The Elicitation and Generation of a Script For the Acquisition of Major Household Appliances Within a Consumer Decision-Making Framework

Alet C Erasmus, University of Pretoria
Elizabeth Boshoff, University of Pretoria
[ to cite ]:
Alet C Erasmus and Elizabeth Boshoff (2003) ,"The Elicitation and Generation of a Script For the Acquisition of Major Household Appliances Within a Consumer Decision-Making Framework", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, eds. Punam Anand Keller and Dennis W. Rook, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 332-339.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 30, 2003     Pages 332-339


Alet C Erasmus, University of Pretoria

Elizabeth Boshoff, University of Pretoria


Despite the overwhelming impact of technology on household appliances in recent times, research that intends to explain consumers’ choice processes in this regard, is limited. Consumer decision-making models that are generally used to comprehend consumer decision-making and to structure consumer behavior research, do not satisfactorily address the problem because they were never intended to reflect specific purchasing events [Rousseau developed a model of adult purchase decision-making process for furniture (Du Plessis & Rousseau 1999:91).] (Burns & Gentry 1990).


Some of the best-known consumer decision-making models were developed during the 1960’s and 1970’s by marketers as part of a developing discipline of consumer behavior within the dominant research perspective of the time, namely logical positivism (Engel et al 1995:G11). Te popularity of model building decreased around 1978 and when the models were later revised, it was difficult to ascertain whether the contemporary models were accurate and whether they have predictive value (Du Plessis et al 1991:18, 19, 39).


Since the 1980’s several objections against the indiscriminate use of traditional consumer decision-making models and argumentation for careful premeditation of the context and purpose within a model is used, have been raised, for example:

* The assumption of rational consumer decision-making behavior. Allegations that these models reflect highly subconscious matter in a consciously oriented information paradigm (Solomon 1996:287) are based on evidence of haphazard and opportunistic consumer decision-making processes (Hayes-Roth 1982), the use of heuristics such as "trusted" brand names to direct choice processes (Bozinoff 1982). Evidence that a repertoire of consumer decision-making strategies may be used depending on the product, situation, context and previous experience came to the fore amidst concerns over an over-emphasis of external influences (Solomon 1996:269, Bettman 1993).

* A generalization of the decision-making process over different product categories and situations. Details included in traditional models may give the impression that extended buying behavior is the norm (Dhar 1992).

* Critique against a presumed serial approach to consumer decision-making. In contrast, models in the field of cognitive science depict information processing in a more parallel way to provide for some stages of decision-making to occur simultaneously (Martin & Kiecker 1990), while Stewart (1990) proposes a continuous model without beginning or end. Research to bring about a closer fit between theory and practice is thus suggested.

* Presumed decision-making strategies. Consumers often take decision short cuts or apply hybrid strategies when they find it difficult to prioritize product features (e.g. emphasis on recommendations of trusted sources such as friends). Bettman (1993) agrees that traditional models fail to acknowledge decision-making strategies that aim to reduce cognitive effort.

* Logical positivism used as theoretical approach. Although contemporary models of consumer decision-making have been enriched with especially psychological rationales (Du Plessis et al 1991:5), they are still dominated by the theoretical approach of logical positivism and predominantly reflect a technological-managerial approach within the philosophy of classical economics. It is proposed that consumer decision-making models reflect consumption behavior rather than buyer behavior.


Suggestions for the development of alternative theories and conceptual frameworks have been raised on several occasions (Schiffman & Kanuk 2000:6, Du Plessis et al 1991:4, Harrel 1990) to inter alia acknowledge behavior with underlying cognitive structure and to implement a subjectivist approach with inclusion of qualitative research techniques to allow for more than the obvious in consumer behavior research. Scripts as an alternative to consumer decision-making models havecertain structural characteristics that offer potential in this regard (Puto 1985). Unfortunately, since the introduction of scripts within the area of consumer behavior in the late 1970’s, and the first script-elicitation studies (Whitney & John 1983, Stoltman et al 1989), little has been done to implement the script concept in practice.


Bartlett, a psychologist, introduced the "schema" concept in 1932 as a mental representation of experience. He postulated that an individual’s experiences undergo processes of rationalization, elaboration and distortion within pre-existing schemata in memory (Shute 1996). Schank and Abelson (1977 in Eysenck 1994) extended the idea of schemata to explain how knowledge of more complex "event sequences" is represented in memory. These were referred to as "scripts". By definition scriptsBif elicited and generated for specific eventsBcould be used to describe and even predict consumer behavior in specific circumstances. Several definitions for scripts exist: Puto (1985) for example defines a script as a coherent sequence of events expected by an individual in a particular context, involving him either as participant or as an observer. A script represents the action sequences, participants, and physical objects found in a situation (Abelson 1981 in Schurr 1986). Scripts as form of declarative knowledge refer to the structural nature of scripts and also refer to how scripts are organized in memory (Matlin 1998). Scripts have certain properties (Bower et al 1979 in Bozinoff & Roth 1983) and specific structural characteristics that differentiate them from other memory presentations (Thorndyke & Yekovich in Smith & Houston 1986).

A script enables an individual to act on previous experiences instead of relearning the steps of appropriate buying behavior with every purchase (Martin 1991). Because scripts contain generic information, are temporal in nature and are sequentially ordered, they open the prospect of exploring scripts as representations of specific eventsBeven purchasing events (Whitney & John 1983)Bthat could result in concept formation and theory building within the domain of consumer behavior. A major advantage of a script is that it is compiled from the perspective of the consumer and presents a more realistic scenario of a specific event. Script theory could shed light on consumers’ expectations, pro-active planning, situational decision-making processes and behavior.


Schemata are regarded as the building blocks for cognition and have been proposed as a means whereby individuals deal with the overwhelming amount of information in the environment (Leigh & Rethans 1983). A schema enables selective perception in everyday living by focusing attention on a limited portion of stored knowledge that is used to conclude appropriate subsequent behaviors (Taylor et al 1991, Schurr 1986). Scripts are a specific form of schemata (event schemata) that are temporally and sequentially ordered (hypothetical knowledge structures) in long-term memory and contain series of actions, which are arranged in hierarchical order (Whitney & John 1983). A script consists of interconnected elements and the actions in one slot affect the contents of another (Schank & Abelson, 1977 in Whitney & John 1983). Through experience the application of scripts in real life situations becomes automatic so that they are activated in situational context to direct behavior (Sutherland 1995).


A script contains a sequence of events from the point of view of the consumer (Abelson 1981) and ultimately has the potential to offer valuable insights into consumer behavior (Taylor et al 1991). In contrast to consumer decision-making models, scripts categorically identify principle actions, the people (actors) and the objects involved in a recurring event and consequently facilitate the study of individuals, objects and roles within specific decision-making contexts (Speck et al 1988). Because scripts reflect consumers’ mental representations of an event, they could provide guidelines on how to go about changing/adapting consumer behavior. Scripts further serve as a reminder that consumers tend to act on what they are familiar and comfortable with (Bozinoff & Roth 1983): an important consideration during consumer education and facilitation processes.


In an effort to generate an alternative to traditional consumer decision-making models that would reflect consumers’ buying behavior, a project was designed to elicit and organize a script for the acquisition of major household appliances as an example of complex, high risk decisions.


Following an ideographic approach, no assumptions were made regarding the various elements of decision-making to be expected, the concepts pertaining to the phenomena relevant to the study or their inter-relationship. These were to be elicited during the research process by allowing participants to share their cognitive representations of the event irrespective of any resemblance to existing theories on consumer decision-making. Broad non-specific concepts that coincide with the objective of the research and basic script theory were however identified to set the parameters for the study:

* The acquisition of household appliances was considered relevant from the point where the need to replace an appliance is acknowledged until the appliance is installed at home.

* Major household appliances include cooling, cooking, baking and laundry appliances (white goods). Washing machines were used as an example as one of the most frequently purchased major appliances that are seldom purchased without prior deliberation (Cox et al 1983). According to script theory, a script for one event (e.g. the acquisition of a washing machine) can eventually be applied to a related event in the same product category (e.g. stoves, refrigerators).

* A script was regarded as the written portrayal of the purchasing event, including the relevant schemata, as reconstructed from the view of experienced consumers.

* Script norms refer to the characters (people), their respective roles, the props (objects) and actions that are present in the script in the form of person schemata, role schemata, object schemata and action/decision-making schemata respectively. Their integration and ordering eventually reflects the specific event (Abelson 1981).


Theoretical approach

A script-elicitation study is explorative in nature. The research maintained the voluntaristic assumption that consumers are active agents who interact with their environments and consequently gain experience, generate knowledge, beliefs and intentions that affect and direct subsequent consumer behavior (Hudson & Murray 1986). An emic (insider view), ideographic approach of enquiry was used (Denzin & Lincoln 2000:10, 158). This required the use of a smaller sample and the rigorous analysis of the specific decision-making event through multiple data-collection techniques in an attempt to formulate interpretive statements pertaining to the class of phenomena represented by the event (major household appliances) (Denzin in Corsini 1994:205). Research techniques were selected to construct the event from the point of view of the consumer. Techniques used are typical of the post-positivist paradigm: projective techniques, interviews and focus-group discussions (Denzin & Lincoln 2000:9). The implementation of multiple techniques facilitated triangulation.


Experienced men and women (volunteers), irrespective of marital status, between the ages of 30 and 60 years who were responsible or co-responsible for their own households were recruited from middle and higher socio economic levels to ensure adequate experience of the purchase situation (Du Plessis & Rousseau 1999:54-62). An effort was made to include an even distribution of individuals over different age and socio economic status levels.

Data-collection site

Data-collection stages 1,3, 4 and 5 were conducted in a laboratory setting at the University of Pretoria to provide an intellectual atmosphere for the activation of data-laden schemata and to have some control over environment and context (Mouton 1996:149).

Data-collection and analysis

Because schemata are stored as declarative knowledge in long-term memory and are difficult to retrieve, multiple, less structured data-collection techniques were used (Huberman & Miles 1994). The researcher conducted the data-collection personally and hoped that the affiliation of both researcher and assistant as lecturers at a tertiary institution would contribute to participants’ perception of their contribution towards the study (Mouton 1996:149).

Data-collection was done in five stages. Data driven as well as conceptually driven strategies were used. This included written and oral techniques; group and individual sessions; reconstruction as well as discrimination techniques. Data analysis was done immediately after every data-collection stage for results to be used to direct subsequent data-collection stages (Huberman & Miles 1994).

Script-elicitation was done in the following order:

* Stage 1: The concept driven, written, reconstruction technique

Fifty-seven participants described in writing, in their own words and style, how people in general go about to replace a washing machine that has broken down after ten to twelve years of service (method adapted from Bower et al 1979). To capture a very specific range of statements the starting and concluding points of discussion were clearly indicated. A minimum of 20 statements including primary actions, people, role descriptions and objects in participants’ descriptions of the purchasing event, was required.

* Stage 2: The concept driven, oral reconstruction technique

The same instructions as for stage 1 were used. Individual interviews with 25 new participants provided the opportunity to capture detail that seemed to have been under-reported in stage 1. With participants’ permission, interviews were recorded.

* Stage 3: The data driven, discrimination technique

The intention with the discrimination technique was to evoke contextually rich data and to minimize cognitive load (Donoghue 2000). Responses of stages 1 and 2 were used to design visual stimuli (clip art drawings) to reflect different scenarios of the decision-making event. The pictures conveyed realistic but minimal clues to induce scripts from memory. A pre-test was done with five individuals. They were requested to select a minimum of 15 pictures (the average number of statements calculated for the previous data-collection stages) to construct a scenario depicting the purchasing of a new washing machine and to arrange pictures in sequence before giving a written description of what was happening in every scene. Some of the individuals in the scenes were identified by captions and the rest had to be identified by the participants. The researcher and assistant thereafter selected 35 pictures for the final procedure. To allow for triangulation, all 25 participants from the stage 2 procedure participated.

* Stage 4: A data driven, written reconstruction technique to elicit sub-actions

To address possible neglect of subtle aspects of the decision-making process clued recall (Stoltman et al 1989) was used: 25 participants from the stage 1 sample were asked to describe a specific scene of the decision-making process (in-store activities. Thereafter actions that preceded that scene as well as the financial decision-making process had to be described (Schurr 1986). Assuming a hierarchical order for script elements, it was expected that final reports would correspond with the sequential description during previous stages but that certain activities might be more detailed due to the nature of the instructions.

* Stage 5: Focus-group discussions

Focus-groups were used as collective brainstorming sessions to evoke active discussions on certain elements of the purchasing process to confirm the contents and structure of the final script. This further provided an opportunity for triangulation (Macun & Posel 1998). A phenomenological approach to focus-group discussions was used to uncover everyday knowledge and everyday language and to expose generality of ideas (McQuarrie & McIntyre 1988). Discussions were aimed at reaching consensus statements on specific topics within the groups. Conversations were tape-recorded for transcription. Two sessions were held with a total of 18 participants from the stage 1 sample. Strangers were grouped together (Macun & Posel 1998).


Isolation of script norms and elements and ordering of actions

Data of stages 1 to 3 were used to identify and integrate script norms and elements. Stage 4 intended to illustrate the set quality of the script while focus-group discussions served to confirm conclusions and to clarify issues of uncertainty.

* Stage 1: Concept driven, written reconstruction technique

Actions mentioned were coded and then clustered into related categories (e.g. needs assessment) in accordance with concepts relevant within consumer decision-making theory. This coincides with script theory that postulates that scripts contain generic action statements rather than detailed descriptions of an event. This reduced the number of actions mentioned from 42 to 20. Action statements were coded in the order as indicated by the participants: 10 to 21 actions (an average of 15) were mentioned per participant. Content analysis and coding was done by the researcher and independently repeated by a trained assistant. Inter rater reliability was calculated by comparing their interpretation of the responses (Touliatos & Compton 1988): [n/ (n+a)] x 100=% agreement [n: number of agreements; a: number of disagreements] -> [832/(832 + 23)] x 100=97,3% (Reflecting high inter rater reliability).

A coding form was designed and actions were transferred onto it in the specific order as identified by participants for statistical analysis. Statements were coded in terms of their respective positions as mentioned. Frequencies were calculated and the mean positions of the generic statements were then determined to position them in sequential order in the script protocol. Table 1 indicates the mean position of every generic action as well as the frequency of mention from which main concepts and the strength of actions were determined. The procedure was repeated for stages 2 to 4 although limited space unfortunately prevents the publication of all data. The stage 1 protocol provides a clear indication of decision-making schemata (e.g. store visits) and object schemata (e.g. non-personal information sources). Despite clear instructions, data on role schemata was disappointing. This shortcoming was addressed during the following stages.



To determine the trustworthiness of data, the sample was randomly divided into two groups (n=29; n=28), and then compared using the Mann-Whitney rank sum test (for independent groups) (Steyn et al 1994:594). No significant difference in responses and position of mention was found for any of the actions mentioned by the two groups (p [ 0,05), which indicated trustworthy responses.

* Stage 2: Concept driven, oral reconstruction technique

No new actions to those extracted during stage 1 were added, which confirmed the potential of a written technique to elicit detailed descriptions. The same coding schedule as for stage 1 was used. Inter rater reliability was calculated at 97,4%. Results were tabled in the same way as for stage 1.

Again, the Mann-Whitney rank sum test for two independent groups was used to compare stage 1 and stage 2 data. For all but one variable (NEEDS ASSESSMENT) no significant difference in the main positions of the script actions mentioned in the script protocols could be found (p [ 0,05). The position of NEEDS ASSESSMENT possibly differed because participants had more time to think during the written procedure. A better response in terms of role actions was achieved.

* Stage 3: Data driven discrimination technique

Stage 3 eventually produced more detail on role actions, probably because the technique served as a reminder of experience. Only 22 of the 25 invited participants arrived for the data-collection session. Because of the intention to compare the results of stages 2 and 3 (the same sample, but different techniques) to determine trustworthiness of responses, no new participants were included.



The Mann Whitney rank sum test was used to compare the data of stages 1 and 3 (two independent groups). Except for NEEDS ASSESSMENT, there were no significant differences in the actions mentioned or the ordering of actions in the two script protocols (p [ 0,05). NEDS ASSESSMENT probably differed for the two techniques because stage 1 required independent reconstruction of the event, while a discrimination technique (where pictures might have served as a reminder of actions) was used in stage 3. Stage 3 results thus probably reflected the event more accurately. A comparison of the results of stages 2 and 3 (the same sample) confirmed this conclusion: responses were compared using the Wilcoxon rank sum test (Steyn et al 1994:594) and no significant differences in the positions of actions for the two script protocols (p,0,05) were identified. This is indicative of trustworthy responses.

* Stage 4: Data driven, written reconstruction technique

Because stage 4 results only reflected a part of the script, it could only be compared to the other three versions on face value. The same sequence of actions was identified as in the stage 1 protocol (both of the written procedures).

* Elicitation of role schemata in stages 1 to 4

The projective technique (stage 3) was more successful in eliciting role schemata than the other techniques. It is recommended that a specially designed report sheet with columns to remind participants to specify all of the schemata, be used for stages 1 and 4 in future studies. Reported role actions were tabled and integrated for the final script protocol. Apparently friends and salespeople seem to be the only people consulted during the pre-purchase stages of information search, while salespeople seem to be influential in-store.

* Stage 5: Focus-group discussions

Data was transcribed and the contents were analyzed so that concluding statements could be used to confirm the script protocols of stages 1 to 4.


Identification of strength of actions

Actions mentioned at frequencies below 25% were eliminated from the script protocol as being less prominent. Other actions were categorized (Table 2) and script protocols were then re-written in the relevant style to make actions more identifiable in terms of their prominence/strength in the empirical script protocols (a practice generally used in script studies) (Bozinoff 1982).

Organization of a single empirical script protocol

Table 3 reflects an integrated version of the results in terms of strength of actions to enable a comparison of data. To generate a single script for the event, the level of agreement of the various script protocols was evaluated. NEEDS ASSESSMENT was placed in the first position based on stage 3 responses and confirmation by focus-groups. The strength of actions was determined by comparing the various script protocols on face value. Main concepts and elements within a group of related elements were analyzed to determine the scene headers. A scene eventually incorporates all related elements. Concepts identified in the initial procedure before a reduction of data from 42 to 20 statements were integrated with basic action statements to give more comprehensive expression of some actions/elements (Figure 1).

From the empirical script it can be concluded that someone with a less-developed script will probably conclude with the more prominent/stronger actions mentioned by 75% and more of respondents (the common core of he script) (Bozinoff 1982).


The script generated for the acquisition of major household appliances was evaluated to determine whether it could be accepted within the theoretical framework of the discipline:

In terms of the basic properties of a script (Bozinoff & Roth 1983), action statements were elicited in a very uniform and logical way in all four stages despite the use of different techniques. Script norms were easily identifiable although the elicitation of role schemata posed some practical problems that was later resolved in focus group discussions. Action sequences were spontaneously grouped into scenes/elements and stronger actions to be identified as scene headers were easily discernible. Script elements were organized in a common order.

All the structural characteristics of the script (Bozinoff & Roth 1983) were adhered to: only generic actions were contained; the script possessed a set quality (different parts of the script were rearranged in a common order); a strong temporal sequence of script activities was identified and confirmed in focus-group discussions and a hierarchical structure was evident.

Much can be learnt from how traditional decision-making models and the final script eventually agree but also how they differ in portraying the decision-making event. The script reflects a simpler approach to consumer decision-making for complex durables than what is suggested in traditional consumer decision-making models. While information search and product evaluation prior to purchasing seem particularly limited in terms of level of activity, other actions have been elevated. The contribution of informal personal information sources prior to store visits are particularly worth investigating: although it not necessarily reflects a situation of "the blind leading the blind", it exposes a reliance upon brand name information and friends’ recommendations in terms of functional aspects. The decisive role of store visits in terms of information search and conclusion of a purchase decision is of specific importance in terms of the contribution that could be made by industry to facilitate consumer decisions. Financial decision-making was prominently identified as a scene rather than an element of a scene such as in-store shopping or pre-purchase planning. This is unique to the script and may be indicative of the degree of financial risk imposed that thus merits a better understanding by the parties involved and proper discussion within the consumer decision-making framework. The interaction of both spouses through out the decision-making event emphasizes the importance of a non-sexist approach to consumer behavior research, consumer education, consumer facilitation and marketing. This is especially important in terms of the formulation of marketing strategies and for communication in media while it inevitably also affects the general approach during consumer education and -facilitation.





Apart from portraying the decision-making event, the script sets the scene for an integrated approach by industry, retail and professionals in the field of consumer science to provide a general climate that reflects understanding, co-operation and can promote responsible and informed decision-making behavior.


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