Consumer Attributions of Product Failures to Channel Members

John R. O'Malley Jr., Virginia Tech
ABSTRACT - We develop and present a conceptual framework of consumer attributions for product failures when multiple channel members are present. This framework is based on the attribution theory principles of Kelley and Weiner and the central and peripheral processing modes from the Elaboration Likelihood Model of Petty and Cacioppo. We use this model to describe the affect of product failure on a range of emotional and behavioral consequences.
[ to cite ]:
John R. O'Malley Jr. (1996) ,"Consumer Attributions of Product Failures to Channel Members", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 342-345.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 342-345


John R. O'Malley Jr., Virginia Tech


We develop and present a conceptual framework of consumer attributions for product failures when multiple channel members are present. This framework is based on the attribution theory principles of Kelley and Weiner and the central and peripheral processing modes from the Elaboration Likelihood Model of Petty and Cacioppo. We use this model to describe the affect of product failure on a range of emotional and behavioral consequences.


The objective of this paper is to increase our understanding of the attribution processes used by consumers in the event of product failures [Product failure is used to describe any situation where a consumer perceives that a product (either goods or services) does not meet their expectations about the product.]. Most attribution studies on product failures look at whether consumers perceive the product failure to be internal or external to themselves (Folkes 1984). This paper will use attribution theory to build on previous work in product failures and expand it into the area of channel research. Specifically, we will propose a model based on attribution theory and multiple processing paths to explain consumer attributions of product failures regarding channel members. In this framework, we will describe how consumers' determine and respond to product failure in which there are multiple channel members.

In many buying situations, the consumer is aware of more than one channel member. For example, a buyer could go to J.C. Penney to buy Levi's jeans or to a specific automobile dealer to buy a specific make of automobile. In both cases, multiple parties (i.e., the retailer and manufacturer) are responsible for the quality of the product. If there is a product failure, there are two salient parties that the consumer could hold causal; in the above examples, the retailer and the manufacturer.

As another example, a customer can purchase a product from a mail firm, such as Lands End. In this case, the buyer is aware of the retailer, Lands End, and the facilitator that delivers the package (e.g., Federal Express or UPS). If there is a product failure, such as a late delivery, the buyer may attribute causality to either Lands End or the facilitator or both.

This area of research is important to both practitioners and researchers. For practitioners, this research illustrates the potential for channel partners and consumers to perceive different channel members as the cause of a product failure. Knowing which channel partner consumers view as causing the product failure will enable the channel to respond more effectively to customer needs. For academic researchers, the proposed model can extend the limitations of present research on product failures to include multiple members of a channel.


Causal Antecedents

Kelley (1973) describes attribution theory as a way to understand how people "answer questions beginning with why ." When an individual perceives an outcome as unexpected, negative, or important, the individual begins the attribution process (Weiner 1986). When there is a product failure (i.e., product performance expectations are disconfirmed) the attribution process is initiated (Hunt, Smith, and Kernan 1989).

Past research into product failures has investigated whether the consumer or someone else is held causal [Causal is used to indicated that someone perceives a party as the cause of an event. Responsibility is a separate construct and is not used.] for a product failure. Attribution theory suggests, however, that people externalize failures and hold other parties causal for the failure. For example, Folkes and Kostos (1986) found that drivers blamed car mechanics for car breakdowns and car mechanics blamed drivers for breakdowns. Belk, Painter, and Semenik (1981) reported that only 11 out of 359 respondents attributed the cause of the energy crisis to "me and people like me." Thus, consumers are likely to find the cause of a product failure to be external.

Kelley and Michela (1980) have identified three specific causal antecedents: motivation, knowledge (information), and prior belief. Individuals need to be motivated to expend the cognitive effort necessary to determine the cause of behavior, especially when the behavior is expected (Pyszczynski and Greenberg 1981). Additionally, consumers need to have knowledge or information to determine the causes of situations. Somasundaram (1993) found that consumers with more product knowledge made more causal statements than consumers with low product knowledge. For a consumer to determine which channel partner has caused a product failure, the consumer would need to have knowledge of the channel and its structure. Without this knowledge, the consumer would only have one channel member, the one the product was purchased from, to hold causal for a product failure.

Processing Paths

Weiner (1986) reports that there is a "simplicity" to causal thinking. Kelley (1973), on the other hand, describes causal schemas, such as multiple necessary causes and multiple sufficient causes, which imply more than a simple causal attribution process. We propose to reconcile both approaches by suggesting that people use more than one processing path when making attributions. One processing path requires minimal cognitive resources while the second path requires significant cognitive resources.

Both Petty and Cacioppo (1984) and Chaiken, Liberman, and Eagly (1989) develop two paths for information processing that could be used to explain the consumer's cognitive activity during the causal attribution process. While there are differences between the Elaboration Likelihood Model of Petty and Cacioppo and the Heuristic-Systematic Model of Chaiken, Liberman, and Eagly, both describe two separate paths that people use to process information. We will use Petty and Cacioppo's central and peripheral paths, which have been tested with consumer products (Petty, Cacioppo, and Schumann 1983), to describe how consumers make causal attributions. The peripheral path, which requires a low level of cognitive resources, can explain the simplicity described by Weiner (1983). Kelley and Michela (1980) also point to causal attributions that are based on salience and primacy, which imply a more peripheral processing route. The central path, which requires more cognitive resources than the peripheral processing path, is consistent with the "naive scientist" described by Kelley (1973).

The three causal antecedentsCmotivation, knowledge, and prior beliefCappear to affect both the attributions made by consumers and the processing path that consumers use. Depending upon the level of knowledge, motivation, and prior belief, the individual will either use a peripheral or central processing path to make attributions. Folkes and Keisler (1991) noted that consumers "often do not have the motivation or ability to collect information" about causes, which suggests that different processing paths may be used by consumers when making causal attributions. According to Petty and Cacioppo, people use the central processing route when motivation and ability are relatively high. When either motivation or ability is low then the peripheral processing route is used. Figure 1 contains a description of the proposed model.



We hypothesize that with a low level of knowledge and a low level of motivation, consumers will use a peripheral path to determine causal attributions. We also hypothesize that if a consumer has a high level of motivation, but a low level of knowledge, or a high level of knowledge, but a low level of motivation, consumers will use the peripheral path. Only when consumers have a high level of knowledge and a high level of motivation will they expend the effort required to use a central processing path to determine causal attributions.


Peripheral Path

When using the peripheral path, causal attributions will be based on simple rules such as salience or primacy; that is, the consumer will accept the first adequate explanation (Kelley and Michela 1980). For example, when a consumer receives a package that is delivered late by the U. S. Postal Service, he/she could use a peripheral path (based on prior beliefs or saliency) that the postal service is the likely cause of the delay.

Central Path

Weiner (1986) identified three causal dimensionsClocus of control, stability, and controllabilityCthat are likely to be involved in central processing. Locus of control refers to whether the cause is internal or external to the individual. Stability refers to whether the cause is permanent or temporary (Folkes 1984, Heider 1958). For example, a restaurant meal could be poorly prepared as a result of the cook making a mistake in the recipe (unstable) or as a result of the cook being incompetent (stable). Controllability refers to the volitional nature of the cause. For example, a late shipment could be the result of bad weather (uncontrollable) or the result of poor logistics (controllable).

Research has demonstrated (Folkes 1984, Folkes, Koletsky, and Graham 1987) that consumers' perceptions of the causal dimensions (locus, control, and stability) affect consumer expectations of redress for the product failure, anger at the firm, and intention to repurchase from the firm. Locus of control, however, is unlikely to vary when a product fails because consumers tend to externalize product failures.

Once a consumer has identified the stability and controllability of the event, he/she will then use causal rules to identify which channel member or members are the cause of the product failure. Kelley ( 1972) has identified a variety of causal rules or schemas that individuals use to determine causation which "reflect the individual's basic notions of reality." "The two basic schemas are (1) multiple sufficient causes and (2) multiple necessary causes. The first schema, multiple sufficient causes, indicates a condition in which the individual believes that either of two causes individually could cause the outcome. For example, a consumer could determine that a late delivery could result from either the delivery firm being late or the shipper shipping the package late. Either party could individually cause the outcomeCthe late arrival of the package.

Multiple necessary causes is a condition where the individual believes that both parties are needed to create conditions for the outcome to occur. For example, the consumer could determine that the package arrived so late that both the shipper and the shipping firm must have failed to perform as expected.

As illustrated in the two examples, the more negative (or more extreme) the outcome, the more likely the individual will believe that multiple necessary causes were required. In contrast, when there is a less extreme outcome, individuals are more likely to use a multiple sufficient causal schema (Kelley 1972). This concept also is supported by research (Einhorn and Hogarth 1983) that indicates when an effect (outcome) is large, then people expect the cause to be large. Large could be either one firm failing in a major way or a combination of two firms failing. Additionally, large could also include a particular combination of the dimensions of stability, controllability, and locus.


Attributions for product failures generate emotions. For example, research has shown that attributions of control and stability have an effect on emotions, such asCanger and desire to hurt the firm's business (Folkes, Koletsky, and Graham 1987). Consumers who perceive product failures as either unstable or uncontrollable by a firm are less angry with that firm. Bitner (1990) also found that perceived controllability and stability affected satisfaction. When customers perceive that a firm has control over a cause or that the cause is stable, the customer is more dissatisfied than when the firm does not have control or the cause is unstable. We believe these findings will hold whether the customer perceives one or both channel members as the cause for the product failure.

When a product failure occurs, the consumer will experience emotion using either processing path. The type and intensity of emotions, however, may differ between the two paths. When consumers use the central processing path, they are likely to develop intense emotions, such as anger, as more cognitive resources are being used (Weiner 1985). and are likely to be angry with one or more channel partners. When the peripheral processing path is used, consumers are likely to develop fewer intense emotions, such as frustration and disappointment. Thus, the consumer may experience some negative emotion, but may be unlikely to attribute blame to any channel member.

Based on these different emotional responses, we hypothesize that:

! Consumers who use a central processing path when making attributions will experience more intense emotions and will attribute more causal responsibility to channel members than consumers who use a peripheral processing path.

Behavioral Consequences

Psychological consequences (emotions) often lead to behavioral consequences, such as complaining, word-of-mouth, requesting refunds, exchanging products, and switching suppliers (Folkes 1984; Folkes, Koletsky, and Graham 1987; Boldgett and Granbois 1992). Peripheral processing, with its less intense emotions, should result in consumers having fewer channel specific responses; that is, the consumer may be frustrated or disappointed, but not be able to direct their emotions toward a specific channel member or members. We also would expect that the consumer would be less likely to switch brands or retailers because their emotional response is not directed at a specific channel member. We also would expect these behavioral consequences to be relatively temporary and susceptible to change (Petty and Cacioppo 1984).

Customers who use a central processing path have more intense emotions that are likely to lead to more specific behavioral consequences. For example, higher levels of anger toward a firm are likely to lead to a higher level of complaining behavior and a reduced likelihood of repurchasing from that firm (Folkes, Koletsky, and Graham 1987). More stable attributions and controllability of product failures also are likely to lead to a higher level of complaining behavior, lower levels of intention to repurchase the product, and reduced willingness to use the supplier. When there are multiple channel participants whom the consumer views as both stable and able to control the delivery and quality of their product, we expect consumers will be more likely to switch from both channel parties. If the consumer found just the manufacturer causal, then the consumer would be more likely to switch manufacturers, and not retailers. In a similar vein, if the consumer perceived the retailer to be a stable or controllable cause for the failure, then he/she would be likely to switch retailers, but still purchase the same manufacturer's product.

According to Petty and Cacioppo (1984), central processing results in attitudes that are relatively enduring and resistant to change. We would expect behavioral consequences developed from consumers using the central processing route also to be more enduring and resistant to change. Thus, a customer who uses central processing and decides to switch from one firm to another is likely to stay with the new firm and would be difficult to convert back to the original firm. We also would expect a consumer who uses central processing and who changes channels (e.g., from a retailer-manufacturer channel to a catalog company) would be unlikely to change back to the original channel.

Based on the two information processing paths, we hypothesize the following:

! Customers who use central processing will have more directed behavioral consequences, targeted at specific channel partners, than customers using the peripheral processing path.

! Customers who use central processing will have more enduring changes in their behavioral consequences than customers who use peripheral processing.


We have developed a model of consumer attributions for product failures when two channel members are present. We hypothesize that consumers can follow two information processing routes, which are based on the individual's level of knowledge and motivation, when making attributions. The two different routes, central and peripheral, have different implications on the emotions and behavioral consequences of consumers. Individuals who use central processing use multiple sufficient causes and multiple necessary causes to determine which channel member or members are the cause of a product failure. Individuals who use peripheral processing are likely to follow simple rules such as saliency to determine which channel member or members are the cause of the product failure. Central processing also leads to more intense emotions than peripheral processing. These emotions then lead to behavioral consequences that include complaining, refunds, exchanges, and switching.

The proposed framework has several managerial implications. For example, if managers can determine the causal attributions made by their consumers, then strategies can be developed to reduce the consumer's perception of the cause of the product failure. In addition, if a manager can identify the different emotions that consumers experience because of product failures, he/she will be able to better train service personnel to handle customer complaints. Research (Bitner 1990) has found that customer dissatisfaction can be reduced by appropriately responding to customer complaints.

Finally, the framework suggests a few venues for future research. The proposed model provides a framework to further understand the consumer attribution process in relation to product failures and is applicable in both service and good products. The model implies that service failures, where consumers often have less knowledge of the channel structure, will generally be processed peripherally. The use of this peripheral path may result in more causal attributions for the party most proximal to the consumer, and less for the product manufacturer. Research also is needed to determine which channel member the consumer expects to receive redress from in the event of a product failure.


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