Time and Consumer Behavior

Wesley J. Johnston, The Ohio State University
ABSTRACT - The use and expenditure of time is inextricably linked to consumer behavior. As Jacoby et. al (1977) point out "Acquisition and consumption of both products and information regarding products are not cross-sectional events of short and unvarying duration." It has even been proposed that time may be the most important variable in consumer behavior (Nicosia and Mayer 1976). Our state of knowledge, however, finds us caught in an interesting anomaly. On the one side, the time dimension of consumer behavior is viewed as just beginning to emerge as a major variable of study, as three articles reviewed here indicate. On the other side, however, time has been implicitly and explicitly incorporated into consumer behavior theory and marketing strategies for quite some time. This article first reviews the history of the incorporation of time into consumer behavior theory and marketing strategies and then reviews the three articles concerned with "Perception of Time and Consumer Behavior".
[ to cite ]:
Wesley J. Johnston (1981) ,"Time and Consumer Behavior", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 192-194.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 192-194


Wesley J. Johnston, The Ohio State University


The use and expenditure of time is inextricably linked to consumer behavior. As Jacoby et. al (1977) point out "Acquisition and consumption of both products and information regarding products are not cross-sectional events of short and unvarying duration." It has even been proposed that time may be the most important variable in consumer behavior (Nicosia and Mayer 1976). Our state of knowledge, however, finds us caught in an interesting anomaly. On the one side, the time dimension of consumer behavior is viewed as just beginning to emerge as a major variable of study, as three articles reviewed here indicate. On the other side, however, time has been implicitly and explicitly incorporated into consumer behavior theory and marketing strategies for quite some time. This article first reviews the history of the incorporation of time into consumer behavior theory and marketing strategies and then reviews the three articles concerned with "Perception of Time and Consumer Behavior".


The treatment of time as a variable of importance in understanding consumer behavior has been accelerating. It is almost as if the fact that time exists and must affect consumer behavior has just been "discovered". Perhaps this is part of a larger awakening to the pervasiveness of time. As Voss and Blackwell (1979) note: "The importance of time in all aspects of American life has become a recurrent theme in the academic literature of the seventies. Interest has been cross-disciplinary."

The explicit treatment of time as a variable in consumer behavior has been sporadic. However, the implicit treatment of time has a much broader base. Many aspects of consumer behavior change over time: attitudes, perceptions, motives and values, lifestyles, and the political, cultural, technological environment. Most of the marketing literature has been directed at understanding what causes these changes and not the amount of time necessary for such changes to take place or the rate at which such changes occur. In addition to time's implicit involvement in consumer behavior, many consumer behavior concepts are explicitly dependent upon the use of a time dimension. Brand loyalty, for instance, is often operationalized as purchase patterns over time. Tile product life cycle examines distinct stages in the sales of a product over time. Concepts in innovation diffusion are also heavily dependent upon time. In the consumer adoption process, the consumer is seen as going through a series of stages of acceptance in adapting a new product and adopter categorization is made on the basis of relative time of adoption (i.e., innovators vs. laggards). Advertising wearout needs time to occur. Convenience shopping and specialty goods are classified according to the time and effort expanded in their acquisition.

Most models of consumer behavior, especially those of an information processing type, consider a time element. Kotler (1972) in a "logical" model of buyer behavior depicts the buyer as problem solver deciding on product, brand style ... time, price, and way to pay. The Howard and Sheth (1968) theory of buyer behavior focuses on the task of explaining brand-choice behavior over time rather than purchase frequency or purchase quantity. Bettman's (1979) information processing theory of consumer choice not only depicts consumer behavior occurring over time but explicitly acknowledges the effects time pressure can have on information processing and choice. Linear learning and Markov models of brand choice also incorporate a time factor.

It can be seen that time is integrally involved in consumer behavior and has been both implicitly and explicitly integrated in many models and concepts. Thus, "Acquisition and consumption of both products and information regarding products ...are dynamic processes that occur over time and that may involve different spans of time from one occasion and one individual to another (Jacoby, et. al. 1977)." The understanding of how the time dimension affects consumer behavior can lead to improved strategies for marketers.

Marketing managers are basically involved in decisions of two types: market segmentation and marketing/mix formulation. An understanding of the time dimension as it affects consumer behavior can improve decisions of both types. Changes in consumer segments over time have been clearly established by research in marketing. These include changes in consumer demographics, benefits sought by segments and perceptual spaces for products.

Engel et. al. (1978) provide a discussion of changes in consumer demographics and how these will affect the markets for goods and services. The two most obvious are the dramatic age changes in the population (increases in the over 65 geriatric market and 25-34 baby boom primary home buyers market and decrease in the teenage market) and the divorce, separation tendency creating many single parent households. These demographic trends translate to many new opportunities for marketers as well as the need to change current offerings.

Calontone and Sawyer (1978) discovered that while market segments defined by relative importance of product attributes (benefit segments) remained relatively stable in size, individual households changed segments frequently. This research was conducted over a two year time period. They concluded by indicating the need for more longitudinal research to monitor the benefits sought by individual consumers to help explain why and how such changes occur.

Moinpour et. al. (1976) employed multidimensional scaling techniques in a longitudinal experiment as an approach to investigate attitude processes. The study demonstrated that MDS techniques were appropriate for monitoring dynamic changes in perception caused by persuasive communications over time. Differential impact of message characteristics were also noted. The fact that perception changes over time could have perhaps been taken for granted but discovering a way to measure those changes, was an important contribution to understanding consumer behavior and aiding marketing management.

As the understanding of the influence of time on consumer behavior improves, the ability to incorporate this dimension into the modeling of market response models will increase. The purpose of a market response model is to relate sales or market share of a firm to its advertising, price, promotion, distribution and/or other decision variables. Several studies currently exist which lead the way to the incorporation of time into marketing mix strategies.

Mickwitz (1959) discovered that advertising elasticity was highest at the growth stage of a product due to the need to create increased product awareness and lowest during maturity. Elasticities increased slightly through the saturation and decline stages of the product life cycle. Mickwitz also believed time-varying elasticities would exist for price, service, product quality, and packaging.

Voss and Blackwell (1979) hypothesize that as the value of time changes and the desire for more intensive time experiences increases, new product opportunities will develop especially among consumers with a serious leisure time scarcity. Those seeking physical fitness through recreation may switch from golf, a heavy time-investment sport, to tennis or racquetball. Thus, product or service redesign may be needed as time value changes. Voss and Blackwell also indicate the need for convenience or "time-saving" products. Appliances, such as microwave ovens and dishwashers, and services, such as lawn care, may be experiencing rapid growths in sales as a result of consumers buying increased discretionary time.

Mahajan et. al. (1980) demonstrate the need for feedback approaches to develop self-adaptive market response models. They indicate that the notion of market response varying over time was not new and actually well grounded in marketing literature. Their approach provides time-varying coefficients of advertising retention using Lydia E. Pinkham data. They conclude by noting that the use of such popular approaches of parameter estimation as least squares, Box-Jenkins, and other econometric techniques assume stability of coefficients over time and this may lead to a market response model insensitive to the reality of market conditions.


[This section contains some comments made by anonymous reviewers as well as my own.]

This section deals with the three articles presented in the session on the perception of time and consumer behavior. The article by McCullough, MacLachlan and Moinpour, "Temporal Links Between Preference and Perceptions" provides the only treatment of time from a longitudinal perspective of the three papers examined here. As such, I feel it examines the "main" effects of time on consumer behavior. The study shows that INDSCAL (Carroll and Chang 1970) and LINMAP (Srinivasan and Shocker L973) can be used to jointly analyze preferences and perceptions and, as the authors argue, the results appear to be stable over time. This perception on the part of the authors is questionable, however. Do correlations in the range of .6 -.7 truly show stability over time? One could argue just the opposite, especially since the interval between retesting does not permit much in the way of relevant intervening experience to occur. This position could perhaps be strengthened by citing generally acceptable levels of reliability in test-retest results at a one week interval. Another issue here is that the authors seem to feel inclusion of the brand "Ipana" reduced the stability observed in their analysis. Would it not be possible to delete this brand and rerun the experiment? The authors may then have support for their statement that selection of stimuli can affect reliability. A more general criticism of this paper deals with the somewhat mechanical approach to the problem and the reporting of the results. The inability in control for the respondents' prior familiarity with the brands is a problem. The explanation given for the choice of toothpaste as the product category is only that this was the same as used in a previous study. While this may be valid because of the attempt to extend the earlier study, why not indicate the reason for choosing toothpaste as reported in the original study? Two additional brands were added to this study and in my opinion one should have been deleted. The authors report the "Ipana" is not marketed in the area where the study was conducted. Another important aspect of the paper is the use of CMATCH. This is a conservative procedure since rotation of the two spaces to maximal congruence precedes computation of correlational and proximity measures. CMATCH also uses two measures of congruence for reasons which are appropriate in calculating relationships between utilities and attribute weights.

Overall, this paper does accomplish its objectives of linking preference and perception temporally and provides direction for continued research in that direction. The authors are to be commended for this pioneering work.

The article by Hendrix and Martin, "Temporal Incongruency in Consumer Behavior" provides an interesting concept that can perhaps explain some of the variance in consumer behavior. Temporal incongruency, unfortunately, seems to be an unavoidable fact of life. While temporal incongruency can be improved for some situations such as cooking by the use of microwave ovens, instant foods, or fast food restaurants for those who want to spend less time on this activity, and by gourmet cookbooks, classes on cook-ins at universities, and all original ingredients for those who want to spend more time cooking, some activities still seem to resist temporal improvement; education is one example. The data analysis presented here is exploratory and indicates that further work needs to be done in modeling the relationship between time spent on and enjoyment derived from an activity. One problem that exists here is the ability of some individuals to be multi-phasic. The ability to do two or more things at one time such as drive to work and listen to the radio, watch television and write letters or balance the check book, ride the bus to school and do one's homework. Some people are capable of accomplishing three, four or even more activities at the same time. Modeling time incongruency for this type of individual presents several problems:

- A time budget will overstate the amount of time of activity for a multi-phasic person.

- How does one measure time per activity when two or more activities are carried on at the same time?

- Perhaps time incongruency - performing an activity longer than one wants to - leads to multi-phasic behavior in order to reduce mental attention to the incongruent activity.

A problem seems to exist in this article with respect to interpretation of some of the data. On page 3 the authors note that 58% of the sample falls in cells not on the main diagonal of Table 1 and this suggests the presence of temporal incongruency. "Nearly 28% (above the main diagonal) appear to be spending less time than preferred, while 30% (below the main diagonal) appears to be spending more time than preferred." It would seem that what is really the case is that only those respondents who found enjoyment of meal preparation to be "neutral" are temporally congruent, while those who found meal preparation to be less or more enjoyable regardless of the minutes/week spent in the activity are temporally incongruent. On page 4 the authors state "respondents who are spending less time cooking than desired may continue to demand time-intensive foods and modes of preparation and ignore time saving goods and services." Fully employed, single women fall into this category per the data analysis; however, do fully employed single women demand time-intensive food or are they a prime market for microwave ovens? Why this incongruity exists is not clear. Perhaps because there is a weak relationship between time spent on cooking and enjoyment. Enjoyment does not appear to be a good surrogate for time one would like to spend on cooking. Because of this weak relationship the results could be the same for analysis using standard AID techniques, rather than AID covariates. Another possibility would be the use of standard regression analysis using dummy variables for the 8 segments identified. While the AID covariate analysis searches for intercept dummy variables, it might be interesting to look for slope dummy variables. I agree with the authors' concluding comment "... this discussion of the concept of temporally incongruency will stimulate research ..." The authors are to be commended for the early development and examination of this concept.

The final article reviewed here by Holman, "The Imagination of the Future: A Hidden Concept in the Study of Consumer Decision Making" provides a valuable review of a concept that could perhaps play a role in gaining greater understanding of consumer behavior. As the author points out, research on time has focused mainly on the allocation process. A consumer's imagination of and orientation toward the future could have significant impact on buying behavior. While the author provides no empirical results toward this end, she does raise a number of interesting questions at the end of the article. Another problem, as the author indicates, is the lack of an instrument to operationalize the concept of future imagery. Perhaps if the author's literature review had been broadened to include industrial buying behavior and marketing management this problem would have been somewhat diminished. Long range forecasting and strategic planning techniques are methodologies used by organizations to operationalize the future imagery of the market place for their goods and services. Perhaps these or similar processes operate within individuals when they consider and plan for the future. Obviously, the process within individuals is not as overt or attempted to be rational but parallels may exist. The fact that differences exist within individuals concerning belief in conceptualization of the future presents interesting problems for consumer behavior researchers with respect to measurement of and prediction from behavioral intentions. Behavioral intentions must interact with future imagery. The author could have gone further in drawing out the possible ramifications of this interaction and what might be done to control for it. The author is to be commended for her effort in bringing together literature of a highly interdisciplinary nature and demonstrating its potential to impact upon the understanding of consumer behavior. I hope that the author will follow this probe into the imagination of the future by developing an instrument to operationalize the concept of future imagery and providing some empirical results.


The consumer behavior and marketing literature has included both implicit and explicit treatment of the time dimension in concepts, models, and managerial decision making studies. However, this treatment has been sporadic and has lacked coordination. Studying the effects of time on consumer behavior from a cross-sectional perspective such as perception of the future and feelings of temporal in-congruency provide some increases in knowledge of consumer behavior but seem to avoid the main effect of time' on consumer behavior. More longitudinal studies are required for understanding and better measurement of changes in consumer behavior over time.


Bettman, J. R. (1979), An Information Processing Theory of Consumer Choice, Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Calontone, R. J. and Sawyer, A. G. (2980), "The Stability of Benefit Segments," Journal of Marketing Research, August, 395-404.

Carroll, J. D. and Chang, J. J. (1970), "Analysis of Individual Differences in Multidimensional Scaling via N-way Generalization of 'Eckart-Young' Decomposition," Psychometrika, 35, 287-319.

Engel, James, Blackwell, R. D. and Kollat, D. T. (1978), Consumer Behavior, 3rd edition, Hinsdale, Illinois: Dryden Press.

Howard, John A. and Sheth, J. N. (1969), The Theory of Buyer Behavior, New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Jacoby, J., Szybillo, C. J., and Berning, C. K. (1977), "Time and Consumer Behavior: An Interdisciplinary Overview," Selected Aspects of Consumer Behavior, National Science Foundation.

Kotler, Philip (1972), Marketing Management: Analysis, Planning, and Control, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, Inc.

Mahajan, V., Bretschneider, S. I. and Bradford, J. W. (1980), "Feedback Approaches to Modeling Structural Shifts in Market Response," Journal of Marketing, Winter, 71-80.

Mickwitz, G. (1959), Marketing and Competition, Helsingfors, Finland: Centraltryckeriet.

Moinpour, R., McCullough, J. M., and MacLachlan, D. (1976), "Time Changes in Perception: A Longitudinal Application of Multidimensional Scaling," Journal of Marketing Research, August, 245-253.

Nicosia, F. M. and Mayer, R.N. (1976), "Toward a Sociology of Consumption," Journal of Consumer Research, 65-76.

Srinivasan, V. and Shocker, A. D. (1973), "Estimating the Weights for Multiple Attributes in a Composite Criterion Using Pairwise Judgments," Psychometrika, 28, 473-493.

Voss, J., Blackwell, R. D. (1979), "The Role of Time Resources in Consumer Behavior," Proceedings, Second Annual Marketing Theory Conference.