Consumption Schemata: Their Effects on Consumer Decision Making

Albert Wenben Lai, University of Wisconsin-Madison
ABSTRACT - Consumers usually use an assortment of products to satisfy a need and obtain utility from the constellation of products in use holistically. Their consumption schema includes two parts: the theme of the consumption and the expectations about their product constellation. A model for product choice is proposed, based on the assumption that consumers use consumption schemata to develop choice strategies.
[ to cite ]:
Albert Wenben Lai (1994) ,"Consumption Schemata: Their Effects on Consumer Decision Making", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, eds. Chris T. Allen and Deborah Roedder John, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 489-494.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 21, 1994      Pages 489-494


Albert Wenben Lai, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Consumers usually use an assortment of products to satisfy a need and obtain utility from the constellation of products in use holistically. Their consumption schema includes two parts: the theme of the consumption and the expectations about their product constellation. A model for product choice is proposed, based on the assumption that consumers use consumption schemata to develop choice strategies.


Consumers usually use an assortment of commodities, instead of isolated ones, to satisfy a need. For example, to furnish a dining room, a typical household uses a table, chairs, lighting, carpet, drapes, and other accessories. In food consumption, consumers who enjoy peanut butter sandwiches are likely to use jelly along with their peanut butter. Despite this, consumer decision making research usually analyzes buying choice at the level of isolated products or brands (Wells 1993), negating the fact that products are used in combination with other products. Whatever the particular attributes of an individual product that may lure potential consumers, the product's meaning will only be fully grasped by researchers when they consider how consumers will actually use or consume that product.

In consumption settings where multiple products are needed, the constellation of products forms a "consumption system" (Boyd and Levy 1963). When considering buying one or several items for that system, the buyers may apply choice strategies (Wright 1975) developed from the complementary interrelationships of the commodities. Starting from the idea that systematic patterns of consumption mediate consumer decision strategies, this paper introduces the construct of consumption schema and presents a model of consumer buying decisions from a new analytical approach.


The concept of multiple-product consumption and the systematic interrelationships among products in satisfying consumers' needs was first proposed by Boyd and Levy (1963). Boyd and Levy maintained the importance of a comprehensive analysis of consumers' consumption activities in planning effective marketing strategies. They defined a consumption system as "the way a purchaser of a product performs the total task ... that he or she is trying to accomplish when using the productCnot baking a cake, but preparing a meal" (Boyd and Levy 1963, pp. 129-130).

Underlying this systematic view of consumption are at least three concepts critical to analysis of consumer behavior. First, the systematic view looks beyond purchase behavior to use behavior, including consumption evidence, to interpret consumer decision making. Second, the systematic view emphasizes the dynamic interrelations between the products that comprise a consumption system: "The use behavior for a particular product is bound to be affected not only by ... the task to be performed with the use of that product but also by the related products and their use behaviors that make up the total consumption system" (Boyd and Levy 1963, p. 130). Third, it analyzes products not as isolated products entering into the consumption system, but rather in terms of the way these products are combined.

Surprisingly, few consumer choice researchers have followed Boyd and Levy's systematic view of consumption. However, some related research is found in the literature on consumption situation. Srivastava (1981) proposes that the anticipated use, the functions to be served, and the consumption context of a product influence consumers' choices among products/brands. Although it takes a systematic view of consumption, however, this usage-situation influence approach focuses on matching the requirements of the usage-situation and the attributes of the products in consideration. This approach consequently induces an analytical approach centered on the substitution-in-use (SIU) of products (Ratneshwar and Shocker 1991). As Solomon (1983) points out, conventional marketing research has paid much more attention to the substitutability of products than to their complementarity, and the SIU approach is no exception: it does not deal directly with the aspects of complementarity-in-use of products that is at the core of the systematic approach.

Applying a systematic approach to product symbolism consistency, Solomon (1983) claims that consumers employ product constellations in "setting the stage" for the social roles they play. Product constellations occur, that is, because individuals use entire complements of products to play their social roles. The products unified in a constellation all carry social role information. Levy (1981), in his seminal work illustrating the mythology of food consumption in Western culture, also claims that consumption of products has consistent social meaning. However, Levy approaches the systematic meanings of products and related consumption activities from a global perspective (i.e., the mythology of food consumption in the culture as a whole), while Solomon (1983) examines the symbolic meaning of product complements from a local perspective (i.e., the symbolic interactionism between individuals assuming social roles).

McCracken (1988) also claims that "the consumer goods in any complement are linked by some commonality or unity" (P. 119). He refers to the patterns of consistency in product complements as "Diderot unities," in honor of the eighteenth-century French observer (Denis Diderot, 1713-1784) who first documented these product unities. McCracken asserts that "Diderot unities are well known to and daily exploited by advertisers, designers of all kinds, and, of course, the individual consumer, but they are less well understood by social scientists" (p. 119).


Consumers often adopt simplifying strategies to make their product choice decisions, either because the capacity of human information-processing is limited (Bettman 1979) or because the cost of thinking too high (Shugan 1981). Many studies reveal that consumers who are trying to simplify problems use only simple heuristics in making decisions (Wright 1974). In particular, consumers prefer direct (or concrete and meaningful) to indirect information.

As Wright (1975) has pointed out, changes in the definition of the choice problem (or in its framing) can alter dramatically the consequent steps involved in choosing. And, hence, the outcomes of choice can be different, even if the consideration sets are the same. For example, selecting a chair to accompany a particular study desk and selecting chairs for a dining table are two different problems of chair choice. Therefore, the decision process and the evaluation tactics may be different and so the outcomes, even though consumers face the same set of alternative chairs.

Consumer psychology researchers have conceptualized two types of thinking approaches which consumers may apply to formulate a problem and then compose their choice strategies: 1) conceptually driven and 2) data-driven (Bettman 1979). In conceptually driven methods, also called top-down approaches, consumers' thinking is guided by concepts or images at a higher level than the choice objects. In data-driven methods, or bottom-up approaches, consumers' reactions to choice problems are based only on the features and clues in the choice objects themselves. From them, consumers try to develop a meaningful pattern so a decision can be made. Applying this idea of two archetypal thinking approaches, Hauser (1986) suggested that people use an "agenda" in decision making to economize the cost of thinking. Theoretically, the agenda can be top-down, bottom up, or mixed. However, the cost of thinking in a bottom-up approach is far greater than that of thinking top-down, although the expected payoff of a bottom-up approach is also greater in some situations (Hauser 1986).



It may be safe to say, then, that consumers tend to use their ideas and experiences in daily life to recognize and frame product choice problems, since consumers' experiences, beliefs, and ideas about products in daily life are convenient and direct helps (or influences) in making product choices. Choice strategies that consumers derive from their daily episodic memory (Ashcraft 1989), from their cultural mythology of product and consumption (Levy 1981), or from the ideas systematically represented in their cognitive structure (Crocker 1984) are imagistic and holistic in nature.


Researchers in cognitive and social psychology propose that people mentally represent their ideas and beliefs in cognitive structures called schemata (Crocker 1984). In other words, consumers use a network structure to organize and represent their knowledge about the meanings of products. A related concept, directly germane to consumption activity, is that of cognitive scripts (Abelson 1976). Over time, that is, consumers organize and represent their knowledge about consumption events and the behavior into scripts they apply in specific cases. Although the schemata and scripts are separable aspects of mental representation, however, they are not exclusive. It can be assumed that the representation processings of semantic memory (general knowledge) and of episodic memory (experiential knowledge) are coexistent and facilitate each other (Ashcraft 1989). Therefore, scripts can be considered as sequential schemata that represent consecutive activities of events.

Beginning with the idea of the cognitive schema, this paper proposes that consumers may acquire cognitive structures to represent various product constellations they use in satisfying needs in daily life. These cognitive structures about specific product complements organize and represent information (or personal cognition) about interrelationships among the complementary products, the temporal sequence of the consumption activity, the cultural value and meanings of the commodities, and personal preferences and affective associations. This paper uses the term consumption schema to refer to this cognitive structure from and through which product complements and relevant personal ideas are represented to meet consumer needs.

Figure 1, as an example, presents a brief framework of consumption schema concerning dining room furnishings. A typical American house will need a table, chairs, lighting, carpet, drapes, wall paper, and other accessories to furnish a dining room. This constellation of complementary commodities coexists in use, while a structure of personal ideas and related thoughts about their consumption is represented in users' minds, consciously or unconsciously.

In summary, a consumption schema, by definition, has two parts: the themes (or main ideas) of the consumption activity and consumers' expectations about product constellations and their interrelationships. A consumption schema does not necessarily refer to a representation of the supreme state of consumption in satisfying a need that the consumer can imagine. Rather, a consumption schema can be viewed as a goal state of consumption in meeting a need that the consumer will expect or design within a particular environment.

The Subschemata

As we can experience or certainly observe in a modern civilization, people's operations to meet daily needs in living, such as food, shelter, clothes, transportation and recreation, are rather sophisticated. In addition to the various and delicate tools people use, the processes of the consumption are themselves circuitous and of multiple steps (or parts). From a purely functional view point, we can observe several required functions in these multiple-step (or part) processes. For example, to provide a place for dining at home, the dining room needs many furnishings and other accessories. In short, consumers acquire a consumption schema to meet a need in daily life. And, this consumption schema can be partitioned into subordinate structures, based on the multiple-step nature of the consumption process.

These subordinate structures making up a consumption schema can be referred to as subschemata. In a subschema, one or several commodities are put in use as one or several functions are required. For example, in the subschema of sitting in a consumption schema of dining room furnishings, the function of seating is required and a set of chairs is included.

Although subschemata can operate and be represented separately, their contents are subject to the influences of other subschemata within the same consumption schema. In the case of dining room furnishings, the function of seating and the chairs can operate independently, but the particular set of chairs to be used and how they fit into the dining room are influenced by the theme of the broader consumption schema and other objects of furnishings in it.

In summary, the following are first two basic propositions concerning consumer behavior in a model based on consumption schema:

P1: To satisfy a need, people acquire a consumption schema about it, which comprises both the theme of the consumption and their expectations about the complementary products to be used.

P2: A consumption schema can be partitioned into subschemata with requisite functions fulfilled through represented products.

The function that a subschema assumes usually can be performed in different ways (or by alternative products). A method to perform the required function (or functions) is referred to as a mode for that subschema. A mode for subschema consists of the way the required function (or functions) is performed and of the product (or the complementary products) to be used. For example, classic style chairs and modern fashion chairs are two different modes for the subschema of sitting in dining room furniture. Different brands of the same product-type, usually with different attributes and/or with particular social meanings, will be discriminated as different modes in the model.

Compatibility and Complementarity

When a consumer tries to combine a product constellation and to construct from it a meaningful pattern according to a consumption schema, some principles regulate the selection of the mode (of a product or products) for each subschemata. This paper assumes that consumers obtain utility holistically, from a product constellation based on a consumption schema rather than from the individual products separately. The dimensions of compatibility and complementarity between products are assumed to be critical considerations in the product choice. Many dimensions of complementarity and compatibility are possible, including functional exhaustivity, operational connectivity, aesthetic coherence, meaning-role consistency, hedonistic value, memorial symbolism, and affective association. The selection from among these dimensions depends on the theme of the consumption and on expectations about the product constellation to be used. The following examples define some interrelational dimensions between products.

Functional exhaustivity suggests that products are chosen and combined in such a way that the required functions of a consumption activity are complete fulfilled. Using the example of dining room furnishings, light fixtures with adjustable illumination, a table with extendible flaps, and chairs adaptable to a child's need to sit at the dining table may all be selected to fulfill the many functions expected by the consumer.

Operational connectivity suggests that the operation (or the physical shapes of the products and their positions in the layout) of a subschema is smoothly connected (or in coherence) with other subschemata. For the dining room furnishing example, a cupboard for dining accessories and small end tables may be arranged to allow smooth setting up and serving.

Aesthetic coherence relates to the sense of beauty or to personal expression. This dimension is very subjective and idiosyncratic. Nevertheless, consumers' preference for a product constellation may be derived mainly from it. For the dining room furnishing example, lighting, table, chairs, and carpet may be required to match a personally-felt aesthetic preference.

Meaning-role consistency refers to the perceived coherence between the cultural meanings of products and the social roles which the consumers assume (Solomon 1983). Based on the concepts of symbolic interactionism and reflexive self-evaluation, Solomon claims that consumers select products which correspond to the selves they "play." For dining room furnishings, particular levels of quality (e.g., prestigious brands) of dining accessories, lighting systems, tables, and chairs may be required to be consistent with a consumer's status.

Consumers may not require that two subschemata be absolutely compatible (or consistent) with each other in every qualitative dimension. Consumers may only require that the degree of compatibility among some dimensions reaches certain satisfactory levels. This notion of a satisfactory degree of compatibility is in harmony with the idea that consumers may be satisfiers instead of utility maximizers (Bettman et al. 1991).

In summary, the following are other basic propositions of the model.

P3: The relevant dimensions of compatibility and complementarity between subschemata in a consumption schema are the main sources from which consumers obtain utility of products.

P4: Consumers require that some dimensions of compatibility and complementarity between modes (products) for the subschemata reach acceptable levels.

The present model only deals with bilateral relationships between subschemata, assuming that no trilateral or more complex, relationship is substantial. When the degrees of compatibility in every relevant dimension between subschemata reach the acceptable levels, the product constellation is said to be in coherence for the consumer according to his consumption schema. Further, the present model proposes that the theme of a consumption schema, perception of the compatibility, and the acceptable levels of compatibility are not invariant over time. They may change in response to changes in a consumer's situation.

Costs and Benefits Evaluation

In a consumption schema, the relevant dimensions of compatibility which prescribe the coherence between subschemata only focus on the qualitative aspects of products and their cultural meanings. However, being compatible in the qualitative attributes and cultural meanings may not necessitate that the products will be chosen by the consumers. Consumers may encounter more than one product constellation satisfactory to them in the dimensions of compatibility. Remember that the principle of compatibility is applied on a satisfactory-nonsatisfactory basis, not on a maximization basis. In this case, the principle of compatibility alone does not completely explain consumer decisions. In an other case, consumers may find only one product constellation satisfactory to them, but even assuming adequate financial capacity a purchase may not follow. These cases imply that other types of evaluation, different from the principle of compatibility and complementarity, are also at work in mediating consumer product choices.



Consumers may apply costs-and-benefits evaluation to a product constellation, when the costs are "significant" to them, or when the principle of compatibility and complementarity is exhausted. To solve this problem, the idea of "economic efficiency" is adopted in the present model. The economic-efficiency calculation that evaluates the benefits of a product constellation against its costs is referred to as costs-and-benefits evaluation. For example, facing several sets of dining room furnishings products which all are in coherence according to his consumption schema, the consumer may resort to costs-and-benefits evaluation to choose among them. In summary, costs-and-benefits evaluation is the next step following the evaluation on compatibility and complementarity among products.

In the model, the relevant costs of a product constellation are money and time, while human energy anticipated in the consumption is considered trivial. Since the value perception of time and money vary among people, objective amounts of money and time have to be transferred to a subjective scale to be "meaningful" to individual consumers. Consequently, the outcome of cost-and-benefit evaluation must be converted to a subjective scale also. In other words, consumers' subjective perceptions, not objective measurements, are the basis of cost-and-benefit evaluation.

Consumers may acquire their satisfactory levels of cost-and-benefit efficiency by screening product constellations. However, when several product constellations are satisfactory in terms of cost-and-benefit efficiency, consumers may compare between them and rank their standings in efficiency. In this case, the product constellation that maximizes efficiency will be chosen.

P5: Consumers choose the product constellation that has the highest and satisfactory level of cost-and-benefit efficiency.


Figure 2 presents a framework of product choice strategy based on the construct of consumption schema. This framework summarizes the product choice process and the influence of a consumption schema and depicts how the product choice model works. A consumption schema, again, consists of two parts: the theme of the consumption and expectations about the product constellation. Consumers consult it as a holistic strategy for decision making concerning new product acquisition and "old" product replacement. The consumption schema dictates the whole range of the product choice process, from problem recognition to the post-purchase evaluation.

For illustrating the framework, let's suppose that a hypothetical consumer is considering buying a set of furnishings to furnish his dining room. The consumer recognizes and frames his problem of dining room furnishings by his consumption schema about it, which expresses his life style and various characteristics of his family.

After the decision is framed, effective actions can be undertaken in searching for product information and prospective products. Information search problems, such as what style of furniture, where to search, and how much information, require consulting the consumption schema. When information and prospective products are found, the consumer next has to find acceptable product constellations among the many he may encounter in the market. This process of elimination is carried out by evaluating of compatibility, through which the consumer deliberates on his theme of dining room furnishings and on the relevant dimensions of compatibility and complementarity among the products. If after an evaluation of compatibility the consumer finds no assortment of dining room furnishings in the market acceptable to him, the process ends. If the consumer finds some acceptable assortment of furnishings, then a choice set for further consideration has been established.

For selecting among the acceptable product constellations remaining in the choice set, the consumer then shifts the criteria of decision to the evaluation of costs-and-benefits. The consumption schema still directs the costs-and-benefits evaluation, since the "benefits" can be derived from the prospective product combinations only by consulting the consumption schema. If no product constellation in the choice set is satisfactory, the process ends. If the consumer finds some (or even one) product constellation satisfactory, then the most satisfactory product constellation in terms of the costs-and-benefits evaluation is purchased.

After the purchases are made and the product constellation is put into use, the consumer continues to evaluate the products. The post-acquisition evaluation occurs most intensively when the consumer's consumption schema shifts, or when his perception of product compatibility and complementarity changes. Nevertheless, the same principles of compatibility and costs-and-benefits based on the consumption schema are also applied in the post-acquisition evaluation. If, through this evaluation, the product constellation in use is found out-of-coherence or unsatisfactory, the need to replace the "obsolete" items in it emerges. Then, a process of product choice to form a new product constellation, according to the consumption schema, begins anew.


This paper has sketched a model of holistic product choice strategy for consumer decision making, based on the construct of consumption schemata. The model has several advantages, compared to traditional models. First, the model explains well how the Diderot effect (McCracken 1986) worksCin particular, why and how a replacement of one piece of furniture in a study room may induce gradually the demand to replace other items. This advantage originates from its premises that consumers obtain utility from product constellations and by consulting their consumption schemata, not from individual products alone. Second, the model captures the reality of consumers' two-step evaluations in making product choice decisions. It indicates that the process by which prospective products are included in a choice set for further consideration is different from that used to make a final choice from the choice set. Both mechanisms are indispensable for a sound model of consumer product choice. Furthermore, the two processes should apply consistently to the same choice strategy. Third, the model applies directly to the phenomenon of consumers' evaluation of products-in-use, up to now largely ignored in the literature. The model explicates parsimoniously both the processes of product-replacement decision within an existing system and of adopting a new products system.

How consumers actually specify their consumption schemata is critical in observing their decision behavior. Theoretically, consumption schemata can be specified at different levels of aggregation on consumption activities, as long as utilities can be perceived separately by consumers.

The examples of consumption schema in this paper only relate to products used coexistently. However, on some consumption occasions, complementary goods are related sequentially. Although these products are sequentially arranged in operation, however, perceptions about product assortments for a sequential operation are represented in a "coexistent" product constellation in consumers' minds. In sequential product constellations, the pattern of interrelationships between the products will reflect the characteristics of their sequence (e.g., operational connectivity will be highlighted).

The concept of consumption schema applies the ideas of complementarity and compatibility within product constellations. However, this paper does not assert that every consumption choice by consumers is consistent with their consumption schemata. Frequently, consumers follow product-constellation patterns that are not in accord with their own expectations. A "non-satisfactory" situation may occur when none of the products available in the marketplace is satisfactory, consumers meet their needs by choosing the "best" available, still perhaps by using the choice strategies based on their consumption schemata. Furthermore, consumption in a "non-satisfactory" situation can occur for many other reasons. Income constraints may limit the range of a consumer's choice. Moreover, even with an affordable income, various priorities for resources (time, money, and human energy) allocation may also cause consumers to stay with their incumbent non-satisfactory product constellation. However, when it becomes feasible, consumers may try to upgrade the commodities they use, consulting their consumption schemata.


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