The Consumer Reports Mindset: Who Seeks Value C the Involved Or the Knowledgeable?

Lien-Ti Bei, National Chengchi University
Richard Heslin, Purdue University
ABSTRACT - The question of how to assess brand choices that represent best value, and causes of brand choices that deviate from that standard was investigated. The role of product knowledge and involvement in selection of best value brands was then examined. Although knowledge and involvement are usually seen as being positively related, when one examines who chooses the best value brands, these two independent variables can lead in different directions.
[ to cite ]:
Lien-Ti Bei and Richard Heslin (1997) ,"The Consumer Reports Mindset: Who Seeks Value C the Involved Or the Knowledgeable?", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, eds. Merrie Brucks and Deborah J. MacInnis, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 151-158.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 24, 1997    Pages 151-158

THE CONSUMER REPORTS MINDSET: WHO SEEKS VALUE C THE INVOLVED OR THE KNOWLEDGEABLE?

Lien-Ti Bei, National Chengchi University

Richard Heslin, Purdue University

[The authors would like to thank three anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on earlier drafts.]

ABSTRACT -

The question of how to assess brand choices that represent best value, and causes of brand choices that deviate from that standard was investigated. The role of product knowledge and involvement in selection of best value brands was then examined. Although knowledge and involvement are usually seen as being positively related, when one examines who chooses the best value brands, these two independent variables can lead in different directions.

Whether shopping at a modern-day mall today or buying a rug from a merchant, most consumers seek what they believe is a "good purchase." As Zeithaml (1988) found, some consumers perceive it to be the lowest price, some the best quality, some the product that fills the present need, and some the best value.

The purpose of this study was to examine an operationalization of the concept, "best value," and to look at some factors that may influence who selects a brand that is describable as the "best value." We examined two factors which should relate to consumers’ decision choices: prior knowledge and product involvement.

In order to examine influences on choosing the best value brand, this studyhad to accomplish two subordinate tasks. The first was to objectively operationalize "a smart purchase decision" in terms of price, quality, and value. The second was to examine the effects of consumers’ prior knowledge and product involvement on purchase decisions in ways that had good external validity.

For the first taskCto operationalize the best purchase decisionCit was decided to use Maynes’ (1976) measure which he called the "Perfect Information Frontier (PIF)." The PIF represents the brands with higher quality scores and lower prices. These emphases can also be called the "Consumer Reports approach" to brand selection.

LITERATURE REVIEW

Three aspects of the study are explored below. First, the definition of a smart purchase in previous studies and this study is clarified. Then, the concept of Maynes’ Perfect Information Frontier is reviewed. Finally, the influences of product involvement on consumers’ purchase decision are proposed. The hypotheses for this study are developed in each relevant section.

The Best Purchase Decisions

Zeithaml (1988) conducted a study using focus groups and in-depth consumer interviews to determine subjects’ definition of "value." She clustered the responses into four definitions of value: (1) low price, (2) utility, (3) the tradeoff between quality and price, and (4) the ratio of gain to loss [The labels of the four categories are retitled by the authors.].

Zeithaml’s third definition, the tradeoff between quality and price, was consistent with a proposal by Monroe (1979). Monroe stated that the objective value was equal to "the number of units of quality per dollar expenditure, or

FIGURE

Since the best purchase decision is predetermined based on an objective point, it is defined as the best valued choice (or brand) that consumers can achieve. Then, based on Monroe’s (1979) definition of value, the best purchase decision is the brand which has the highest ratio of quality to price in the market of this product class.

Perfect Information Frontier (PIF)

Maynes (1976) introduced the concept of the Perfect Information Frontier (PIF) and defined it as "the set of points, and the line segments connecting them, for which a given level of quality may be purchased at the lowest price" (p.535) on a price-quality map. According to this definition, the best purchase decision in this study should locate on the PIF.

The Perfect Information Frontier (PIF) can be a point, a straight line, a concave, a convex curve, or a combination of lines and/or curves (Maynes 1978, 1991; Maynes and Assum 1982). The contribution provided by the PIF is that there can be more than one "best value," depending on how much money the consumer wants to spend.

The PIF implies that rational consumers would purchase only those products lying on the PIF if they were perfectly informed and interested only in the best quality for the money. Maynes (1976) then asserted that the number of observed products lying off of the PIF and their distance above the PIF represented the degree of the imperfection of the market. Kamakura, Ratchford, and Agrawal (1988) later applied the similaridea of multiple best purchase to measure market efficiency and welfare loss.

The concept of "quality" in the PIF is the "true quality" (Maynes 1992) or called "objective quality" (Zeithaml 1988). Zeithaml (1988) defined objective quality as "measurable and verifiable superiority on some predetermined ideal standard or standards" (p.4). In contrast, the term "perceived quality" is defined as "the consumer’s judgment about a product’s overall excellence or superiority" (Zeithaml 1988, p.3). Perceived quality might help explain consumers’ purchase decisions more than "true" quality (Maynes 1992). However, "true" quality is preferable in the present study, since it is utilized to determine a "true" smart purchase or a "true" best buy. Because consumers’ perception of a good bargain may not be a "true" good deal, it is not used in the present study.

Prior Product Knowledge

Consumers’ product knowledge is believed to be associated with their ability to understand the quality of a product. Most previous studies about brand knowledge focused on the relationship between the amount of product knowledge or experience and the amount of information search. The present study focuses on the linkage between consumers’ product knowledge and their ability to select the best brands.

Findings of earlier research suggested that product experience was negatively associated with information search (Newman and Staelin 1972; Swan 1969; see Fiske et al. 1994 for a thorough review of knowledge-search relationship). One of the explanations made for these findings is that experienced or knowledgeable consumers knew enough to make a purchase decision, so they did not have to search for external information (Brucks 1984). It follows, then, that if knowledgeable consumers have enough information to make a better purchase decision, their selections should locate closer to the PIF than those of uninformed consumers.

H1: Compared to those with little product knowledge, consumers who know about a product class choose better value brand (closer to the Perfect Information Frontier).

Product Involvement

Product involvement has been applied in consumer behavior research on information search, brand commitment, and price consciousness. Houston and Rothschild (1978) applied Sherif and his colleagues’ (Sherif and Cantril 1947; Sherif, Sherif, and Nebergall 1965) involvement concept to consumer behavior. Houston and Rothschild indicated that perceptions of importance varied across consumers. They labeled this varying product importance "product involvement" (Bloch 1981; Houston and Rothschild 1978; Rothschild 1979). They suggested that high involvement occurred when a product is related to a consumer’s important values, needs or self-concept (Houston and Rothschild 1978).

Rothschild (1979) presented two types of involvement: situational involvement and enduring involvement. Situational involvement reflects the degree of involvement evoked by a particular situation, such as a purchase (Bloch and Richins 1983; Rothschild 1979). In Rothschild’s (1979) definition, situational involvement is influenced by product attributes, as well as situational variables. Important product attributes are price, length of purchase cycle, similarity of choice, and perceived risk. The examples for the situational variables were a purchase occasion, a special purpose of purchase, or a political election (Rothschild 1979).

Enduring involvement, the second form of product involvement, represents an ongoing interest in a product (Bloch nd Richins 1983; Rothschild 1979). Houston and Rothschild (1978) suggested that enduring involvement is based on past experiences with the product and the strength of relevant personal values. This definition of enduring involvement has been accepted and applied in many studies (e.g., Richins and Bloch 1986). Some researchers did not use the term "enduring involvement," but they used the same concept. It was called "perceived product importance" by Bloch and Richins (1983), "product involvement" by Bloch (1981) and Lichtenstein, Bloch, and Black (1988).

Richins and Bloch (1986) employed a longitudinal study to examine the temporal context of involvement. According to their findings, enduring involvement is a stable trait that cannot be manipulated. Situational involvement, on the other hand, declines as the stimulus of a purchase fades over time.

Only enduring involvement is examined in this study and proposed to have effects on consumers’ brand preferences. Previous studies have discovered some interesting behavioral outcomes of high enduring involvement, such as, low price consciousness (Beatty, Kahle, and Homer 1988), high brand commitment (Lichtenstein et al. 1988), low interest in incentives, for example, coupons or sales (Heslin and Johnson 1992), and more information search (Lichtenstein et al. 1988). Low price consciousness and high brand commitment are proposed to be related to the central issue of this studyCoptimizing value in brand selection.

Lichtenstein et al. (1988) examined this idea that involved persons spend more money on a product and found that high product involvement was indeed associated with low price consciousness and high price acceptability level. Thus, it follows logically that highly involved consumers are actually less price conscious and do not pay special attention to the ratio of quality to price. Involved consumers may also be more sensitive to image and reputation of product.

H2: Compared to relatively uninvolved consumers, those who are involved with a product class do not attend to value (i.e., they prefer brands that are farther from the Perfect Information Frontier).

Thus, we have the paradoxical situation of knowledge about, and involvement with, a product class, two consumer attributes that go together, predicting opposite kinds of behavior in terms of the value of their preferred brands. Based on the previous two propositions, consumers who ignore image and look for value should be disinterested experts. Then, Hypothesis 3 is proposed:

H3: Consumers who have both high knowledge and low involvement with a product class attend to the value of a brand compared to other consumers.

METHODOLOGY

This study applied a 2 (product knowledge: ignorant vs. knowledgeable) - 2 (involvement: high vs. low) factorial design, but the two factors were measured rather than manipulated. The effects of these two variables on subjects’ purchase decision were examined on three products: ground coffee, jeans, and loudspeakers, which had been selected from 14 product categories by a panel of 12 experts in consumer behavior.

Subjects and Procedures

A survey was distributed by mail to collect data for this study. Samples of consumers for testing coffee and jeans were randomly selected from a purchased telephone list which contains over 81 million American residents’ names and addresses.

Half of the loudspeaker subjects were chosen from the same list, while the other half were recruited from a list of music CD buyers. The reason or this special recruiting process for loudspeakers was to ensure a large enough sample size for this product, since a small pretest (n=17) showed that there were fewer people who had experience with loudspeakers than with the other two products.

A postcard which announced the survey purpose and schedule, as well as asking recipients’ willingness to participate, was sent to 2700 subjects in 1995. A total of 225 people returned the postcards and claimed that they did not want to receive the survey. Two weeks after the postcard, 2400 surveys were mailed out, 800 for each product. One month after the major survey, subjects received a reminder and another questionnaire.

Independent Variables and Measurers

The two independent variables in this study are prior product knowledge and product involvement. Both are measured variables.

Product Knowledge. Prior knowledge was measured, rather than manipulated, because measuring expertise was considered to be more realistic. Subjects were assigned as experts or novice consumers based on a median-split of scores in a knowledge test. The operational definition of product knowledge is consumers’ knowledge of terminology, attributes, and usage situations (Brucks 1984). Other aspects of product knowledge, such as brand facts and decision making procedures (Brucks 1986) were not included in the knowledge questions because they directly linked to other variables in this study.

Three sets of knowledge questions were generated based on experts’ opinions and some consumer guide books (Consumer Reports 1994; Gall and Gall 1993). There were eleven, twelve, and twelve knowledge items for ground coffee, jeans, and loudspeakers, respectively. The numbers of correct answers given by respondents constituted their knowledge scores.

FIGURE 1

PRICE-QUALITY MAP OF REGULAR-ROAST CAFFEINATED COFFEE

Enduring Involvement. Bloch’s Involvement Scale (Bloch 1981) seemed to be a good measure for this study because it was primarily designed to measure consumers’ long-term interest in a product. His original scale was modified by the author to fit ground coffee, jeans, and loudspeakers. A pretest involved consumers ranging in age from 24 to 74 and showed that these modified involvement scales had Cronbach alpha of .84 (n=38), .92 (n=32), .93 (n=24) for ground coffee, jeans, and loudspeakers, respectively.

Dependent Variables and Measures

The dependent variable of this study was the perpendicular distance of the brand chosen by the respondent from the PIF line. For coffee and jeans, subjects were asked the brand which they usually purchased. For loudspeakers, because relatively fewer consumers had this product experience, the question was formed as "assuming you want to buy loudspeakers now, which brand are you most interested in?"

The PIF was developed for this study using the quality and price information from Consumer Reports (1991, 1994) [To simplify the available choices of jeans for subjects, the average price and the average quality score of each jeans brand (with multi-models) were used to assign its point on the map. The consideration of esthetics is included in the quality score of jeans. The taste of ground coffee is also evaluated by experts and added into its quality score.]. All brands were located on the price-quality map (Figure 1 to Figure 3). The points of best quality-price ratio were connected to form a line of the PIF [The line connects two point (X1, Y1) and (X2, Y2) is: aX + bY + c = 0, where a = Y1 - Y2, b = X2 - X1, and c = Y1 (X1 - X2) - X1 (Y1 - Y2).] that represented the set of brands with the lowest prices at which a given quality might be purchased (Maynes 1993; Maynes and Assum 1982). After forming the PIF for each tested product, the distance from each point to the line of the PIF was calculated. A subject’s choice was scored as the perpendicular distance of the chosen brand from the PIF.

Theoretically, these distance scores can range from 0 to infinity. The brands located on the PIF are scored as 0. As the score increases, the brand is farther away from the PIF and the selection is regarded as a poorer value. Ground coffee was separated to caffeinated (Figure 1) and decaffeinated (not shown in the figure) because their price ranges and quality ratings were not comparable.

Because the relationships between dependent and independent variables were not expectd to be linear, linear regression models were not suitable. A 2 - 2 ANOVA was employed for the analysis.

RESULTS AND DISCUSSIONS

The average response rate was 23%. There was no significant difference in response rates among the three products. Respondents were mainly white (93.38%) female (63.24%), aged 25 to 54 (69.92%), with some college education or higher (75.80%) and with family annual incomes ranging between $30,000 to $74,999 (56.16%). No significant differences in the demographic characteristics of the respondents to the three product classes were found.

FIGURE 2

PRICE-QUALITY MAP OF JEANS

FIGURE 3

PRICE-QUALITY MAP OF LOUD SPEAKERS

Ground Coffee

The most popular brands are Folgers Aroma Roasted and Maxwell House. The range of respondents’ coffee knowledge scores was from 0 to 10, with the mean equal to 5.36 and the median equal to 5. Therefore, subjects with knowledge scores higher than 6 were labeled as experts, while those who had scores lower than 5 were grouped into the novice category. A median-split was also employed on subjects’ involvement scores. The range of involvement scores for ground coffee was from 21 to 102. The mean was 54.13 and median was 53. Consequently, subjects who had involvement scores above 54 and below 53 were divided into high and low involvement groups. Subjects with scores of median points were dropped from the hypothesis test. Those respondents who bought only local or private brands were also eliminated. The final sample size of the ground coffee part of the study was 105.

Jeans

Levi’s and Lee were the dominating brands with 56.97% of the respondents’ market. The range of respondents’ knowledge scores was from 0 to 10, with a mean of 4.77 and a median of 5. The range of involvement scores for jeans was from 22 to 104. The mean was 54.22 and the median was 54. The sample size for the jeans’ part after median-split was 85.

Loudspeakers

Bose 301 Series III, which was located on the PIF, was the most preferred brand and model (34.33%). Sony SS-U610 was also popular in that 25 respondents said they would choose it if they wanted to buy a pair of loudspeakers.

Respondents’ knowledge scores ranged from 0 to 7, with a mean of 2.42 and a median of 2, because few people had knowledge about loudspeakers. Their involvement scores ranged from 34 to 110. The mean score was 67.35 and the median was 66.5. The final sample size of loudspeakers in the hypothesis test was 92.

Correlation between Product Knowledge and Product Involvement

In previous studies, involvement in a product class was found positively related to product knowledge and information search (Bloch et al. 1986; Lichtenstein et al. 1988). If a strong, or even a moderately strong relationship were found in this study, the view of the distinctness of these two independent variables would be questionable.

Product knowledge and involvement were positively correlated at a<.001 level in this study, but the Pearson correlation coefficient was only .22, which was smaller than the coefficient of .51 reported by Sujan (1985). Compared with the involvement scale (i.e., Bloch’s scale) used in the present study, Sujan’s (1985) involvement items were more general. Also, Sujan’s knowledge measurement had relatively more items about product usage, whereas the knowledge questions in this study had relatively more items about product materials and technology, (e.g., Ethyl acetate and methylene chloride are two solvents for making (1) instant coffee, (2) roasted coffee, (3) dried coffee, (4) decaffeinatd coffee, (5) don’t know.) which the involved consumers might not have been interested in knowing. The low correlation coefficient (r=.22) would seen to indicate the absence of a confounding effect between product knowledge and involvement.

This low, but significant correlation between product knowledge and involvement indicated that highly involved consumers may know which brand has the highest prestige level, or where to buy the product, but they may not know the material used in the product or the production process.

Tests of Hypotheses

The final sample size for this study was 282. The three-way ANOVA results showed that there were no product effects. Therefore, the three product classes of coffee, jeans, and loudspeakers were collapsed into one 2 - 2 analysis of variance (Montgomery 1991).

Because the quality scores and price units were different among the three tested products, the original distance scores for brands were not equivalent for combining these three sets. Therefore, the distance score of each brand in the product categories was standardized, with a mean of 50 and a standard deviation of 10, before eliminating subjects with the median points and the merging process.

Hypothesis 1 predicts that, compared to novices, knowledgeable consumers would choose better value brands (small distance from the PIF). The 2 - 2 ANOVA results (Table 1, Figure 4) showed that, as a group, knowledgeable consumers did not choose brands of greater value than novices.

Hypothesis 2 states that, compared to uninvolved consumers, those who are involved with a product class do not attend to value (prefer brands that are farther from the PIF). As can be seen in Table 1 (F=3.86 and p=.05), and Figure 4, the involved, on the average, indeed do not attend to value as much as those who are less involved with the product class (greater distance from the PIF).

Hypothesis 3 states that relatively uninvolved experts would make purchase decisions closer to the PIF than others (Figure 4), and was tested by planned contrast. It was significant at the a=.05 level (F=3.76).

Student-Newman-Keuls’ post-hoc analysis of the significant interaction showed the highly involved and knowledgeable respondents to differ from low involvement and knowledge respondents (p<.05). Involvement, not knowledge, was driving the preference to ignore or attend to value in selecting brands. Looked at from a different viewpoint, the mean difference in value of product choice between involved and uninvolved experts (52.65 vs. 47.45) was significantly greater than the difference between involved and uninvolved novices (48.96 vs. 49.35) with F value of 5.28 and p value of .02. The involvement effect was stronger on experts than on novices. This joint effect of knowledge and involvement is also illustrated in Figure 4.

Discussion

It first appeared that product knowledge did not relate to respondents’ brand preference decisions. However, it was found that relatively uninvolved consumers choose better value brands (closer to the PIF) than involved consumers (i.e., the significance of Hypothesis 2).

The interaction of knowledge and involvement showed that knowledgeable consumers with low involvement select the best value based on Consumer Reports information. The effect of product knowledge pulls consumers toward better value products, while the effect of involvement pushes consumers away from the best value purchase. Subsequent analysis showed the mean difference in value of brand chosen by involved experts and novices was significantly larger than the difference between uninvolved experts and novices (with p=.02; shown in Figure 4). Those who selected the best value brands had product knowledge, and did not invest their ego or self-concept in the brand name they used.

TABLE 1

ANALYSIS OF VARIANCE FOR THE PURCHASE DECISIONS

FIGURE 4

THE JOINT EFFECTS OF PRODUCT KNOWLEDGE AND PRODUCT INVOLVEMENT ON BRAND SELECTION

CONCLUSIONS AND IMPLICATIONS

Some consumers buy brands that give more value for the price than do others. According to this study, those value shoppers are knowledgeable about the product class but not have ego involvement with it. They select brands close to the PIFCthe better values.

Consumers who select brands farther away from the best choices, are in general highly involved with the product. They involve their personality, ego, value, and interests into the selection of products. For example, they may choose a famous brand because of its prestigious image. To them, the prestigious image is worth the extra cost. Novices also tend to make purchase decisions farther away from the PIF. It is most likely in their case that they are simply not aware of the value-related attributes of each brand (assuming they are aware of which attributes are value-relevant at all). When information becomes costly, some consumers would rather search for less information and remain ignorant. Therefore, providing the ignorant and uninformed with appropriate and inexpensive product information is important.

For marketers and advertisers, it is suggested that when consumers select a product farther away from the PIF, they are purchasing product attributes other than price and objective quality. For a product which is away from the PIF, the add-on value of the brand becomes very important to attract highly involved consumers or the ignorant. For example, marketers may emphasize the prestigious image of a brand to draw the attention of the highly involved consumers. On the other hand, marketers can advertise the overall value of brands to those novices who do not care about, or know how to judge the relevance of product attributes. Those subjective add-on values (such as, brand image and relatively convenient location) become the purchased attributes for those brands located away from the PIF.

This study uses Maynes’ Perfect Information Frontier (PIF) as a measure of multiple "best brands." The PIF is a useful tool because it allows multiple "best choices" in a market. This concept is closer to reality than the traditional definition of value that is equal to the ratio of quality to price (Monroe 1979). The best brand may be a high quality product with a high price, or a moderate one for a low price. When a consumer chooses a brand that is different from the "best" price-quality ratio, it is still a good choice if it is the lowest available price at its quality level. The PIF reflects this situation in the real market.

With the help of the PIF, this study effectively surveys real consumers on their purchase decisions of real products and real brands. Most previous studies of consumer behavior and marketing used hypothetical products and brands to create a homogeneous environment and to control the possible confounding factors from the real market. Researchers could use the present study as a framework to investigate consumer behavior in the real market.

Because this study used real products, consumer decisions were influenced by brand images and advertising. These influences were shown where most respondents’ answers given about their major reasons of brand selections were "brand names" and "advertising." Unfortunately, the famous and heavily advertised brands for ground coffee and loudspeakers were also the brands located right on the PIF. From the viewpoint of market efficiency, it was a good sign that brand names were also the best choices in the market. So, consumers were less likely to make wrong choices. However, brand image and advertising became viable alternative effects in those cases. It is recommended that for future research, the prestige and image of brands should be explicitly considered when real products and real brands are studied.

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