise varies by the type of pal. When buyers require information on the performance or technical aspects of a product, acquaintances or casual friends are likely to be selected as purchase pals. When buyers require information on the psychosocial aspects of a product, close friends or relatives are likely to be selected as purchase pals (Cox 1968).

There also is evidence that buyers' selection of purchase pals depends upon personal characteristics of the buyer. For example, Bell (1967) found the selection of close friends and relatives versus acquaintances varied by buyers' levels of general and specific self-confidence. Those buyers who are quite confident in most areas of their lives, but are uneasy about their car buying abilities, most frequently used casual friends or acquaintances as purchase pals. In this case it seems those individuals who lack specific self-confidence are likely to seek information from sources they perceive to be more objective and, perhaps, more accurate as to the performance of the automobile than close friends or family members might be. Similarly, Punj and Staelin (1983) found consumers to use "expert" friends to help them in their automobile purchase decision.

Taken together, the literature examining social support and interpersonal sources suggests that the strength of tie between buyers and purchase pals can be used to predict the type of purchase pals buyers will seek out for information and support in their decision making. The following section sets forth the general predictions suggested by previous research.


Although this study was conducted on a largely exploratory basis, the general proposition suggested by previous research is that buyers will select interpersonal sources that represent (1) strong ties when the information/support required is largely symbolic and based on a psycho-social understanding of the buyer and the buyer's needs, and (2) weak ties when the information/support required is largely functional and based on product and/or marketplace expertise.


In order to explore the role of strong ties and weak ties in buyers' selection of interpersonal sources, a quota sample of 84 shopping dyads in a large northwestern city was surveyed. The sample was drawn from a variety of retail outlets, including major downtown stores, regional shopping areas, specialty shopping centers, and individual, free-standing stores. Respondents were selected to represent four different dyad types. These included (1) female buyer/female pal, (2) male buyer/male pal, (3) male buyer/ female pal, and (4) female buyer/male pal.

Interviewers were familiarized with the shopper-consultant literature and participated in a training session. They were instructed to identify shopping dyads and request that the buyer answer several questions regarding the objective of the shopping trip. Characteristics of the sample are presented in Table 1.

The survey included open-ended questions about the buyers' experience. To investigate the strength of tie between the buyer and the pal, buyers were asked to indicate (1) the type of social relationship they had with the pal (categories were: parent, sibling, spouse, close friend, boy/girlfriend, neighbor, colleague, classmate, and mere acquaintance), and (2) the length of time they had known the pal. To identify the types of social support provided by pals, buyers were asked to describe the role of the pal in the decision process, specifically in terms of the information and/or support buyers believe the pals provide. The content of buyers' responses to this question was analyzed. General procedures paralleled those suggested in the literature (e.g., Krippendorff 1980). Three independent judges were used to categorize responses and the judgments of the three were compared to determine interrater reliability. Interrater reliability rates ranged from 0.90 to 0.97. Reported results reflect the subset of responses categorized the same way by all three judges. Results from both questions are reviewed in the following section.


Types of Social Relationships

Table 2 provides a summary of the buyer-pal relationships as described by the buyers sampled. The table is broken down by the (1) gender dyad type (i.e., same gender and mixed gender dyads), (2) strength of the tie between the buyer and the pal (strong versus weak), and (3) length of the buyer-pal relationship (greater than three years versus less than three years). The relationships classified as strong ties, consistent with the literature, include those between buyers and family members (parents and their children, siblings, spouses), boyfriends and girlfriends, and close friends of the same gender. The relationships classified as weak ties include those between buyers and mere acquaintances, classmates, work colleagues, and neighbors.



Across all gender dyad types, a greater percentage of the dyads are strong ties. Interestingly, every mixed gender dyad involved a strong tie, and more than 80 percent of the female-female dyads involved a strong tie, while just over half of the male-male dyads involved strong ties. The majority of strong ties also are long-term relationships, while weak ties more often are short-term relationships. Considering the few cases that are exceptions, the data on length of relationship among strong ties show that the short-term relationships were isolated among close friends and boyfriends-girlfriends. The same data for weak ties show the few long-term relationships to be among work colleagues and neighbors.

Types of Social Support by Strength of Ties

Table 3 reports the findings on type of social support provided by purchase pals. In total, 11 different types of social support were identified via content analysis. These include a variety of activities, representing both functional tasks (e.g., providing information regarding product features, prices, retail outlets, etc.) and symbolic tasks (e.g., providing moral support, increasing buyer's confidence in the decision, determining the suitability of the product for the buyer). The table displays the number of buyers reporting that pals were used for each type of support and for both strong and weak tie relationships.

Tests of differences between strong and weak ties for each type of support involved tests of proportions. The results of these analyses show significant differences in the type of support provided by the strength of ties between the buyer and the pal for 9 of the 11 types of support identified. Strong ties are more likely to be used by buyers seeking moral support for their decisions, determining the appropriateness or suitability of the product for the buyer, and making the actual purchase decision. In contrast, weak ties are more likely to be used by buyers requiring negotiation skills and information on product features, prices, and location of retail stores. Generally, the pattern of the significant findings provides support for the research proposition. The implications of these findings and conclusions drawn from the study's results are discussed in the final section.




There is considerable evidence in the literature that buyers' use interpersonal sources for information and support. The data reported here suggest that the nature of the information and support provided by sources varies by the strength of the tie between the buyer and source. Based on these findings, it is possible to predict buyers' selection of specific interpersonal sources on the basis of tie strength. As shown in this study, the support provided by strong ties is of a generally symbolic or psycho-social nature. Accordingly, strong tie support is likely to depend upon the source's familiarity and understanding of the buyer's individual characteristics and needs. For example, in order to determine the appropriateness or suitability of a product for the buyer, the pal needs to know his or her personal tastes and preferences, individual "style," and/or values and lifestyle.

In contrast, support provided by weak ties was found to be more functional. It includes objective information that is more likely to rely on the source's abilities and know-how, based on specific product experiences and general knowledge of the marketplace. Unlike the support provided by strong ties, weak tie support is largely independent of the personal characteristics of the buyers receiving the support. For example, when providing buyers with information on product features and prices, sources rely on their own knowledge and expertise and are likely to recommend products based on their own tastes and preferences, or recommendations from third parties or nonpersonal sources.

The two types of support for which no significant differences were found between strong and weak ties were (1) identifying and (2) evaluating product alternatives. Hindsight suggests that the objectives used in identifying alternatives and the specific criteria used in their evaluation are more discriminating than the tasks, per se. That is, both symbolic and functional roles may come into play in identifying and evaluating alternatives depending upon the objective(s). Based on the findings for other types of support, strong ties are likely to identify alternatives that they deem appropriate for the buyer, and evaluate them on the basis of perceived suitability for the buyer. Weak ties, in contrast, are likely to identify alternatives they believe to be the best, cheapest, fastest, or most functional (based on objective criteria) and evaluate them against an objective standard or personal goal.

Adopting the view that social support is a determinant of source selection suggests that not all interpersonal sources are "created equal." That is, the variety of all possible roles and functions of sources requires a diverse set of skills, abilities, knowledge, and experience, as well as different types of relationships to the support recipient. Knowing more about these roles and functions is likely to increase our general understanding of buyers' selection and use of interpersonal sources. Since this study's focus is on the role of purchase pals at the point-of-purchase, future research might investigate the role of sources in buyers' information search prior to visiting the retail outlet or in post-purchase evaluations. It is likely that the type of support provided by interpersonal sources other than purchase pals also varies by strength of tie.



Of particular interest would be the type of social support provided by professional service providers across a variety of goods and services (e.g., real estate agents, stockbrokers, hospital personnel, retail salesclerks). These individuals, who represent occupations that promote social support through the roles and contexts in which they operate professionally represent weak ties of a different type than those studied here. Currently, we know little about the relationship between professional service providers and social support of consumers, specifically in terms of marketing implications for service providers and psychosocial outcomes for consumers (e.g., service satisfaction). Additional research in this area is recommended.

One final and perhaps more tertiary issue raised by the findings is that of gender. Data reported here suggest there may be gender differences in the strength of ties between buyers and sources. As noted above, a smaller percentage of strong ties were found between male-male dyads (54%) than between both female-female (83%) and mixed gender dyads (100%). It seems reasonable to suggest that (1) buyers' needs and (2) sources' abilities to provide different types of support both vary by gender. Therefore, gender dyad type also may be useful in predicting buyers' selection of particular sources. Future research might concentrate on this issue.


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