Consumerists: Complaining Behavior and Attitudes Toward Social and Consumer Issues

James G. Barnes, Memorial University of Newfoundland
Karen R. Kelloway, Memorial University of Newfoundland
ABSTRACT - This paper presents the results of a research project which examines differences between consumerists, as represented by members of a consumer association, and consumers selected at random from the population, in terms of their complaining behavior and their concerns and attitudes toward certain social and consumer issues. The results reveal that consumerists are more likely to complain, more likely to be concerned with non-economic issues, more likely to be users of information sources, more likely to express a positive opinion regarding the progress being made toward the solution of consumer problems, and less likely to support increased government involvement in the solution of consumer issues.
[ to cite ]:
James G. Barnes and Karen R. Kelloway (1980) ,"Consumerists: Complaining Behavior and Attitudes Toward Social and Consumer Issues", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 329-334.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 329-334


James G. Barnes, Memorial University of Newfoundland

Karen R. Kelloway, Memorial University of Newfoundland

[The authors wish to acknowledge the contribution made to this project by the Consumers' Association of Canada, Newfoundland Branch, and by Ms. Jill Whitaker.]


This paper presents the results of a research project which examines differences between consumerists, as represented by members of a consumer association, and consumers selected at random from the population, in terms of their complaining behavior and their concerns and attitudes toward certain social and consumer issues. The results reveal that consumerists are more likely to complain, more likely to be concerned with non-economic issues, more likely to be users of information sources, more likely to express a positive opinion regarding the progress being made toward the solution of consumer problems, and less likely to support increased government involvement in the solution of consumer issues.


The increase in the number of complaints being made by consumers and in the frequency of redress being sought in recent years has been a notable consequence of the growth in consumerism in North America. The proliferation of products, the alleged failure of competition, higher expectations of consumers, inflation and the perception among consumers that business is concerned only with making a profit, have all contributed to consumer discontent. The consumer movement has encouraged dissatisfied consumers to make their grievances known to business and to government agencies. Consumers apparently favor government involvement as a solution to many of their problems. It is arguable, therefore, that business should voluntarily respond to consumer problems and complaints before governments introduce more legislation. This paper presents the results of a study which examines the attitudes of activist consumers and of 'average' consumers toward a variety of consumer issues and which identifies the implications of the differences in these attitudes for practicing marketers.


Consumer Complaining

Research on consumer complaining behavior can be divided into two areas: the dimensions of consumer complaints (that is, the frequency of complaints, the types of problems, the actions taken, etc.); and the characteristics of consumers who complain.

Consumer complaints may be viewed as a series of related events, from perception or experience of a grievance, to taking some form of action, to resolution of the problem. Various studies have examined those products and services with which consumers experience the most problems. In examining complaint data from state agencies and voluntary organizations, Gaedeke (1972) found new automobile sales and servicing to rank highest in terms of the number of complaints received. Best and Andreasen (1977) found mail-orders, toys, and clothing as the most often cited non-price problems, while groceries were highest on price-only complaints. Diamond et al. (1976), in analyzing calls made to a consumer hot line, found services (insurance companies, utilities, auto repairs, building contractors, etc.) to be the target of most complaints, followed closely by specific retail outlets (auto agencies, TV/radio stores, furniture stores, etc.) Though relatively fewer complaints are voiced concerning the grocery industry, direct and indirect evidence suggests that consumers also experience problems with food products. Legislation now exists governing national standards for dairy and agriculture products, content and nutrition labeling, and open dating for perishable goods.

The types of problems experienced will be influenced by the product category (Diamond et al. 1976). Perception of a problem will be influenced by the consumer's expectation of the product/service, his or her previous experience with similar products/services, and knowledge of his or her rights as a consumer. Once a problem is recognized, there are three options usually available to the complainant: (I) do nothing; (2) take private action by changing brands or suppliers, boycotting the product/service, or warning family and friends; (3) take public action by seeking redress directly from the retailer or manufacturer, bringing legal action, complaining to the media, or registering a complaint with a consumer protection agency or voluntary organization.

Day and Bodur (1978), in a national survey of seventy-three service categories, reported that, while in 80% of the cases of dissatisfaction some action was taken, 46.5% of the actions were of a private nature. Diener and Greyser (1978), looked at complaints with personal care products and found that most often consumers complained to friends. The minor importance of the problem and the ease of brand switching explained why most consumers did not complain. Reasons for inaction have generally reflected a defeatist or pessimistic attitude (Day and Bodur 1978; Moyer 1978; Warland et al. 1975).

In most instances of consumer dissatisfaction, complaints are first taken to the place of purchase (Diamond et al 1976; Mason and Himes 1973; Warland et al 1975). Relatively few complaints are made directly to second or third parties such as Better Business Bureaus, consumer affairs departments, and small claims courts. However, persistent consumers will turn to these sources if satisfaction is not obtained from the retailer or manufacturer. Use of these sources also depends on the type of product/service, the nature of the problem, and the consumer's awareness of their existence and function. Hafner and Leckenby (1975) found that of the five consumer protection agencies listed, a large percentage of respondents indicated awareness of the Better Business Bureau and the small claims court. Accurate knowledge of the functions of these two sources was positively related to education.

Characteristics of Consumer Complainants and Activists

Many studies on the characteristics of consumer complainants have examined only demographic information, although with consistent results. Liefeld et al. (1975) studied consumers who wrote letters of complaint to a government or consumer agency and found them to be younger and better educated, to have higher family incomes, from managerial/professional households, and more likely to be married or divorced. Mason and Himes (1973) found the tendency for a household to express dissatisfaction with an appliance to be positively related to the size of the household. It was not related to educational level of the head of household or marital status. Moyer (1978) found those most likely not to complain were those with relatively low education, income, and job skills, and the elderly. Best and Andreasen (1977) suggest that consumers with low SES and low interest in consumer affairs are less likely to complain and in fact are less likely to perceive a problem exists. However, Gaedeke (1972), in a survey of state consumer protection offices, argued that complainants were a heterogeneous group comprised of all social classes, age groups and geographical areas. Wall et al. (1976) found the best predictors of a consumer's propensity to complain were personal characteristics and internal influences. Those who didn't voice their complaints were unwilling to comparison shop, were shy, lacking self-confidence, lacking knowledge about the care of fabrics, were younger, had fewer children, and favored shopping at specialty stores. Higher income, education and social class were more likely to be characteristic of complainers. Zaltman et al. (1978) found that as awareness of unfair marketing practices increased, so did propensity to complain. Also, younger consumers and those more socially involved were more likely to complain. Warland et al. (1975) identified three groups of consumers on the basis of whether they had experienced a problem and whether they had taken some action. The "Upset--No Action" group, while characterized by less income and education and less social and political involvement, were very similar to the "Upset--Action" group in their negative attitudes toward business and their interest in consumerism.

Several studies have examined the characteristics and attitudes of consumerists, again with consistent results (Anderson and Cummingham 1972; Anderson et al. 1974; Berkowitz and Lutterman 1968; Webster 1975). Hustad and Pessemier (1973) identified three groups of consumers on the basis of their attitudes toward pollution, advertising and promotional practices, products and product quality, government regulation and consumer sovereignty. The anti-business/advertising group had the highest occupational status and educational level, were activists and held liberal views. Barksdale and Darden (1972) reported younger, liberal respondents as generally more critical of marketing and also more impressed with the accomplishments of the consumer movement. Coulson (1971), on the other hand, found the poor, less educated and the elderly to rate consumerism more important. Using members of a consumers' association as representative of consumerists, Bourgeois and Barnes (1979) found this segment of the population to have higher education levels and smaller families, to be more likely to hold a management or professional position, of middle to upper-middle income, and more likely to live in apartments and townhouses.


The research project reported in this paper was designed to examine differences between subjects who are members of the Consumers' Association of Canada (CAC) and a group of subjects selected at random from the population. The members of the CAC were included because they are most likely to perceive problems with consumer products and to make complaints (Best and Andreasen 1977). For the purpose of this paper, and based on research reviewed above, the terms "consumerist" and "complainant" might be used interchangeably. This paper goes beyond an examination of the characteristics of consumerists and explores their views on consumer issues and related topics and the reasons behind their complaining and related behavior.

Based on earlier studies of complaining behavior and of consumer activism, the following hypotheses were developed and will be examined: (1) that consumerists are more likely to perceive problems and to complain than are consumers selected et random; (2) that consumerists will express greater concern regarding social and consumer issues; (3) that consumerists will express more negative attitudes toward business as the cause of consumer problems and more positive attitudes regarding greater government involvement in seeking solutions; (4) that consumerists will be more likely to perceive as effective certain consumer actions taken to solve consumer problems; (5) that consumerists are more likely to make use of non-commercial sources to obtain information on consumer rights and major purchases; (6) that consumerists will be more likely to perceive little progress in recent years in the resolution of consumer problems.


Data were collected from a sample of members of the CAC and from a sample of consumers selected at random from a recent provincial voters' list. A total of 943 questionnaires were mailed to CAC members and 523 were returned in usable form, for an effective response rate of 55.5%. Similarly, 1826 questionnaires were mailed to subjects selected at random and 499 were returned, for a response rate of 27.3%. The questionnaire was twelve pages in length and contained a lengthy series of questions dealing with various repair, professional, financial and other service organizations, information sources, and attitudes toward various consumer matters. The questionnaire concluded with questions dealing with the respondent's shopping behavior and with the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of his or her family. The respondents were not compensated for returning their questionnaires, but were provided with a postage-paid return envelope. The analysis which follows consists of a basic cross tabulation analysis from the two samples. The differences between the responses of the two groups are examined and the significance of such differences noted.


Complaining Behaviour

Subjects were asked to indicate whether they had had a problem or a reason to complain about a grocery product in the past month or about an appliance or a clothing item in the past year. As may be seen from Table 1, CAC members were more likely to have perceived problems in all three product categories and were significantly more likely to have perceived a problem with food and clothing items.

Similarly, CAC members were found to be more likely to have made a complaint in two of the three product categories. These results are similar to those obtained by Best and Andreasen (1977), and indicate that consumerists are more likely to perceive problems and to make complaints, although the directionality of the relationship is unclear (i.e., whether being a member leads one to perceive more problems or the perception of problems leads one to join a consumer group).

When asked why they did not complain, those members of the CAC who had perceived a problem with products but had not complained were significantly more likely to reply that they did not get around to it or that they didn't have the time. Conversely, non-complaining nonmembers were more likely to express the defeatist attitude mentioned by Day and Bodur (1978) and Moyer (1978) and to reason that complaining is not worth the effort or that it would not make any difference.



Social Issues

Subjects were asked to indicate which of a list of social issues they considered to be of importance to them personally and which they felt should be of greatest concern to government. Subjects were asked to indicate the three issues which they considered most important from a list of fifteen social issues. While both groups tend to rate as very important personal concerns such issues as inflation, fair deal for consumers, and energy, there were some striking differences between the level of importance attached to certain issues by the two groups.

As may be seen from Table 2, consumerists were generally more likely to express concern and to be most concerned with inflation, fair deal for consumers, energy, education and the environment. Conversely, non-members expressed greatest concern with a fair deal for consumers, unemployment, inflation, energy, and lower taxes. The higher education level of the consumerists and their relatively higher socioeconomic level is reflected in the fact that they expressed relatively greater concern with such social issues as education, the environment, and inflation. Conversely, non-members expressed relatively greater concern for such primarily financial issues as cost of health care, lower taxes, pensions, and unemployment.

When asked which issues should be of greatest concern to government, the two groups tended to demonstrate a much higher level of agreement as the ranking of issues by both groups is quite similar (Table 2). The non-members of CAC again indicated that government should be more concerned with financial matters such as unemployment, taxes, and pensions.

Subjects were also asked to indicate their level of concern, on a five-point scale, regarding eighteen particular consumer issues such as product quality, prices and advertising. While more than half of both groups expressed some concern with practically all issues listed, those receiving the greatest expressions of concern were related to prices of food and non-food products and to the cost of housing. Differences were also noted between the concerns of consumerists and consumers. While non-members expressed relatively greater concern with such issues as prices, whether they can obtain adequate insurance, settling insurance claims, the number of dangerous products, and knowing what to do if a product fails, the consumerists were relatively more concerned with the quality of products and service, the accuracy and amount of advertising, and the amount of information available on products and services. While these differences and others noted later are important, it is not clear that they are not merely related to the demographic differences between the two groups. Further analysis of the data, holding income and education constant, is planned.



Consumer Issues

Subjects were also asked to express their level of agreement with a series of twenty-two Likert-scale statements relating to consumer issues such as prices, product design, guarantees and warranties, advertising, and government regulation. The results are presented in Table 3. The percentages expressed in this table represent the percentage of respondents who responded "strongly agree" or "agree" to each statement. Only those statements which produced significantly different results between CAC members and non-members are presented.

Significant differences were found on fifteen statements. In general, consumerists expressed more negative attitudes toward advertising and toward the adequacy of guarantees and warranties. In addition, they expressed more positive opinions concerning the success of the consumer movement in improving product quality and on the need for teaching consumer education in schools. Conversely, non-members expressed greater concern regarding the adequacy of instructions which accompany products and expressed significantly more support for government involvement in consumer affairs, including the prohibition of advertising on television, control of prices, and the introduction of more consumer legislation. The relatively lower support for government involvement among consumerists may be related to a greater familiarity with government action in this field on the part of CAC members and a possible cynicism resulting from the fact that they feel consumer groups have been more successful than has government in improving the lot of the consumer.



Effectiveness of Consumer Actions

Subjects were asked to indicate whether they consider certain possible consumer actions to be effective as a means of solving consumer problems. Table 4 presents the results of these questions and indicates the percentage of consumerists and consumers who perceive each of the nine possible actions as effective. While only five of the possible consumer actions listed produced significant differences between the two groups, the pattern of these differences is quite interesting. The sample of non-members tended to place greater confidence in consultation between consumer groups and government as a means of solving consumer problems. Such a response would appear to be related to the fact that these respondents also more strongly support the involvement of government in consumer affairs. Conversely, consumerists agreed significantly more that actions such as taking manufacturers to court, obtaining media publicity for consumer issues, and teaching consumer education in the schools, would be most effective.



Information Sources

The questionnaire contained two questions relating to information sources which consumers are likely to use. Firstly, respondents were asked to indicate where they would first go for assistance concerning information about consumer rights. As may be seen from Table 5, CAC members most often mentioned the Consumers' Association itself, followed by the Better Business Bureau and by government sources. Conversely, non-members most often mentioned the Better Business Bureau as their primary source of information on consumer rights. These consumers were understandably less likely to consult the Consumers' Association and government sources, while more than 11 percent indicated they did not know which source would be their first choice for information on consumer rights.

When asked which information sources have in fact been used by them in planning a major purchase, respondents provided quite different answers. While 41 percent of non-members indicated that they would first consult the Better Business Bureau, only i1 percent had done so when planning a major purchase. These consumers most often consult friends and relatives, the media, and product literature. Comparatively few had sought information on major purchases from government sources, from the Consumers' Association, or from published non-commercial consumer magazines. Almost 20 percent could not recall which sources they had consulted before purchasing a major consumer product. Consumerists, on the other hand, are much more frequent users of information sources in planning major purchases. More than 70 percent indicated that they had sought information from magazines such as Consumer Reports and the Canadian Consumer. In addition, consumerists are much more frequent users than are average consumers of government sources, libraries, and manufacturers' literature.



Status of Consumer Issues

Subjects were asked for their opinion on whether changes have taken place in recent years concerning the status of certain consumer issues. They were asked to indicate whether, over the past three years, certain situations have improved, or worsened, or whether there has been no change. In general, consumerists voiced a significantly more positive opinion concerning the progress being made on consumer issues. Non-members felt that the situation with respect to getting things repaired properly is better today than was the case three years ago (Table 6). On the other hand, consumerists were significantly more likely to conclude that improvements have been realized over the past three years in consumer shopping skills, product content information, product safety, the treatment of consumers and the handling of complaints by business, and in the extent of misleading claims about products. This positive reaction from consumerists concerning the progress being made in consumer affairs is likely related to the fact that these respondents are better informed regarding developments in the area of consumer matters.


Owing to space restrictions, this paper has not presented the results of the comparison of consumerists and consumers selected at random on the basis of demographic variables. The results obtained were, however, entirely consistent with previous studies which have examined the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of consumerists and complainants (Bourgeois and Barnes 1979; Moyer 1978; Wall et al. 1976). In general, consumerists were found to be of higher socioeconomic status, better educated, and more likely to be careful shoppers.

The higher expectations and socioeconomic status of the consumerists is reflected in their greater likelihood of perceiving problems and of complaining. The non-members, however, were obviously more concerned with issues which affect them directly in economic terms, such as taxes, pensions and unemployment. The consumerist, who is in a better financial position, can afford to direct his or her concerns toward broader social issues such as the environment and education and such consumer issues as product quality, the volume of advertising, and the amount of product information available. Such results again raise questions of whether consumerists or consumers' associations really speak for the consumer. It would appear from these results that the non-consumerist' is most concerned with those consumer issues which directly affect his or her purchasing power.

Consumerists were found to be more likely to seek information from a variety of sources and to make use of such information more often than do consumers in general. In addition, consumerists are generally more positive regarding the accomplishments of the consumer movement and the progress which has been made in consumer affairs in recent years. As a result, the consumerist is more likely to support a public approach to the resolution of consumer problems, through court action or the media. They also place a high degree of confidence in the ultimate benefit of teaching consumer education in the schools. Conversely, non-members of the consumers' association were more likely to see improved consumer affairs coming through greater government involvement in business through regulation.

Business may view the opinions of the consumerists as somewhat positive and, indeed, encouraging. The response from business may be one of mild satisfaction that progress is being made toward the resolution of consumer problems, at least in the minds of some consumers. However, a closer reading of the results may indicate that business should change its emphasis toward ensuring that broader consumer issues such as volume and accuracy of advertising, environmental impact, and product information are dealt with. Since the consumerist is encouraged that consumer education holds some promise of consumer benefit in the future, business should undertake support for such education programs. Finally, business might expect relatively less pressure from consumerists for increased government regulation of marketing, but this pressure might well be replaced by more public consumer action in the form of litigation and publicity through the mass media.




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