Special Session Summary When Consumers Collide: Consumer-Consumer Relationships in Commercial Environments

Kent Grayson, London Business School
[ to cite ]:
Kent Grayson (1999) ,"Special Session Summary When Consumers Collide: Consumer-Consumer Relationships in Commercial Environments", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, eds. Eric J. Arnould and Linda M. Scott, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 416-418.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 26, 1999      Pages 416-418



Kent Grayson, London Business School

[Special thanks to Linda Price for her encouragement and assistance in organizing this session.]


Thanks to the contributions of a number consumer researchers over the past twenty years, marketing exchange is no longer conceptualized as a dyadic transaction between a consumer buyer and a business seller. Relationships between consumers have been shown to influence brand choice (Wind 1976), and personal ties have been shown to be influential channels for information about service offerings (Reingen and Kernan 1986). Furthermore, some researchers have conceptualized consumer-consumer relationships as resource-exchange relationships that are not dissimilar from buyer-seller relationships (Hirschman 1987).

Research implemented on consumer-consumer relationships has also examined these relationships in non-commercial environments, where the exchange of money for goods or services is not a primary motivation for the interaction. For example, both word-of-mouth information about service offerings (Richins 1983) and shared brand preference between sorority members (Reingen, Fster, Brown and Seidman 1984) is likely to arise from personal everyday interaction, which tends to be non-commercially motivated.

The impetus for this session comes from a growing recognition that consumer-consumer interactions can occur not only in non-commercial environments, but also in commercial environments, where exchange of money for goods or services is a primary motivation for the interaction. Commercial environments are contexts in which the primary purpose is to exchange money for goods or services. Given the role that context can play in the mechanics and outcomes of an exchange relationship (Belk 1975; Kleine and Kernan 1991), it is useful to consider the potential influence of commercial and non-commercial situations on consumer behavior. Building from the proposition that consumers who are aware of persuasion attempts see situations differently than those who are not (Freistad and Wright 1994), we believe that consumers in explicitly commercial contexts are similarly affected.

While some research (e.g., Frenzen and Davis 1990) has examined consumer-consumer interactions in more commercial environments, it has not been as prevalent. Thus, the goal of this session is to answer questions such as the following: Do friends actively persuade friends who are making purchases in retail settings? When making a purchase decision, does the presence of close acquaintances influence this decision? Could the presence or advice of strangers affect one’s choices in a marketplace? And how influential is the broader social network in which a purchase decision occurs? In particular:

*Gainer and Fischer examine the influence of customer-customer relationships on charitable donations. They examine whether arts consumers who are socially connected to other audience members are more likely to make charitable donations to an orchestra than those audience members who are not connected to other customers.

*McGrath, Otnes and their seminar students study the sway that consumers may have over other consumers even when they do not know each other. By examining consumers making purchases such as Christmas and Valentine’s day gifts, these researchers examine the extent to which consumers rely on the advice of other consumers in the commercial setting.

*Lastly, Grayson and Iacobucci examine the effect of consumer-consumer relationships in home environments that have been converted into retail settings. In their study of consumers involved in "party-plan" selling (sometimes called network marketing), they examine whether close friends are more likely than acquaintances to commit resources to maintaining the momentum of the sales network.


Nearly twenty minutes were set aside at the end of this session so that audience members could contribute their comments, observations and suggestions for further research. During this discussion, two factors were raised as potentially useful in the further exploration of between-buyer relationships. The first is communitas, a construct raised in a number of previous papers on service and service relationships. Although several of the papers in the session touched upon the potential hedonic value of participating in buyer-buyer relationships, none built directly from the literature addressing communitas.

A second potentially useful construct is power. Some buyers may have more power than others, perhaps by virtue of their expertise, status or B as was the case in the Grayson and Iacobucci pper B role as mentor or supervisor. In marketing research, power has been addressed primarily in the context of business-to-business channel relationships. However, these constructs were originally borrowed from sociology and social psychology, where they were developed primarily for application to personal and social relationships. This literature may therefore provide a useful foundation for addressing the effect of power in buyer-buyer relationships.



Brenda Gainer, Schulich School of Business, York University

Eileen Fischer, Schulich School of Business, York University

The impact of social networks on a variety of consumer behaviors has been studied extensively (Bristor, 1988; Brown and Reingen, 1987; Frenzen and Davis, 1990; Reingen et al, 1985; Sirsi et al, 1996). The fact that consumer behavior is affected by social relationships has been studied with a focus on the buyer-seller relationship as well as on relationships between buyers. In this paper we attempt to examine the effect of the latter on a particular consumer behavior, namely the likelihood of donating money to a non-profit institution over and above the cost of "doing business" as a customer.

The paper describes the results of two studies designed to explore this issue. The phenomenon of organizational identification and commitment has become a subject of interest to marketers recently (Bhattacharya et al, 1995) and it is a particular consumer behavior associated with these constructs that is the focus of these studies. The general research question which is investigated in both studies is whether customers that are embedded in on-going systems of social relationships with other customers are likely to show a higher degree of commitment to the organization than those customers with an equal preference for the product attributes and an equal level of satisfaction with the product, but who are less socially connected to other buyers.

In the first study, data were collected from the audience of a particular orchestra in Toronto in order to estimate a structural equations model that tests this research question. Results show that social ties among audience members do not predict frequency of attendance or relative attendance at this orchestra compared to other arts events in the city, but are good predictors of behavior associated by arts managers with organizational commitment, namely donating to the orchestra over and above the cost of tickets.

Because the names of arts donors are usually printed in the program, the question arises as to what motivates this type of commitment. Is this behavior a "reward" that consumers offer to an organization that enables them to build and maintain social connections to others through participation in a shared activity, or is the donation instead a type of impression management behavior associated with image building in situations of conspicuous consumption? Can we expect to find the same relationship between social ties and donations in other consumer situations where between-buyer relationships exist, but there is not the same opportunity to "show off" one’s generosity?

To test this question, data were collected from graduating students of a university program with respect to the extent and nature of their ties with other members of the student body, and the likelihood that they would donate a lottery win to the university. An experiment was conducted by varying both the amount of the windfall and the publicity associated with the donation in the scenarios presented to the students, while controlling for satisfaction with their university experience.

The managerial implications of these findings with respect both to nonprofit marketing and more general product categories are discussed. These results also have theoretical implications for our understanding of the relationship between consumer behavior and social networks among uyers.



Mary Ann McGrath, Loyola University

Cele Otnes, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Katie Clow, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Abby Gress, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Pam Lowrey, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Kirk Manley, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Jelena Runser-Spanjol, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

A number of overt and covert roles have been observed through stranger interactions in retail settings (McGrath and Otnes 1995). However, many questions about the ways unacquainted influencers interact in the marketplace remain to be explored. Specifically, if such interactions are often ways of reducing risk, then the more pressing the retail purchase, the more likely that stranger encounters may occur. Similarly, if strangers are often used as "surrogates" for others (e.g., the end user of a purchase), then it is possible that stranger encounters may be more likely to occur if shoppers are alone. Finally, there is no literature that explores the difference in the types of stranger encounters that may exist for men and women, even though the majority of shoppers are women.

This paper explores the questions posed above, by comparing stranger encounters across two holiday contexts B Christmas and Valentine’s Day. As such, it explores these issues by examining the nature of stranger encounters in retail sites that are specific to a certain type of retail purchase B the special-occasion gift. Through multiple observations by academics, master’s and doctoral students trained in qualitative methods, and interviews with store personnel, we explored the nature of stranger encounters before, during and after Christmas and Valentine’s Day purchases were made at stores that heavily promotied their wares as appropriate for these occasions. These included: Victoria’s Secret, Hallmark, a local chocolate/gourmet shop, a collectors’ shop, the gift section of a large student bookstore (chain), and the gift section of Target.

We explored how stranger encounters differed in the weeks before the holidays. Moreover, we examined how these encounters differed among men and women, and among shopper/stranger and group/stranger situations. Findings reveal that the more harried nature of Christmas shopping, as well as the fact that consumers often "bought" for strangers (e.g., people whom they did not know very well versus those they know intimately) resulted in more, and more involved, stranger encounters at Christmas than at Valentine’s Day. Moreover, in our increasingly secular society, stranger encounters at Christmas enabled some informants to enact the spirit of the season, and express Christian values. However, the personal nature of Valentine’s Day gift exchange seemed to dampen the tendency for stranger encounters, except when a male purchase might make a "mistake" in selecting an item. In these cases, the purchaser was often "taught" the proper items to get by a stranger. Moreover, potential errors in gifting tended to be spotted among male shoppers, with women shoppers "teaching" them the correct gifting norms and artifacts The implications for research on strangers, and on consumer rituals, will be further discussed.



Kent Grayson, London Business School

Dawn Iacobucci, Northwestern University

Are consumers particularly influenced when their friends want them to buy something? Some research has suggested that they are (e.g., Reingen, Foster, Brown, and Seidman 1984; Wind 1976)). Social exchange theory offers a useful theoretical explanaton for this phenomenon. According to this theory, the benefits an individual obtains in a relationship are contingent upon the benefits that person provides in exchange (Emerson 1990, p. 32). Individuals in relationships have heuristics for keeping track of what they get out of a relationship in relation to what they give, and in relation to the potential costs and benefits of engaging in an alternative relationship (Thibault and Kelley 1959). These benefits are not limited to tangible resources such as money and products, but may also include intangible elements such as affirmation and empathy (Kelley and Thibault 1978).

One focus in social exchange research is the resources that individuals in a relationship exchange with one another. Some research (e.g., Brinberg and Wood 1981) has shown a tendency for individuals to exchange what they deem to be similar resources, but other research (e.g., Hirschman 1987) has shown that parties can exchange benefits that are categorically different. Thus, when Person A offers a product recommendation to Person B (or flatters B by imitating his or her product choices), A may be repaying B for benefits previously provided, or building up a credit for any number of potential benefits that B might subsequently provide.

The complexity of exchange between two individuals who are socially close is the focus of a study by Frenzen and Davis (1990), who examine a type of direct selling B called "home party selling" B in which individuals invite a group of friends and acquaintances to home-based sales presentations to interest them in buying products. They found that close relationships in home party settings were associated with market entry only (i.e., purchase or no purchase), but not amount purchased. This suggests that, at least in party-plan settings, a social relationship will encourage someone to make a token purchase, but will not encourage them to purchase more. This finding is particularly interesting because it softens the suggestion made in other research that social relationships can strongly

In our study of 685 consumers involved with home selling, we re-examine the Frenzen and Davis (1990) findings by looking at party-plan sales from a different perspective. Two of the most important differences are related to the resources we examined and the extent to which we measured the broader social network. In our study, we measured the commitment of time, a non-monetary resource that may be offered instead of money (e.g., in the form of having a party of their own, or helping to sell goods). We captured social relationships beyond the focal buyer-seller dyad, and therefore measured the influence that the broader social network may have on the social exchange.

Results re-confirm the Frenzen and Davis (1990) finding that strength of relationship between buyer and seller is not likely to influence the amount of time a consumer spends on party-plan selling. However, we also find that the social relationships beyond the focal buyer-seller dyad do significantly influence the amount of this time commitment. This suggests that although individual dyadic relationships in a social network may not influence buying behavior in a significant and enduring way, the relationships throughout the social network may indeed have such an influence.


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