In Search of Actions to Reduce Consumer Shopping Problems

J. R. Brent Ritchie, University of Calgary
John D. Claxton, University of British Columbia
ABSTRACT - The study program reported here has two characteristics of particular interest. First, the use of some relatively new measurement methods, combined with interviewing respondents on three successive occasions, produced an unusually rich data base regarding consumer shopping problems. Second, the study design explicitly included a carefully detailed process for moving from consumer research to action.
[ to cite ]:
J. R. Brent Ritchie and John D. Claxton (1979) ,"In Search of Actions to Reduce Consumer Shopping Problems", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 06, eds. William L. Wilkie, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 466-471.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 1979      Pages 466-471


J. R. Brent Ritchie, University of Calgary

John D. Claxton, University of British Columbia

[The authors express their appreciation to the Consumer Research Branch of the Department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs, Government of Canada, for the financial support which made possible the research discussed in this paper. They are also grateful to Pierre Filiatrault and Judy Zaichkowsky for their contributions to this study.]


The study program reported here has two characteristics of particular interest. First, the use of some relatively new measurement methods, combined with interviewing respondents on three successive occasions, produced an unusually rich data base regarding consumer shopping problems. Second, the study design explicitly included a carefully detailed process for moving from consumer research to action.


Public sector users of consumer research with responsibilities in the areas of consumer assistance/protection are potentially faced with the following complexities:

(1) understanding what consumers consider to be priority problems.

(2) assessing the level of government with responsibility for any particular problem.

(3) determining which existing policies or programs impinge on the problem of concern.

(4) considering whether industry action can be stimulated or whether government programs have to be developed.

(5) being sensitive to political pressures that might be initiated by affected interest groups.

Faced by these complexities the difficulty (and importance) of developing action oriented study programs becomes self-evident. The purpose of this paper is to discuss a study program that was instituted to provide guidance in the potential development of consumer assistance/protection programs. This discussion is presented in three major sections. First, there is a brief discussion of the general problem focus of the study. Second, the consumer research that formed the keystone of the study program is described in some detail. Finally, the process used to move from consumer research findings to program development is discussed. The term used to identify this final process is Implications Analysis.


The general focus of the study is provided by the title of this paper, "In Search of Actions to Reduce Consumer Shopping Problems." A framework for studying consumer shopping problems is provided by Figure 1. As indicated in this figure the three major types of participants to be integrated in this type of study are consumers, suppliers, and governments. In the present study these participants were viewed as having the following major roles. Consumers were viewed as being the primary source of information regarding the definition of shopping problems. Consumers were also used as a source of ideas for solving shopping problems. As a result a consumer-based research study was viewed as the keystone to the study program.

Figure 1 also indicates three interest groups, consumer activists, supplier associations, and problem-specific government departments/agencies. Each of these groups was viewed as a primary participant in the interpretation and application of the consumer research findings. In other words it was these three groups that were identified as the focus for the final stage of the study program, implications analysis.




The general purpose of the consumer study was to identify those product/service areas which pose the greatest difficulties to consumers as they search for and evaluate product/service alternatives. For simplicity these pre-purchase information search and processing problems will be referred to as "shopping problems." The ultimate objective of identifying the most serious problems was to identify public (as well as private) sector actions that might be taken to assist Canadian consumers in overcoming these problems.

For research purposes this overall objective was broken down into a series of four objectives:

1. To identify consumer shopping problems.

2. To evaluate consumer problem priorities by assessing consumer trade-offs when faced with alternative shopping problem situations.

3. To evaluate the reliability/stability of alternative measures of consumer shopping problems.

4. To identify existing and potential actions for reducing consumer shopping problems.


The research design consisted of a total of four distinct phases.

Phase I involved development of an annotated bibliography regarding research on prepurchase information search and processing. Further information on this bibliographic work is available from the authors.

Phase II of the research involved data collection and analysis regarding the identification and importance of prepurchase problems (objective 1). This phase began in May 1977 and was completed in August 1977. The methodology used involved Nominal Group Technique (Delbecq, et al., 1975) interviews with consumers in a major urban centre in each of the five regions of Canada. The interviews in each city were equally divided between men and women, and between upper and lower income consumers.

Phase III of the research focused primarily on the trade-offs associated with prepurchase information search and processing (objective 2). The data collection for this phase, which involved extensive use of conjoint measurement (Green and Wind, 1973), began in October 1977 and was completed by November 1977. Data were also gathered concerning consumer perceptions of possible solutions to the problems identified in Phase II. The respondents participating in Phase III were the same as those of Phase II.

Phase IV of the study conducted during the period February - March 1978, involved the collection of the two types of data. The first type was that concerning consumer evaluations of the desirability of a range of previously suggested actions, policies or programs to help them overcome prepurchase information search and processing problems (objective 4). The second type of data gathered was a replication of certain of the conjoint measures employed in Phase III, thus permitting an assessment of measurement reliability/stability (objective 3). Again, respondents for Phase IV were generally the same as those participating in Phases II and III.

Measurement - Phase II

The nature of the NGT sessions has been described in detail elsewhere (Claxton, Ritchie and Zaichkowsky, 1978).

These sessions were designed to achieve two goals. First, they sought to identify the major prepurchase information search and processing problems of consumers with respect to each of the five product/service categories. Second, they sought to establish the relative importance of the different problems suggested by the participants in each session.

The structured questionnaire was administered following the NGT sessions. A major thrust of this questionnaire was to explore consumers' beliefs regarding solutions for consumer shopping problems. The discussion of solutions to consumer shopping problems was broken down into two components. First, participants were asked to identify those actions, policies or programs which currently existed and which they found helped them in their shopping or which, in their opinion, made them a more effective or efficient consumer. These ideas were listed on large sheets of paper visible to all participants but no evaluation of the ideas was requested. Subsequently, participants were asked to suggest new actions, policies or programs which they felt might prove useful in assisting consumers to overcome various shopping problems they faced.

Measurement - Phase III

Phase III of the study aimed to better understand the trade-offs which consumers would prefer among the most important problems dimensions identified in Phase II. This trade-off analysis focused on an analysis of shopping problems related to retail services and was restricted to three product/service categories (clothing/ footwear, furniture/appliances, and automobile repair services). Four types of data were collected:

(1) conjoint measures designed to examine consumer trade-offs among the major retail service problem dimensions.

(2) conjoint measure designed to examine consumer trade-offs among retail service problems and other factors influencing the choice of a particular retailer.

(3) direct measures of the importance of different retail attribute levels in influencing consumer choice of retail outlets.

(4) participant suggestions for actions, policies or programs which might be undertaken by the government or by consumers themselves to overcome the major problems of information search and processing evaluated via the conjoint and direct measures.

Conjoint measures related to retail service problem dimensions. The study of trade-offs among information search and processing problems related to retail services employed two parallel forms of conjoint measurement for each of the three product/service categories. The "full profile" or "concept testing" method was implemented using a partial factorial design (orthogonal) requiring the participants to rank order a series of cards containing the profiles of retail outlets in which each of the major problem dimensions was present or not present. Thus, for clothing/footwear and furniture/appliances, four problem dimensions were present at two levels while automobile repair service involved five dimensions at two levels each. The "paired choice" method for measuring consumer trade-offs of problem dimensions requested participants to express their preferences for retail shopping situations in which all possible pairs of shopping problems were presented for consideration. Thus, a total of six dimension pairs were presented to participants in the case of clothing/footwear and furniture/ appliances with ten pairs being presented for automobile repair services.

Conjoint measures relating retail service dimensions to other factors influencing choice. In an effort to establish some measure of how important consumers considered the problem dimensions examined above in comparison to other factors influencing the choice of a particular retail outlet, participants were required to evaluate the relative desirability of a number of choice situations. These choice situations involved comparisons along four major factors, each of which was evaluated at either two or three levels within a (2 x 3 x 2 x 3) design. The four major factors were:

(1) overall reputation of store services: a global measure which attempted to summarize the presence or absence of the four/five retail service problem dimensions examined above.

(2) travel time: convenience of access to the store.

(3) shopping time: range of products offered by outlet or nearby (clothing/footwear and furniture/appliances), or speed of service (automobile repair services).

(4) price levels relative to other retailers.

Direct measures of attribute level importance. These measures were collected by means of a graphic line scale and were intended to serve as a cross check of the results obtained from the conjoint analysis.

Participants suggestions concerning possible solutions. Participants were requested to suggest actions, policies or programs that might be undertaken by government or by consumers themselves to overcome the retail service problems identified in Phase II.


Although it seemed useful to provide a relatively detailed description of the nature of the consumer study, the purpose here is not to discuss all aspects of the findings. Rather the intention is to provide an example of the study results, and indicate how these results are being utilized in the more general process of developing actions for reducing consumer shopping problems. The findings that are discussed here deal with the problems associated with automobile repair services. This area is presented because of its [The current study indicated that both men and women ranked automobile repairs as the first or second most difficult product/service to shop for. A national study of American consumers indicated that automobile manufacturers and repair garages were the fifth and eighth most important (of 25) priority areas for consumer action (Sentry Insurance, 1977).] high priority to a broad cross section of consumers. Readers wishing to review the complete findings or who wish to examine certain results in greater detail are referred to the original study available from the authors.

Phase II - NGT Results

Each NGT session concerning automobile repair problems provided two forms of raw data:

(1) a list of all problems identified by the group. On average, this represented 17 problems per session.

(2) each participant's rank order of importance for the eight problems he considered the most serious.

The data resulting from the 10 sessions that considered automobile repair services consisted of a total of 170 problem statements. An important characteristic of this data bank of problem statements should be noted. The statements from different sessions were not directly comparable in their raw state since the same issues were not necessarily raised in all NGT sessions, or were not put forward with exactly the same wording. As a result, there existed a need to simplify the structure of the many qualitative statements into a more easily understood form which would permit comparison across NGT sessions. Since this particular data analysis problem was not present in prior planning applications of the NGT approach that employed only a single NGT group, it was necessary to develop a standardized method of analysis which allowed the technique to be extended to multiple NGT session situations. The method developed consisted of four basic steps:

(1) categorization of initial problem statements into problem themes.

(2) calculation of a score or index reflecting the importance of each problem theme.

(3) ranking of problem themes according to their importance index.

(4) regrouping of problem themes to form major problem dimensions.

Identifying Problem Themes. The purpose of the first step was to look for themes that were common across NGT sessions. The procedure used was to prepare individual cards for each statement. All statements (from all sessions) were then allocated by judges to different problem categories. Each problem category, or problem theme, involved statements containing essentially the same words or ideas. As might be anticipated, the number of themes established varied with the type of product/service in question (automobile repair services, 24; home repair/renovation services, 22; grocery products, 45; clothing/footwear, 32; and furniture/appliances, 24). The actual themes identified for automobile repair services are presented in Table 1.



Index of Theme Importance. Step two involved the calculation of an index of theme importance. The index employed was designed to reflect how different measures of importance, namely, the frequency with which a problem was selected by respondents as important and the priority accorded to it when it was selected. Thus, a theme which had been identified in most sessions and which had been ranked highly by most participants would receive a high index score; one selected frequently but considered less important, or selected less frequently but judged important by certain participants, would receive an intermediate index score; and finally a theme selected infrequently and accorded little importance would receive a low index score.

In the present study a participant's score for a particular theme was based on the rank importance accorded by that participant. Statements ranked highest in importance received a score of 8, items second in importance received a score of 7, and so on. Theme scores were then aggregated across all participants so as to provide a summary index of theme importance.

Ranking Themes and Identifying Problem Dimensions. The index of theme importance was used to rank the different problem themes within a product/service category in terms of their approximate order of importance. For many studies, this ranking of themes may represent sufficient analysis since it provides the researcher with a quantitative measure of the importance of the various ideas expressed during the NGT sessions. In the present study, it was desired to further aggregate the problem themes so as to identify what were termed major problem dimensions. These dimensions were subsequently employed as the basis for analyzing consumer retail service trade-offs via conjoint measurement. The manner in which the 24 auto repair service themes (Table 1) were regrouped into problem dimensions provides one specific example of this aggregation process (see Table 2).

While aggregation of themes is useful in certain instances, it should be stressed that it results in a much simplified version of the original data and provides less understanding of the original problem statements as expressed by participants. As such, aggregation of themes into dimensions should not be done with a view to subsequently forgetting their existence since it is at the theme level that the greatest insight into the understanding of consumers appears to be gained.

It is also useful to note the difference between identifying themes and identifying dimensions. The purpose in the former is to aggregate across NGT sessions statements that express essentially the same idea, a process conceptually similar to content analysis (Holsti, 1969; Kassarjian, 1977). On the other hand, identification of dimensions is done with a view to providing a structure or framework of themes, a purpose similar to that of taxonomic analysis (Sheath and Sokal, 1973).

Phase III - Conjoint Analysis Results

Based on the results of the NGT analysis, a total of seven major problem dimensions were identified for automobile repair service. Six of these were retained for subsequent study via trade-off analysis (general industry conditions were not considered to be a controllable choice criterion for consumers).

The first set of trade-offs participants were asked to make judgments concerning five garage service characteristics derived from the major problem dimensions. Thus, consumers were asked to assess the relative importance of the following factors when selecting an automobile repair service:

(1) the extent to which appointments and estimates are honoured.

(2) the qualifications (competence) of mechanics.

(3) the extent to which the garage demonstrates concern for the customer, and his specific desires or requests.

(4) the strength of the guarantee offered.

(5) the degree to which the customer is treated fairly and honestly.



Table 3 provides the results obtained from the analysis of the conjoint measures collected in regards to these characteristics of the repair service. As seen, the qualifications or competency of the mechanics (1.73) and the integrity of the repair service (1.09) were clearly judged to be the most important dimensions. It should be noted that these results were derived from an aggregate analysis in which the median preference rank for each alternative was employed as the group measure of desirability for that alternative. These median ranks were used as input to the MONANOVA scaling routine (Kruskal, 1965) in accordance with the factorial design employed. This routine provided as output utilities (or importance scores) for each of the five garage characteristics given in Table 3.

These characteristics of repair service were then compared via conjoint measurement with three other choice factors: travel time to garage, service time required, and the cost of the repairs relative to that charged by competing garages. The results of this analysis are also shown in Table 3. Based on this analysis the garage service characteristics and relative cost were clearly the most important choice factors.

Phase IV - Consumer Suggested Solution

As indicated earlier the search for solutions to consumer shopping problems was done in two steps. During Phase III data collection respondents were asked in an open-ended manner for their suggested solutions on a problem by problem basis. The problems that were the focus of this questioning were the major problem dimensions that had been developed using NGT. For example, when questioned on auto repairs respondents were asked to suggest potential solutions for each of the problem dimensions indicated in Table 2. These suggestions were then combined via content analysis procedures to form a structured questionnaire for Phase IV data collection.



The list of solutions provided in Table 4 is the set of suggested government actions that could have an impact on auto repair problems. The reader can observe that the solutions could be categorized into four sets.

(1) solutions requiring more resources for existing policies/programs.

(2) solutions requiring more laws to control business.

(3) solutions requiring more education programs.

(4) solutions requiring more consumer information.

It is also interesting to observe that none of the four most preferred solutions are of the educational or informational (self help) type. All four are regulation based.


The final stages in this study program represented an effort to obtain the maximum impact from the findings of the consumer study. Once data from consumers had been analyzed and the major conclusions identified, a methodology was developed which was designed to identify and evaluate the implications of these conclusions. This methodology, termed implications analysis, involved presenting government officials and private sector managers with the findings within the framework of a systematic procedure designed to determine what they implied with respect to their responsibilities towards consumers and how these responsibilities could best be met.

The approach for this stage of the study was to review with officials from government agencies and supplier associations the major conclusions arising from the consumer study. The objectives of this review were:

(1) to identify the implications concerning the need for actions, policies and programs which should be undertaken by both the public and private sectors in order to assist consumers,

(2) to establish the relative priorities which should be accorded to the various actions, policies and programs identified above,

(3) to evaluate the means of implementing those actions, policies, and programs judged to have the highest priorities,

(4) to identify the organization, department or agency to which responsibility for implementation of recommended actions should be assigned.



Implications Analysis Process

As indicated earlier the final stage in the study program was designed as a specific attempt to bridge the gap between the acquisition and utilization of knowledge for planning consumer policies and programs. The key steps of the process involved in carrying out this analysis were as follows:

(1) both top and middle level government managers having a potential interest in the findings were identified. These managers were primarily from the Department of Consumer and Corporate Affairs but other interested persons were also involved.

(2) the major conclusions derived from each phase of the research were first presented to a relatively small group of top government officials in an effort to identify major strategic conclusions with respect to the directions which future efforts in consumer protection and assistance should take.

(3) the findings pertaining to each of the five product/ service areas studied were presented to middle level government officials having responsibilities for consumer protection with respect to each particular product/service. These managers were asked to review the nature and importance of the problem areas reported by consumers. Opinions were first gathered concerning their perceptions of the completeness of the stated problems and the consumer's rating of their importance. These middle managers were subsequently asked to identify actions that might be taken by either consumers, industry or government to minimize the most serious problems within each product/service category. This process was followed by a ranking of each potential solution according to its desirability and its feasibility. For those solutions judged both desirable and feasible, specific inputs were sought concerning such issues as:

(1) who should be primarily responsible for implementation?

(2) how should the action be financed?

(3) what time horizon should be envisaged?

(4) what criteria should be employed to judge the success of the action?

Finally, the results of the discussions with both the top and middle managers were summarized with a view to identifying future action priorities.


It is undoubtedly evident to the reader that the implications analysis stage of the research program requires an extended period of time to complete. At the time of writing the implications analysis stage of the study had been conducted with government officials. Still to be completed are the discussions with officials from supplier associations. However, at this point it may be useful to reemphasize characteristics of this research program which are believed to be particularly significant.

First, it is felt that the consumer shopping problems study program represents a major effort at providing consumer policy makers with future oriented research. It is expected that this research can be used to differentiate among real long term needs for consumer protection/assistance, and those which are of a more passing nature.

Second, the particular research methods which were used in the present study were found to be most useful. As such, they may prove to be of interest to other researchers in the field.

Third, it is believed that the emphasis placed on assisting managers to understand and interpret the findings of the research so as to understand their implications for formulating and implementing consumer policies is an essential, although frequently neglected, phase of the study.


John D. Claxton, J. R. Brent Ritchie, and Judy L. Zaichkowsky, "The Nominal Group Technique: Assessing its Potential for Consumer Research," working paper, Faculty of Commerce and Business Administration, University of British Columbia, 1978.

A. L. Delbecq, A. H. Van de Ven, and D. Gustafson, Group Techniques for Program Planning, (Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Co., 1975).

P. E. Green, and Y. Wind, Multiattribute Decisions in Marketing, (Hinsdale, Illinois: The Dryden Press, 1973).

O. R. Holsti, Content Analysis for the Social Sciences and Humanities, (Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1969).

Harold H. Kassarjian, "Content Analysis in Consumer Research," Journal of Consumer Research, 4 (June, 1977), 8-18.

J. B. Kruskal, "Analysis of Factorial Experiments by Estimating Monotone Transformations of the Data," Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Series B, 27 (1965), 251-63.

Sentry Insurance Co., "Consumers at the Crossroads," conducted by Louis Harris and Associates, and the Marketing Science Institute, 1977.

P. H. A. Sheath, and R. R. Sokal, Numerical Taxonomy, (San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1973).