Cognitive Maps and Shopping Convenience

Sanford L. Grossbart, University of Nebraska
Balusu Rammohan, University of Nebraska
ABSTRACT - The nature and functions of cognitive mapping and maps of large scale shopping areas are reviewed. A method of measuring cognitive maps is employed to study the possible bases for customers' beliefs regarding the convenience of shopping downtown. Results are presented which indicate that mapped information is related to various forms of shopping convenience.
[ to cite ]:
Sanford L. Grossbart and Balusu Rammohan (1981) ,"Cognitive Maps and Shopping Convenience", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 128-133.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 128-133


Sanford L. Grossbart, University of Nebraska

Balusu Rammohan, University of Nebraska


The nature and functions of cognitive mapping and maps of large scale shopping areas are reviewed. A method of measuring cognitive maps is employed to study the possible bases for customers' beliefs regarding the convenience of shopping downtown. Results are presented which indicate that mapped information is related to various forms of shopping convenience.


The central thesis of this paper is that beliefs regarding the convenience of shopping downtown are related to customers' cognitive maps of the downtown spatial environment. While multiple factors influence customers' patronage decisions, the issue of convenience is singled out for several reasons. Observers frequently mention the inconvenience of traveling to the area, parking and moving between stores as important reasons for the decline of downtown business in cities of all sizes. Moreover, the provision of "more convenient" physical plans and parking amenities represents a costly undertaking which is apparently beyond the capabilities or willingness of many individual businesses and city planning bodies. As such redevelopment designs have been drawn and debates concerning the sharing of costs required to provide increased convenience have continued, there has been a tendency to overlook the fact that customer beliefs about convenience are apt to be highly subjective and related to a set of largely unidentified determinants. The exploratory research described here was undertaken with the expectation that differences in customer's spatial images of the downtown, termed cognitive maps, would be related to beliefs about different forms of convenience. Evidence which supports this expectation, while obviously not addressing all aspects of downtown deficiencies, carries the important implication that providing customers with more adequate information about retail identities and functions may alter their beliefs about shopping convenience and, therefore, pose a less costly alternative than large-scale physical changes.


Cognitive mapping is the mental process involved in acquiring, storing and manipulating information about spatial environments. As organized representations of portions of the environment, these maps are simplified models or mental images of complex physical reality (Downs and Stea 1977). Maps are formed in terms of places within places, e.g., stores within a downtown, whose perceived prominence, functional and symbolic meaning and use increase the likelihood of their mental representation. Information concerning these stores aids customers in understanding the spatial dimension of the shopping area. There are three basic sources for mapped information (Downs and Stea 1973). Direct experience, e.g., shopping and moving about the area, provides the opportunity for the integration of kinesthetic, visual, tactile and olfactory sensory information about store identities, activities, distances, locations and other aspects of a downtown. Vicarious sources which provide second hand spatial information may include friends, salespersons, media, street maps, Chamber of Commerce brochures, etc.

Finally, persons may form inferences by elaborating upon and augmenting the direct or vicarious information which they have acquired. For instance, information about the location and density of certain types of stores (such as fashion boutiques or antique shops), and may lead to inferences about the existence and character of other stores in that particular sub-area.

In a strict sense, the term cognitive mapping is somewhat misleading but is used because of its widespread employment in environmental psychology, geography and other disciplines involved in the study of environmental behavior. Recognizing the potential for confusion, theorists have made an effort to point out that affective and conative influences impact on the cognitive mapping process and on interpretations of cognitive maps (Downs and Stea 1973; Kaplan 1973). While considerable research interest has been devoted to the nature and function of cognitive maps (Stokols 1978; Moore 1979), with few exceptions (Mazze 1974; Mackay and Olshavsky 1975; Mittelstaedt, Grossbart and Curtis 1977) these subjects have received little attention in the field of consumer behavior. Consequently, it is hardly surprising that there has been limited recognition of the likelihood that shopping behavior, like other forms of spatial behavior, is a function of persons' cognitive maps of the spatial environment. Similarly, and of more immediate concern, there has been little acknowledgement of the influence of cognitive maps on different dimensions of retail images, such as those relating to convenience. These assertions develop from a perspective which suggests that shopping areas should be treated as places rather than objects (Mittelstaedt, Grossbart and Curtis 1977; Cancer 1977).

As a place, the downtown represents a large scale surface whose complexity is a function of the number, frequency and distribution of information categories which are presented to customers. The physical and functional features of retail establishments are neither ubiquitous nor are they uniformly distributed -- they have instead locations on the surface. In every sense the area engulfs customers whose limited mobility, sensory capability, information processing ability, storage capacity and available time require them to develop simplified abstractions of the downtown. Individuals interact with the downtown in a distinctive and selective manner and with each transaction learning is likely to occur (Rosenberg 1965-66; Fatouros 1968). Mapping of the downtown occurs, in part, as customers receive imperfect multisensory information (Mehrabian and Russel 1974; Grossbart, Amedeo and Chinchen 1979; Downs and Stea 1977) from an uncertain and changing retail environment. Since shopping occurs at different times and varies in duration, the direct acquisition of information for mapping takes place over varying times and intervals.

From the diversity of direct experience, the vicariously related information and inferences, customers aggregate limited and imperfect impressions to form comprehensible representations of the downtown. The product of this process, the cognitive map, has been described as a network (Kaplan 1973) of organized beliefs (Downs and Stea 1973) about a large scale environment. The absence of a map, or, of certain stores within the map, may necessitate a series of personal inquiries, checking of printed information (e.g., the Yellow Pages), and/or the expenditure of the additional time and effort involved in search. In contrast, the existence of cognitive maps serve a variety of purposes. Maps allow customers to find things (e.g., merchandise, stores, sales, restaurants, etc.) as well as people (e.g., favored salespersons, providers of specific services, etc.) by providing indications of direction and distance. They also allow customers to gain an impression of where they are within the area and thus predict the stores, merchandise and activities which will be encountered as they move in different directions. As a result this network of beliefs can provide a basis for evaluating the consequences of various shopping behaviors (e.g., coming to the area, choosing routes for multipurpose trips, visiting certain stores, finding certain merchandise or services, etc.) Thus references to cognitive maps and consequent evaluation of maps allow customers to make a variety of shopping decisions.


Customer convenience has long been recognized as having an important influence on shoppers' evaluations of stores and shopping areas (Kelley 1958; Cox 1959; Downs 1961; Bender 1964). As a shopping cost, inconvenience has been identified as an economic and psychological expenditure and source of frustration and annoyance which is both traded-off with the price of goods and services and added to them to form the total price paid by customers (Crafton 1979). Given the acknowledged role of convenience in influencing customer decision making (Hark in 1977), it is not surprising to find theoretical and empirical support for the inclusion of convenience as one of the evaluative criteria composing retail images (for a review, see Lindquist 1974-75). Beliefs regarding customer convenience have been shown to differ when retailer and customer perceptions are compared (Pathak, Crissy and Sweitzer 1974-75) and have been identified as being dependent on a set of largely unknown factors of spatial cognition and urban forte (Downs 1970).

A review of the literature indicates support for the existence of five forms of shopping convenience. The most well known form is travel convenience, i.e., the perceived ease of making a trip to a shopping area (Kelley 1958; Downs 1961; Bender 1964; Rich and Portis 1964; Kunkel and Berry 1968). Parking convenience (Kelley 1958; Downs 1961; Rich and Portis 1964; Kelly and Stephenson 1967; Kunkel and Berry 1968; Downs 1970; Lindquist 1974-75) is frequently mentioned in discussions comparing the competitive strengths of downtowns and outlying shopping centers. Customer movement convenience (Cox 1959; Downs 1961; Kunkel and Berry 1968; Downs 1970) involves the ease of movement between stores while shopping. Aggregate convenience is a term used by Cox (1959, also see Bender 1964) to refer to the ease with which consumers come into physical contact in succession with a large variety of goods and services. Properly aggregated, clusters of goods and services follow the principle of efficient congestion by concentrating retailing offerings while avoiding dysfunctional traffic and congestion. Finally, merchandise display convenience (Cox 1959; Bender 1964; Rich and Portis 1964) provides customers with necessary cues which minimize undesirable search by enabling shoppers to locate merchandise for comparison, inspection or purchase. The minimization of undesirable search can be a critical factor in shopping since customers are likely to engage in more product evaluation when shopping effort is perceived as low (Harrell and Mutt 1976).


Given the selective spatial character of shopping behavior and the limitations inherent in customers' mapping capabilities, three pertinent characteristics should be evident in cognitive maps of the downtown. These maps are likely to be more selective and therefore less extensive than retailer-defined definitions of the area. Second, within the cognitively defined boundaries of the area, maps are likely to be incomplete in that the identity, function and locations of all stores will not be represented. Finally, imperfect encoding of available sensory information, incorrect and misinterpreted vicarious information, and erroneous inferential augmentation and elaboration are likely to result in cognitive mapping errors. Of course, it would be naive to expect shopping behavior to be totally confined or limited by material included in cognitive maps. While there is sufficient evidence to suggest that map accuracy does vary among individuals (Stokols 1978; Moore 1979), the "goodness" of a cognitive map is best judged in terms of its usefulness as a guide to its possessor rather than in terms of its accuracy or detail (Kaplan 1973). Shoppers can, after all, supplement mapped information or correct misinformation by inquiry, search or trial and error. Prior to such supplementation or correction, however, they are likely to form beliefs about shopping convenience based on their beliefs regarding the identities, functions or offerings, and spatial distribution of retail facilities in the downtown. As they shop, they may supplement or correct their maps or even find desired facilities, merchandise or locations without altering their maps. Any of these acts, however, are likely to involve added effort and therefore decrease the perceived convenience of shopping.

Previous comments refer to general relations between mapped retail information and perceived convenience. Expectations for specific relationships are presented in Table 1. Absolute identity level refers to the number of correctly named and located facilities in a cognitive map while relative identity level refers to the proportion of correctly named and located facilities. Absolute and relative functional level have a similar meaning but refer to knowledge of the nature, predominant offerings, or activity of mapped establishments. The five forms of shopping convenience have been defined earlier.



Identity and functional levels of maps should influence beliefs regarding travel convenience in two respects. As the absolute knowledge of identity and function increases, the general attractiveness of the area and the perceived convenience of making a shopping trip should also tend to increase. As relative knowledge of function and identity increase, there should be less probability of customers confusion and frustration during shopping trips, less perceived effort in shopping downtown and a consequent increase in perceived travel convenience.

Relative levels of identity and functional knowledge are associated with parking and customer movement convenience. As the proportion of correctly mapped retail information increases, customers are likely to be able to better plan their spatial movements and parking activities. Conversely, parking convenience is likely to decrease if customers' limited relative knowledge of the locations of facilities and functions leads them to make less efficient parking decisions. Likewise, decreasing relative knowledge of identities and functions is likely to lead to increasing customer confusion and frustration and/or increased shopping efforts to locate stores, merchandise or services. Thus perceived ease of movement should tend to covary with both types of relative knowledge.

Absolute levels of identity and functional knowledge are expected to be related to perceived aggregate convenience. Under normal circumstances, increasing knowledge of facilities and their offerings should lead customers to infer the existence of a vide range of goods and service offerings in the downtown.

Finally, all four map characteristics should be related to beliefs regarding display convenience. As the absolute and relative knowledge of the identity and function of retail sites within the downtown increases, customers should be expected to have a clearer conception of a wider range of offerings, be less confused about the spatial distribution of available goods in the area and, therefore, be less dependent on display cues for this information. In contrast, those whose cognitive maps possess lower levels of knowledge should tend to rely more on display cues to supplement and correct mapped information. In the process they are likely to expend greater effort in utilizing display information. Consequently, customers who possess greater levels of knowledge and therefore place less frequent reliance on display cues should judge them to be easier to use than shoppers whose lack of knowledge leads them to substitute display cues for incomplete and incorrect mapped information.



This study dealt with the downtown area of a small mid-western city. The city's well established downtown retail base had operated successfully for years but it currently faces competition from outlying shopping centers. In recent years some downtown retailers have chosen to relocate in these shopping centers or move elsewhere.

Retailer Definition of Downtown

Interviews with representatives of the trade council and Chamber of Commerce provided information concerning the characteristics of downtown shoppers and a geographic definition of the shopping area in terms of the center and boundaries (i.e., the extent). Following these delineations an audit was done to ascertain the names, locations and functions of all facilities in and immediately surrounding the defined area. Using this information, two maps were prepared. The first was a base map shoving possible streets and blocks that might be included in the downtown. The second was a reference map which indicated the names, functions and locations of facilities in addition to the information provided in the base map.


Prior market research indicated that the downtown's primary trade area included customers within a sixty mile radius of the city. Based on earlier estimates of the proportion of shoppers residing in different parts of the trade area, a geographically stratified sample of fifty-one adults was drawn from within the community and four other randomly selected areas within fifteen, thirty, forty-five and sixty miles of the city. Persons within these five designated areas were randomly selected and contacted by telephone to arrange in-home interviews. Respondents included adults who shopped in the downtown in the last year, lived at least two years in the trade area (thus affording them the opportunity to learn about the downtown), and were members of households in which no person had been employed by a downtown establishment. The refusal rate among those who met the stated criteria was approximately ten percent and a check of respondent profiles indicated a sample which was representative of downtown shoppers.


In addition to screening questions, which ensured that respondents met the criteria for inclusion in the sample, and demographic items to allow estimates of the sample's representativeness, the instrumentation was divided into two parts.

Scales.  The first part contained a set of self-administered scales measuring convenience beliefs, shopping evaluation and shopping frequency. Statements regarding the convenience of traveling to the downtown to go shopping, finding convenient parking, the convenience of getting from one store to another, finding a variety of goods and services, and displays making it easy to see the goods and service offerings were ordered in a randomized manner. Each statement was accompanied by a seven-point scale (ranging from very unlikely to very likely) indicating the likelihood that the statement was true. Overall evaluation of shopping was measured in terms of a seven-point scale (ranging from very pleasant to very unpleasant) indicating the pleasantness of shopping downtown. Average monthly shopping frequency was also recorded.

Mapping Task.  Part two contained the base map. Respondents mapping task initially consisted of drawing a line indicating the boundaries of the shopping area and placing an "X" at the intersection which they considered to be the center of the downtown. The last phase of mapping involved respondents description of what they believed to be on each blockside within the downtown in terms of name, function and location of places. The task represented a variation of the previously employed sketch map procedure (Lynch 1960; Downs and Stea 1977; Mittelstaedt et. al. 1977; Holahan and Dobrowolny 1978), which has been suggested as the most appropriate method of measuring cognitive maps (Jackle, Brunn and Roseman 1976).

The entire instrument was pretested prior to employment. The interviewer also recorded any comments made by respondents and, as a further precaution, began and ended each interview asking respondents to indicate their general thoughts about the downtown. Interviews averaged eighty minutes in length.

Coding and Analysis

Preliminary coding of maps involved recording the extent of the defined area (number of blocksides), the number of facilities included and the perceived center of the area. Next, each facility located on a respondent's map was compared to the corresponding site on the reference map and coded in terms of whether or not the identification and indicated function were correct. Incomplete responses, i.e., those which mentioned only a facility's name or function or indicated that either was "unknown," were coded as incorrect with respect to the omitted or unknown information. Correctly identified facilities were counted to form the absolute identity level score for each map. Similarly, the correctly designated functions were counted to form the absolute functional level score. Relative identity and functional levels were computed, respectively, by dividing the number of correctly identified facilities and the number of correctly designated functions by the total number of perceived facilities.

The analysis was designed to reaffirm the general salience of convenience in customer evaluation and behavior and the selectivity of customer cognitive mapping prior to testing the expected associations between convenience beliefs and map characteristics. Analysis focused first on the correlation between beliefs regarding different forms of shopping convenience and overall evaluation of shopping and shopping frequency. Significant, although not necessarily high, correlations were expected to reaffirm the general salience of convenience beliefs. A map summarizing customer definition of the area and the spatial distribution of perceived activity was then prepared. Next, retailer definition of the downtown was compared with cognitive map definitions in terms of extent, contents and perceived center. Finally the correlations between map characteristics and forms of shopping convenience were examined and compared to the expected pattern in Table 1. The nature of the analysis in this exploratory research was deemed to be appropriate prior to future multivariate investigations of the relationships.


Respondents' comments before and after each interview made it clear that they were not unduly sensitized by the instrument, had not found it difficult to understand or follow instructions, and had not deduced the purpose of the study. Prior to the presentation of scales, when asked about their general thoughts regarding the downtown, almost all respondents made unaided references to multiple forms of shopping convenience.

Convenience, Overall Evaluation and Shopping Behavior

Beliefs regarding the five forms of shopping convenience were examined for their assumed relationships with customer evaluation and frequency of shopping downtown. Given other goods and service mix attributes (price, quality, etc.) which may influence shopping evaluation and behavior, it would be unreasonable to envisage extremely high correlations. However, it would be logical to expect more association between beliefs regarding convenience and evaluation of shopping experiences than with shopping frequency because of the number of additional variables, such as situational factors, which may influence shopping frequency. Results are presented in Table 2. All five forms of convenience are significantly related to overall evaluation of shopping downtown. As might be expected, beliefs concerning travel convenience have a lower correlation with evaluation than beliefs regarding other forms of convenience, which refer in a more direct sense to the experience of shopping in the area. Beliefs regarding each form of shopping convenience are also associated with customers' frequency of shopping downtown. In general, assumptions about the role of convenience related beliefs were substantiated.



Retailer Versus Customer Definitions of Downtown

The selective nature of cognitive maps is reflected in the summary map in Figure 1 which presents the percentage of respondents perceiving activities on each blockside in the downtown area. This summary map does not indicate the identity or functional level of customer maps; it merely shows the degree of general definition of perceived activities on the illustrated blocksides. The amount of general definition on blocksides along the edges of the map is either nonexistent or very low. The sub-area with the highest degree of definition is along 3rd Street bounded by Walnut and Locust. Moving out from this sub-area, the degree of definition declines slowly initially and then rapidly in all directions. From this summary map it is apparent that the downtown is perceived by customers as having a central core surrounded by increasingly declining activity (for further discussion of this phenomenon, see Mittelstaedt, Grossbart and Curtis 1977). While the summary map includes all blocksides on which customers perceived activities, it is actually somewhat smaller than the definition of the area provided by retailers. Retailers defined the downtown as extending over 280 blocksides, containing 311 facilities and having a center located at 3rd and Locust. An analysis of customer versus retail definitions of the area revealed that: (1) the ratio of the mean extent of customer maps to retailer defined extent was .28, (2) the ratio of the mean number of facilities perceived by customers to number defined by retailers was .16 and (3) thirty-seven percent of customers perceived the center of the downtown to be located at the intersection designated by retailers. Thus, on the average, customers defined the downtown as covering twenty-eight percent of the area as defined by retailers and containing sixteen percent of retailer-defined facilities while almost two-thirds of customers regarded the center of the downtown as being somewhere other than that indicated by retailers.

Map Characteristics and Beliefs Regarding Convenience

Correlations between map characteristics and beliefs regarding shopping convenience are presented in Table 3. The expected pattern of associations may be found in Table 1. Three of four predicted associations between map characteristics and beliefs concerning travel convenience are significant. All cognitive map measures, rather than just the two relative measures, are related to beliefs regarding parking convenience. The expected pattern of results are present for beliefs about customer movement, aggregate and display convenience. In the case of aggregate convenience, however, the relationships are inverse rather than direct. Comments before (by 50 percent of the sample) and after (by 79 percent) the structured portion of the interview made reference to downtown stores relocating elsewhere and thereby reducing the mix of available goods and services. It may be that general awareness of a diminution of the retail base coupled with absolute knowledge of the identity and functions of downtown establishments leads shoppers to believe that there is less likelihood of being provided with aggregate convenience.


In general, the results are consistent with predicted outcomes and the underlying rationalization regarding the function of cognitive maps in shopping. Nevertheless, simple correlations do not provide indications of causality. Further research in other cities with larger sampler appears Justified. As such investigations are conducted it will be possible to develop and test a multivariate causal model of cognitive sapping, shopping convenience and customer behavior. Still, the present findings underscore the potential usefulness of cognitive napping theory and techniques to study customer beliefs about shopping areas. Moreover, they raise a fundamental question concerning whether the provision of more adequate retail information to shoppers might not alter their beliefs about convenience and, therefore, be a more efficient alternative than costly physical changes in downtown areas. While information may be only a partial substitute for alteration, its potential use certainly merits further study and experimentation.






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