Special Session Summary Let's Talk Shop: Multiple Interpretive Perspectives on Studying Consumer Shopping Behavior

Michelle R. Nelson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
[ to cite ]:
Michelle R. Nelson (1996) ,"Special Session Summary Let's Talk Shop: Multiple Interpretive Perspectives on Studying Consumer Shopping Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 158-160.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 158-160



Michelle R. Nelson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign


"Shop 'till you drop" seems to represent the sentiments and behaviors of the American consumer. Indeed, over $1.5 trillion are exchanged annually in the retail settingCin more than 2.4 million retail stores in this country (Census of Retail Trade, 1990).

Because of its pervasiveness, shopping has also captured the interest of consumer researchers attempting to understand the motivations and behaviors behind this avocation (Belk, Sherry and Wallendorf 1988; Rook 1987; Sherry and McGrath 1989). Because shopping is a process and has many meanings, it is especially ripe for study by interpretive researchers. Gainer and Fischer (1991) suggested that "interpretive methods are particularly useful in probing socio-cultural factors involved in shopping which may be impossible to capture through the use of more typical instruments of marketing research" (p. 597).

As such, this session was designed to offer perspectives from multiple interpretive methodologies to examine the shared consumer experience of shopping. In the first paper, McGrath and Stoughton-Underwood employed projective techniques and shopping with consumers in a study of shopping behaviors at a midwestern outlet mall. Next, Compeau and Nicholson discussed the advantages of method offered from a first-person, phenomenological point of view, using text from in-depth interviews. Finally, the paper by Nelson et al. focused on the benefits of "shopping with consumers" as a unique form of participant observation.

By asking "what is gained?" and "what is lost?" when using these methods, we generated a lively discussion which blossomed into questions and concerns about the ontology and epistemology within the interpretive paradigm.


To facilitate audience participation, Nancy Ridgway (University of Colorado) offered some questions to consider. "How do you know which methods (and how many) to use?" prompted debate among presenters and audience members and lead to discussion of related issues.

In considering the methodologies advanced by these three papers and the interpretive paradigm in consumer research overall, it was concluded that qualitative research is inherently multimethod in focus (Brewer and Hunter 1989). In answering the "how many" question, it was suggested that convergence of interpretations obtained from multiple methods and/or multiple researchers offers a way to enhance validity and reliability, but it was also noted that the criteria for judging qualitative data differed from those of quantitative data. According to Denzin and Lincoln (1994), "the use of multiple methods, or triangulation, reflects an attempt to secure an in-depth understanding of the phenomenon in question" (p.2).

Issues such as representation (i.e., "the problems of showing the realities of lived experiences of the observed setting" - Altheide and Johnson 1994) and reporting (and editing) of verbatims were also deliberated. It was suggested that limits on manuscript length often forced researchers to edit informants' verbatims, creating a greater authority on the author's interpretations. Offering complete transcripts was suggested as one way to combat such problems.

In asking which method(s) are most appropriate for consumer shopping, we might look to the Handbook of Qualitative Research whose editors advance, "Qualitative research, as a set of interpretive practices, privileges no single methodology over any other" (Denzin and Lincoln 1994, p.3). As such, it was generally agreed among those present at the session that the choice of research methodology depended upon the specific questions that were asked and the situation. "All of these research practices can provide important insights and knowledge" (Nelson, C. et al. 1992).


Altheide, David L. and John M. Johnson (1994), "Criteria for Assessing Interpretive Validity in Qualitative Research," in Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, (Eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 485-499.

Belk, Russell, John Sherry, and Melanie Wallendorf (1988), "A Naturalistic Inquiry into Buyer and Seller Behavior at a Swap Meet," Journal of Consumer Research, 14 (4): 449-470.

Brewer, J. and A. Hunter (1989). Multimethod Research: A Synthesis of Styles. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Census of Retail Trade. Nonemployer Statistics Series CNortheast, U.S. Bureau of the Census, Washington, D.C. 1990, 1-3.

Denzin, Norman K. and Yvonna S. Lincoln (1994), "Introduction: Entering the Field of Qualitative Research," in Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln, (Eds.) Handbook of Qualitative Research, Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1-18.

Gainer, Brenda and Eileen Fischer (1991), "To Buy or Not to Buy? That is Not the Question: Female Ritual in Home Shopping Parties," in Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, (Eds.) Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 18, Provo, Utah: Association for Consumer Research, 597-602.

Nelson, C., P.A. Treichler, and L. Grossberg (1992), "Cultural Studies," In L. Grossberg, C. Nelson and P.A. Treichler (Eds.), Cultural Studies, New York: Routledge, 1-16.

Rook, Dennis (1987), "The Buying Impulse," Journal of Consumer Research, 14(2), 189-199.

Sherry, John, Jr. and Mary Ann McGrath (1989), "Unpacking the Holiday Presence: A Comparative Ethnography of Two Gift Stores." In Elizabeth Hirschman (ed.), Interpretive Consumer Research, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 148-167.




Larry D. Compeau and Carolyn Y. Nicholson

Clarkson University

Today, since consumers are generally relegated to acquiring goods rather than producing them, shopping has a special significance in consumers' lives. Shopping is a complex personal and social event; several different levels of meaning exist simultaneously for the consumer. Thus, a method that allows the personal significance of the psychological, social, and cultural meanings of shopping to emerge is required.

This significance is embedded in the consumer's life world context, and researchers must come to know shopping experiences as they were lived, i.e., as the consumer experienced them. In this way, we move beyond a view of shopping as an object-like behavior that can be examined and reported on by a detached third person (the researcher) and gain access to the experience as it was lived by the consumer in its specific context (Thompson, Locander, and Polio 1989). Although other methods are available (e.g., think aloud method, analysis of written statements), perhaps the most powerful technique available to access another's experiences is the existential phenomenological in-depth interview (Kvale 1983). This paper presents a brief introduction to the existential phenomenological method, but quickly moves to a critical examination of the output of existential phenomenological in-depth interviews.

Third person research approaches (e.g., surveys, experiments, and observation) restrict understanding of shopping. They have an externally imposed narrative structure which constrains the experience to the structure, i.e., shoppers can only relate their experiences relative to what the researcher's structure allows. More importantly, these methods undervalue the mutually defining nature of the shopping context and the shopping experience itself.

The existential phenomenological interview approach acknowledges shopping as more than just behaviorCshopping is considered a meaningful lived experience that is part of the consumer's world. Thus, consumers are not viewed as objects whose experiences can be observed; instead they are considered inseparable from their worlds, which must also be grasped to understand the experience. The consumer and his or her world co-constitute one another, and it is through understanding this world that the meaning of shopping emerges. One implication of this perspective is that the interview must capture detailed characteristics of the consumer's life-world beyond shopping behavior.

The existential phenomenological interview produces a verbatim transcript wherein the consumer provides rich, detailed descriptions of shopping experiences as he or she lived them. This first-person view provides access to the consumer's experiences, including details regarding his or her life world. Thus, researchers immerse themselves in a consumer's experiences in order to get as close as possible to having lived those experiences as that consumer lived them (Wertz 1983). Through this immersion process, the researcher is able to grasp the meaning of each shopping experience and develop an essential structure of shopping for that consumer. The meaning does not emerge solely from consumers' descriptions of their behaviors, nor from their description of their life-world, but from both as one contextualizes the other.

This process is brought to life via a detailed case study, illustrating both the power and the limitations of this first-person view of shopping. Stacey (a pseudonym), similar to other shoppers we've interviewed, has no trouble describing, in detail, a wide variety of shopping experiences. Through immersion into Stacey's shopping experience in the context of her lived world, we come to know the meaning of shopping for Stacey. This meaning, presented, in the form of a phenomenological description and essential structure of shopping for Stacey, illustrates the distinct contribution of the first person approach to the study of shopping.

The existential phenomenology interview method is considered here as a complement to, not a replacement for, other methods. We view this method as shedding "light where the other sees only shadow" (Valle and King 1978). Thus, existential phenomenology as both perspective and method is valuable for developing a richer understanding of shopping.


Kvale, Steinar (1983), "The Qualitative Research Interview: A Phenomenological and a Hermeneutical Mode of Understanding," Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, 14 (Fall), 171-96.

Thompson, Craig J., William B. Locander, and Howard R. Pollio (1989), "Putting Consumer Experience Back into Consumer Research: The Philosophy and Method of Existential-Phenomenology," Journal of Consumer Research, 16 (September), 133-46.

Valle, Ronald and Mark King (1978), "An Introduction to Existential-Phenomenological Thought in Psychology," in Ronald Valle and Mark King, (Eds.), Existential-Phenomenological Alternatives for Psychology, New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 6-17.

Wertz, Frederick J. (1983), "From Everyday to Psychological Description: Analyzing the Moments of Qualitative Data Analysis," Journal of Phenomenological Research, 14 (Fall), 197-242.



Mary Ann McGrath and Anne Stoughton-Underwood

Loyola University Chicago

The realms of the popular press and consumer myth have presented polarized and stereotyped images of male and female shoppers. Men and women are portrayed as living (and shopping) in separate worlds. Several comic strips, such as Cathy or For Better or For Worse, play on this scenario, while a popular book proclaims that Men Are From Mars; Women Are From Venus (Gray 1992). While female shoppers have proven to be a group yielding rich insights on shopping (Otnes, Kim and Lowrey 1992; Sherry and McGrath 1989; Otnes, McGrath and Lowrey 1995), there has been restrained research interest both on male shopping behavior and on the differentiation of gendered behaviors in the retail context.

The study presented here had a three-fold objective. First, it sought to identify components of ideal shopping behavior for men and women. Second, its goal was to understand the perception of male and female shopping behaviors from the perspective of each gender. Third, the study sought to gain insight into how male and female shopping behaviors are differentiated in both reality and in the ideal. To this end, two forms of projective methodologies were employed with a sample of male and female shoppers contacted in a mall-intercept situation.

McGrath, Sherry and Levy (1993) detail both the theory and analysis of such projective methods. Findings of this study indicate that both similarities and differences exist between male and female shopping behaviors. When either gender is in a store that is characterized as "ideal," shoppers linger, browse, and enjoy touching and "playing" with merchandise, and savor visual and aural atmospherics. Males appear to gravitate toward simpler, less-busy settings, while women envision a myriad of merchandise and attributes that can meet their specific or personalized needs.


Gray, John (1992). Men Are From Mars; Women Are From Venus, New York: Harper Collins.

McGrath, Mary Ann, John F. Sherry, Jr. and Sidney J. Levy (1993), "Giving Voice to the Gift: The Use of Projective Methods to Recover Lost Meanings," Journal of Consumer Psychology, 2(2), 171-191.

Otnes, Cele, Young Kim, and Tina M. Lowrey (1992), "Christmas Shopping for 'Easy' and 'Difficult' Recipients: A Social Roles Interpretation," Journal of Consumer Research, 15(3), 422-433.

Otnes, Cele, Mary Ann McGrath and Tina M. Lowrey (1995), "Shopping With Consumers: Usage as Past, Present and Future Research Technique," Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 2(2), 97-110.

Sherry, John, Jr. and Mary Ann McGrath (1989), "Unpacking the Holiday Presence: A Comparative Ethnography of Two Gift Stores." In Elizabeth Hirschman (ed.), Interpretive Consumer Research, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, p. 148-167.



Michelle R. Nelson, University of Illinois

Cele Otnes, University of Illinois

Mary Ann McGrath, Loyola University

Tina M. Lowrey, Rider University

To discern what "shopping with consumers" can offer as a viable methodology in the future, we reflected on its past uses in consumer research, through a census review, tracing studies from 1960 until the present. From this census, we show that seven hundred sixty-four cited articles in four journals specifically examined some aspect of consumer prepurchase and purchase activity (Otnes, McGrath and Lowrey 1995).

Of the 812 total methods used, only five used shopping with consumers as a means of studying prepurchase or purchase behavior and only 23 used in-store observation for examining shopping. Indeed, past research has often focused upon the information-processing approach and has manipulated variables in simulated shopping settings (Bettman 1970; Bettman and Zins 1977; Iyer 1989; Park et al, 1989). Thus, we argue that although there has been limited usage in the past, shopping with consumers has potential as a means for richer, more "naturalistic" data collection and text generation.

Using data collected during the 1994 Christmas season, we showed how active interaction between researcher and informant can help explicate consumer shopping behaviors and motivations. Shopping allows the researcher the following advantages: (1) observing consumer shopping as it unfolds; (2) allowing greater proximity to the consumer; (3) providing access to informants' shopping agendas; and (4) building trust and empathy for future interactions.

We compared shopping with consumers to other interpretive methodologies, particularly the post-hoc interview and passive observation. For those interested in gaining insight into consumer shopping strategies or processes, we show that the active participation of the researcher can allow for "the best of both worlds." Specifically by combining the interview and participant observation, we claim a more accurate and thorough record of the behavior while it is happening, rather than a post-hoc recollection from the shopper in an interview setting or a "guessing strategy" employed by a researcher from an observation post.

By actively participating while observing the shopper, the researcher also gains virtually unrestricted proximity to the informant. In this way, s/he can interact and converse freely with the informant while shopping and also "in transit" to and from the research sites. This allows the researcher to request clarification or verification about observed behavior while still in the field. The intense interaction between informant and researcher also enables them to quickly and easily build a more trusting relationship, with ripe potential for future interactions.


Bettman, J.R. (1970), "Information Processing Models of Consumer Behavior," Journal of Marketing Research, 7 (August), 370-376.

Bettman, J.R. and M.A. Zins (1977), "Constructive Processes in Consumer Choice," Journal of Consumer Research, 4 (September), 75-85.

Iyer, E.S. (1989), "Unplanned Purchasing: Knowledge of Shopping Environment and Time Pressure," Journal of Retailing, 64 (Spring), 40-57.

Otnes, Cele, Mary Ann McGrath and Tina M. Lowrey, (1995), "Shopping With Consumers: Usage as Past, Present and Future Research Technique," Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, 2(2), 97-110.

Park, C.W., E.S. Iyer, and D.C. Smith (1989), "The Effects of Situational Factors on In-store Grocery Shopping Behavior: The Role of Store Environment and Time Available for Shopping," Journal of Consumer Research, 15 (March), 422-433.