Retail Shopping Area Image: Structure and Congruency Between Downtown Areas and Shopping Centers

Michael J. Houston, University of Wisconsin-Madison
John R. Nevin, University of Wisconsin-Madison
ABSTRACT - Consumer images of competitive retail outlets are important determinants of retail patronage decisions. The structure of image as it applies to retail shopping areas, i.e., downtown areas and shopping centers, is investigated in this paper. The underlying dimensions of shopping area image are identified and their congruency between downtown areas and shopping centers is tested. Their relative strength of association with overall evaluations of shopping areas is tested for downtown areas and shopping centers. Implications for downtown revitalization efforts are suggested.
[ to cite ]:
Michael J. Houston and John R. Nevin (1981) ,"Retail Shopping Area Image: Structure and Congruency Between Downtown Areas and Shopping Centers", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 677-681.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 677-681


Michael J. Houston, University of Wisconsin-Madison

John R. Nevin, University of Wisconsin-Madison


Consumer images of competitive retail outlets are important determinants of retail patronage decisions. The structure of image as it applies to retail shopping areas, i.e., downtown areas and shopping centers, is investigated in this paper. The underlying dimensions of shopping area image are identified and their congruency between downtown areas and shopping centers is tested. Their relative strength of association with overall evaluations of shopping areas is tested for downtown areas and shopping centers. Implications for downtown revitalization efforts are suggested.


With the advent of major shopping centers as a type of retail institution another level of retail patronage decisions by consumers has emerged, i.e., choices between different shopping clusters or areas. Shopping clusters are represented by heterogeneous groupings of individual stores, i.e., shopping centers and downtown areas. In many communities the popularity of shopping centers has resulted in a decay of the downtown area as a major retail center. Downtown areas have been unable to effectively compete as shopping clusters with major shopping centers in these communities.

The deterioration of downtown areas has not gone without notice in many communities. Efforts to revitalize downtown areas as important retail trade centers have occurred in many cities and will continue in other cities. These efforts should be based in part on improving the capability of the downtown area to compete with shopping centers. Important input into such efforts would be an understanding of the factors that influence retail patronage decisions at the shopping area level and whether these factors operate in the same way for downtown areas as for shopping centers. With such knowledge merchant associations and municipal governments can develop appropriate marketing strategies for downtown areas.


The bulk of research on retail patronage decisions has focused on choice behavior among individual stores. Two major lines of inquiry characterize this research. One approach involves the so-called gravitational model (Huff 1962) which views retail patronage as a function of store size and distance from the consumer. The gravitational model assumes stores are otherwise similar. Bucklin (1971) and Huff himself (Huff and Blue 1966) recognized that the gravitational model was inadequate if consumers perceived differences between stores on other dimensions.

The second line of inquiry, which recognizes store differences beyond size and distance, has focused on store image. Store image is the complex of a consumer's perceptions of a store on functional attributes (e.g., assortment of goods offered, price level, physical layout, etc.) and emotional attributes (e.g., perceived clientele, atmosphere, etc.). Research findings (e.g., Doyle and Fenwick 1974, Stanley and Sewall 1976) have shown that store image is significantly related to store choice.

Although to a much lesser extent than at the individual store level, both lines of inquiry have been extended to research on retail patronage decisions at the shopping area level. A few studies have confirmed the validity of size and/or distance as determinants of shopping center patronage (Brunner and Mason 1968, Bucklin 1967, Cox and Cooke 1970). Other studies (Bellenger, Robertson, and Greenberg 1977, Gentry and Burns 1977) have confirmed the importance of age-like variables in shopping center patronage. The focus in all of these studies was primarily on shopping center patronage decisions. They did not incorporate downtown areas into the design. A study that did incorporate both downtown areas and shopping centers (Bearden 1977) examined decisions at the individual store levels richer than at the shopping area level. It did confirm the importance of image in discriminating between patrons of a downtown department store and those of shopping center department stores.


The research on retail patronage decisions at the shopping area level suggests that the gravity variables of size and distance and the affective variable of image can explain consumer shopping behavior with respect to downtown areas and shopping centers. This set of variables provides a framework then for determining the focus of efforts to revitalize downtown areas as major retail centers within communities. Given the nature of the gravity variables versus the image variable, it would seem that the latter offers the most practical focus for downtown revitalization efforts. Size and, especially, distance are minimally, if at all, controllable. Image, on the other hand, is largely a result of marketing efforts and the physical nature of a shopping area within given geographic boundaries. The proper manipulation of the image of downtown retail areas can enhance the competitiveness of these areas as major shopping areas. Therefore, the purposes of this paper are:

1.  To investigate the nature of consumer images of shopping areas by determining the key underlying dimensions of image structure;

2.  To determine if the structure employed by consumers to form shopping area image is consistent between downtown areas and shopping centers.

The second purpose is particularly important. If the structure of consumer image for downtown areas is unique then the basis for the development of image-oriented marketing strategies must differ from that of shopping centers. On the other hand, if they are similar, then downtown areas will have a common structure from which to develop image-based competitive strategies.

The possibility that downtown areas differ from shopping centers in terms of image structure would seem significant. Shopping centers are developed as integrated, self-contained shopping areas. They are typically managed by a single firm who is responsible for the promotion of an overall center. Downtown areas are much older. An evolutionary process characterizes the manner in which many of then have reached their present state.

They are a conglomeration rather than an integration of individual stores.


To address the issues relating to consumer images of shopping areas a study was conducted in the Madison, Wisconsin SMSA which contains approximately 300,000 people. Five major intraurban shopping areas exist in the SMSA, four regional shopping centers and a downtown area.


A probability sample of 2,000 households was chosen systematically from the telephone directory. Identical five-page self-administered questionnaires were mailed to sample households. A total of 827 questionnaires were returned for a response rate of 41.4%. While no direct assessment of nonresponse error was made, a comparison of the demographic profile of sample households to that of the total population suggested that older, lower-income households, a segment of the market not typically pursued by major shopping areas, were under-represented in the sample.

Development of an Image Measure

Retail shopping area image is a composite of beliefs held by a consumer on a number of dimensions. Several authors have investigated the dimensions used by consumers to form images at the retail level. For example, Lindquist (1974) in his summary of the store image literature, synthesized the frameworks of 19 studies into a set of nine categories that he called image/attitude attributes: merchandise; service; clientele; physical facilities; convenience; promotion; store atmosphere; institutional and post-transaction satisfaction. Bearden (1977) identified seven specific salient attributes of stores: price level; quality of merchandise; selection; atmosphere; location; parking facilities, and friendliness of sales people. Based on these studies and discussions with shopping center managers, a total of 16 items were generated to represent the domain of shopping area image.

The sixteen items were incorporated into a measure of consumer perceptions of each shopping area. Each item was measured on a 5-point modified semantic differential rating scale. The semantic differential format was used because it is easy to self-administer, assumes minimum verbal skills on the part of the respondents, is relatively reliable, and has been common in past research on image. See Table 1 for a listing of the 16 items and descriptions of the anchor points for each scale. Using this format respondents were asked to evaluate each of the five shopping areas with which they were familiar.

Data Analysis

In order to determine the underlying dimensions of the structure of shopping area image responses to the image measure were factor analyzed using principal components analysis and varimax rotation for each shopping area. In order to assess the stability of image structure across downtown areas and shopping centers a factor congruency test (Harman 1967, pp. 271-2) was performed for each pair of shopping areas. The result of a factor congruency test is a congruency coefficient which relates each factor of one factor matrix to each factor of another matrix. Congruency coefficients have properties similar to those of correlation coefficients. Corresponding factors are those with coefficients approaching one, while noncorresponding factors are indicated with small coefficients. Thus, stability across two factor matrices is indicated by a matrix of congruency coefficients with the diagonal values close to one and off-diagonal values that ideally approach zero.



Further insights into the nature of the image of downtown shopping centers were obtained by forming component scores of image based on the factor analysis results. Scores were computed by summing the values of items loading on the relevant factor. As a test of criterion-related validity and a basis for assessing the relative impact of each image component on global evaluations of shopping areas, these scores were regressed in stepwise fashion on a measure of general evaluative feeling (5-point scale ranging from "poor" to "excellent") for each shopping area. Also, comparisons of means for each image component yielded relative performance data for the five shopping areas.


Structure of Image

For each shopping area factors were extracted until eigenvalues less than one were obtained. Factor matrices for each of the five areas are presented in Table 2. Three factors were consistently extracted for each shopping area. Explained variance ranged from 52.0% to 56.7% across the five areas. Factor loadings reveal that each factor contains a relatively unique set of items, alloying for relatively easy interpretation of the underlying dimensions of image structure.

Factor I consists primarily of six items-quality of stores, variety of stores, merchandise quality, product selection, special males/promotions, and great place to spend a few hours. This factor appears to reflect an overall dimension associated with the perceived assortment of benefits offered to consumers by a shopping area. Factor II is indicated by parking facilities, availability of lunch/refreshments, comfort areas, easy to take children, and, to some extent, layout of area. This factor reflects a dimension related to the facilitative nature of a shopping area, i.e., the features it offers to ease the shopping effort. Factor III consists pre-dominantly of four items--general price level, atmosphere store personnel, and conservative. This factor is less consistent across areas but appears to be associated with the market posture or positioning of the area as an integrated complex of stores.



Stability of Structure Across Areas

While visual examination of the factor matrices across the five shopping areas suggests a reasonable level of stability, more meaningful evidence is provided by the factor congruency test. The results of the congruency test for each pair of shopping areas is provided in Table 3.

The benefit-assortment factor and the facilitative factor are both highly congruent across the five shopping areas. All but one of the diagonal coefficients involving Factors I and II are above .80 and the majority are .90 or greater. Thus, it appears the first two dimensions of shopping area image are consistent between downtown and shopping centers.

Turning to Factor III--market posture/position--the stability between downtown and shopping centers disappears. Congruency coefficients for Factor III between downtown and each of the shopping centers are low, all of them being under 50. Furthermore, the congruency of Factor III between the four shopping centers, while not as strong as for the first two factors, is relatively high. Thus market posture/position does seem to be a significant dimension of image structure in the perceptions of shopping centers but does not distinctly emerge in the case of the downtown area.

This finding is reinforced when the regression analyses of the impact of the three components of image on overall evaluations of each shopping area are considered. In all five cases the measures of the three components accounted for a significant (p < .001) amount of explained variance. R2 values ranged from 45% to 50% with a mean of 47%. When the relative contributions of each component are considered, a distinct pattern emerges. For all five areas the assortment component entered the equation first and was most strongly associated with the general evaluation of the area. For the four shopping centers the market posture/position factor was second in impact, entering the equation second in all four cases. However, for the downtown area it was the weakest of the three components, entering the equation last and exhibiting the smallest standardized beta coefficient. Thus, the market posture/position component plays a more significant role in forming evaluations of shopping centers than downtown areas.

In Table 4 mean values for each of the image components and overall evaluations for each of the five areas are provided. It is evident that of the five areas the downtown area consistently performs at the worst level for the three components and in an overall sense. The greatest discrepancy occurs with respect to the facilitative component of image.






At first thought the implications of the above findings would be that the dimensions on which shopping area image is formed for a downtown area are different than those for shopping centers. Therefore, the marketing strategies for a downtown area would be based on a different structure. However, such a conclusion is probably erroneous because of the nature and causes of image.

The structure of image, as indicated in the above findings, is based on measures of existing beliefs about the shopping areas. These beliefs have several sources. Beliefs from which the first two factors, benefit assortment and facilitative nature of the center, are formed result in part from behavioral or word-of-mouth experiences with a shopping area. Exposure to or information about the assortment of stores and products and the physical facilities of an area provide for the development of these underlying dimensions. The first two dimensions can be formed in the absence of promotional strategies by a shopping area, although promotion can certainly contribute to their development.

Such is not the case with the third factor. The positioning of a shopping area vis-a-vis other areas is largely the result of promotional efforts. The incongruency between downtown and each center and the congruency across all centers on this factor should not suggest that the positioning dimension is not relevant to downtown image. Rather it suggests that incomplete information from which to evaluate downtown on this dimension is available. Since such information derives largely from promotional efforts, it in turn suggests the absence of a promotional strategy for the downtown area as an integrated retail trade area. Therefore, the successful revitalization of downtown areas depends not only on the right stores carrying the right goods and physical renovations that facilitate shopping efforts but also on a promotional strategy that positions downtown as an integrated shopping area. It appears that in the case of the community within which this study was conducted the downtown area has failed to do so.


A considerable amount of previous research suggests that image, as well as size and distance, is an important variable in explaining retail patronage decisions of consumers. Its role appears to be important at both the individual store level and the shopping area level. Its importance at the shopping area level suggests that image should be considered in efforts to revitalize downtown areas as major retail centers.

A study which examines the nature of consumer images of major shopping areas has been reported. Measures of consumer perceptions of a downtown area and four shopping centers on 16 image items were factor analyzed to reveal the underlying structure of consumer images of shopping areas. Three major dimensions emerged: the assortment of benefits offered by an area, the facilitative nature of an area, and the market posture assumed by an area.

Factor congruency tests were performed to determine the stability of image structure between downtown and shopping centers. Results suggested that the first two dimensions were quite stable across all five areas. The third dimension exhibited stability across the four centers but was not stable in comparisons between downtown and each center. Regression analyses of consumer perceptions of the three dimensions on global evaluations of the five areas provided further confirmation by showing that the third dimension was the weakest of the three for the downtown area but second strongest in its association with general feelings about each of the four shopping centers.

These results, while limited to one community, suggest that downtown areas may be deficient in promoting themselves as integrated shopping units. Successful revitalization of downtown areas depend upon promotional strategies that clearly position them within the retail environment. A failure to do so will hinder consumer abilities to form impressions of downtown areas on a major dimension of image, a key variable in explaining consumer retail patronage decisions. Therefore, downtown merchant associations and/or municipal governments, as unifying agents, should develop promotional efforts for the downtown area beyond those of individual stores.


Bearden, William O. (1977), "Determinant Attributes of Store Patronage: Downtown Versus Outlying Shopping Areas," Journal of Retailing, 53, 15-22.

Bellenger, Danny N., Robertson, Dan H., and Barnett A. Greenberg (1977), "Shopping Center Patronage Motives," Journal of Retailing, 53, 29-38.

Brunner, James A. and Mason, John L. (1968) "The Influence of Driving Time Upon Shopping Center Performance," Journal of Marketing, 32, 57-61.

Bucklin, Louis P. (1967) "The Concept of Mass in Intra-Urban Shopping," Journal of Marketing, 31, 37-42.

Bucklin, Louis P. (1971) "Retail Gravity Models and Consumer Choice: A Theoretical and Empirical Critique," Economic Geography, 47, 489-97.

Cox, William E. and Cooke, Ernest F. (1974), "Other Dimensions Involved in Shopping Center Performance," Journal of Marketing, 34, 12-17.

Doyle, Peter and Fenwick, Ian (1974) "How Store Image Affects Shopping Habits in Grocery Chains," Journal of Retailing, 50, 39-52.

Gentry, James W. and Burns, Alvin C. (1977) "How Important Are Evaluative Criteria in Shopping Center Patronage," Journal of Retailing, 53, 73-86.

Harman, Harry H. (1967), Modern Factor Analysis, 2nd ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Huff, David L. (1962), Determination of Intra-Urban Retail Trade Areas, Los Angeles: University of California Real Estate Research Program.

Huff, David L. and Blue, Larry (1966), A Programmed Solution for Estimating Retail Sales Potential, Lawrence: University of Kansas Center for Regional Studies.

Lindquist, Jay D. (1974) "Meaning of Image: A Survey of Empirical and Hypothetical Evidence," Journal of Retailing, 50, 29-38.

Stanley, Thomas J. and Sewall, Murphy (1976) "Image Inputs to a Probabilistic Model: Predicting Retail Potential," Journal of Marketing, 40, 48-53.