A Theoretical and Empirical Study of Retail Crowding

ABSTRACT - The analysis of the personBenvironment is proposed to understand density influences in retail setting. This approach is based on appraisals of the significance of the personBenvironment relationships. It incorporates the different theories proposed to account for crowding development and facilitates the development of a more elaborate and involved model.


Delphine Dion (1999) ,"A Theoretical and Empirical Study of Retail Crowding", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, eds. Bernard Dubois, Tina M. Lowrey, and L. J. Shrum, Marc Vanhuele, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 51-57.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4, 1999      Pages 51-57


Delphine Dion, Rennes University, France


The analysis of the personBenvironment is proposed to understand density influences in retail setting. This approach is based on appraisals of the significance of the personBenvironment relationships. It incorporates the different theories proposed to account for crowding development and facilitates the development of a more elaborate and involved model.

Results of an empirical research identify density influences on consumers and confirm the processes underlying crowdingBrelated phenomena.

One of the most important recent advances in consumer research is recognition that, in some cases, the place or more specifically its atmosphere, is more influential than the product or the ervice itself in the purchase decision (Kotler, 1974). Yet, the academic literature regarding the impact of various atmospheric elements (music, color, odor, crowd, etc.) is still rather sparse. Consequently, decisions to use atmospherics factors have generally been based more on intuition and beliefs. Concerning crowd, this is most unfortunate because we are facing an atmospheric variable that is not easily understood and controlled by management. Indeed, some crowded situations are exciting and inviting, others are threatening and foreboding. How can managers face this dilemma?

There has been a long history of interest in the effects of crowding on human health and behavior (Epstein, 1981). Marketing research documenting the effects of crowding is limited. Studies indicate that consumers are less satisfied in a crowded store (Eroglu and Machleit, 1990; Cimbalo and Mousaw, 1975), more stressed and tensed (SibTril, 1994; Langer and Saegert, 1977). Satisfaction with the store, with purchased products and with the whole shopping experience is affected by the density conditions. (Eroglu and Machleit, 1993; Harrell, Hutt and Anderson, 1980). In a crowded store, buyers deviate from their planned shopping time (Harrell, Hutt and Anderson, 1980). Decision processes take more time (Langer and Saegert, 1977). Shoppers do not fulfill their purchase plan (SibTril, 1994).

However, many issues ought to be discussed: differences between social and spatial dimensions of density, multidimensionality of the crowding concept, buyers’ responses in a crowded store, mediating variables, and the crowding process.

This research is designed to explore consumer behavior under conditions of crowding. After a brief overview of fundamental theoretical concepts about crowding in general, a more specific inBstore buyers’ behavior under crowding conditions is described and the empirical researchBinvolving 585 shoppersBis reported.


A number of different theories have been proposed to account for crowding phenomena: cognitive overload (Eroglu and Harrell, 1986), arousal (Worchel and Teddlie, 1976), behavioral constraints (Stokols, 1976), perceived control (Hui and Bateson, 1991), etc. All approaches have something to contribute to an understanding of crowding. However, it is not possible to point to one theory as reflecting most accurately all of the process underlying the broad range of crowdingBrelated phenomena. Yet, a number of difficulties remains (Dion, 1998).

First, crowding concept is not well defined. Two measures have been used interchangeably. One assesses how crowded people feel ("How crowded do you feel?"), and the other assesses how crowded people rate the environment ("How crowded is this room?"). It is important to differentiate between these two crowding measures, since people may rate a setting as crowded but not describe themselves as feeling crowded (Kalb et Keating, 1981). Furthermore, implicit in each theoretical approach is the assumption that crowding consists of a unitary experiential condition. It is unlikely that the different density situations cumulate in a single crowding experience (Machleit, Kellaris and Eroglu, 1994).

Second, all approaches assimilate density to a stimulus and subjects to passive receptors. A better model would envision more than a person simply reacting to an environment.

Third, models are linear and static. They do not account for the existence of retroactive and parallel processes.

Fourth, a major underlying theme in many of the theoretical perspectives of crowding has been the degree to which crowding affects actual or erceived control of the individual over the environment (Baum et Paulus, 1987). Given this consistency, it is surprising to note the heterogeneity among the constructs researchers use to describe control. Lack of clarity about the construct has been costly to the study of crowding in theoretical, empirical and practical terms.

In order to incorporate the different theories that are proposed to account for crowding phenomena, we have developed a more elaborate and involved model based on the personBenvironment relationships analysis. This approach is relational and process oriented (Folkman, 1984).

The relational characteristic is evident in the definition of crowding as a relationship between the person and the environment. Indeed, a fundamental idea of a relational theory of crowding is that we cannot understand it solely from the standpoint of the person or of the environment. Crowding must be viewed in the particular personBenvironment relationship in which it is embedded. It depends on the meaning of the situation as related to the individual (Dion, 1999). Within this theoretical formulation, crowding is determined by two appraisal processes (Figure 1): primary evaluation which deals with whether something of relevance to a person’s wellBbeing has occurred or not, and secondary evaluation which concerns perceived control over the situation.

Primary and secondary appraisal converge to shape crowding feelings. Different cognitive and behavioral efforts are developed in order to adjust the situation. Cognitive coping strategies change only the way in which the relationship is attended to or interpreted (psychologically withdrawing, humor, etc.). ProblemBfocused copings modify the actual situation (avoidance, aggressiveness, etc.). This process is shaped by an array of persons and situation factors:

* commitments (importance of goal and compatibility with density),

* beliefs (locus of control and causal attribution),

* informational, decisional and behavioral control (store familiarity, density anticipated, crowding information, temporal constraints, store choice and shopping hour choice).

The process orientation means that the personBenvironment relationship is always changing, along with the crowding sensations it generates.

To test this model, a study involving interviews with 585 subjects was undertaken.




Research design

The study was conducted in a mediumBsize hypermarket operated by a large, nationally known chain. The store is located in a French city with a population of approximately 70,000. The store’s patrons are predominantly middleBclass. The study covered a sevenBweek period starting on February 27 and ending onApril 11, 1998. All data were collected exclusively during rush hours (on Fridays afternoon and on Saturdays). Density was statistically constant over the testBperiod. Every 16th minute, a shopper was intercepted before entering the check stand and asked to respond to a brief questionnaire as part of a university’s research project. After completing the questionnaire, the respondent was thanked. Approximately, fifteen percent of the persons declined to be interviewed. The final sample consisted of 300 customers.


Prior to the study three experimental studies were conducted in order to aid the development of measures corresponding to the theoretical base and to the actual purchase situation. They provided qualitative and quantitative insights into buyer’s perceptions of retail density, shoppers goals, crowding and coping.

First, a field study was conducted to explore inBstore shopping behavior. Interviews occurred over a oneBweek period with approximately the same amount of interviews on weekends and weekdays. As the individuals were about to depart, they were intercepted and deeply interviewed about whether they prefer shopping on weekdays and their reactions in a crowded store.

Next, a laboratory experiment using videotapes was conducted. Ten 4Bminutes video sequences were taken in a crowded hypermarket. A group of four judges selected the more crowded sequence. Fifty volunteers were recruited from a management class at the University of Rennes. The sample was 52% female. Ages ranged from 20 to 25 with a median age of 21. Subjects were divided into two groups. They were told that their participation was sought for a research project. Before the subjects watched the video sequence, they were asked to read the following scenario: "Saturday afternoon, Mrs. Smith goes shopping. The video we are going to show you depicts the setting of the store while Mrs. Smith is there". After reading the scenario and viewing the video, respondents were asked to complete the four following sentences: "Mrs. Smith might feel...," "Mrs. Smith might be...," "Mrs. Smith might want to...." and "Mrs. Smith might have the impression ...". The use of hypothetical scenarios is recommended by Halvena and Holbrook (1986) and confirmed by the study of Hui and Bateson (1991).

Finally, we tested crowding and coping scales with 205 shoppers in situation (following the procedure used in the general field study).

We conducted a series of factor analysis to examine the dimensionality and the validity of the different measures. Following Gerbing and Anderson’s (1988) paradigm for scale development, we performed an exploratory factor analysis and a confirmatory factor analysis (using the results from the exploratory analysis as a starting point for further refining the measures). We assessed convergent and discrimant validity using the procedures recommended by Fornell and Larcker (1981).

The perceived density scale consisted of six likertBtype items. These items were compiled from literature review and pilot studies. Two composite scales were formed from these items. The fit values indicate a good fit of the data to the twoBdimensional model of perceived density (c2/dl=0.668; GFI=0.999; AGFI=0.988; RMR=0.007; ECVI<ECVI saturated model; NFI=0.998). The first scale consisted of the following items: "the circulation in the store was difficult" and "there is not enough space between counters". We labeled this construct "spatial density" (reliability: r=0.75, convergent validity: rvc=0.63, discriminant validity: rvc>r2). The second scale consisted of two items: "there was many people in the store" and "we were squashed up". This dimension was labeled "social density" (r=0.65, rvc=0.48, rvc=(0.48)<r2(0.52).

Buyers’ goals were measured by six items representing the reasons why buyers enter a specific counter. Factor analysis have shown a twoBfactor structure: "exploration" (r=0.79, rvc=0.49, rc>r2) and "efficacy". The fit values indicate a good fit of the data to the twoBdimensional model (c2/dl=1.930; GFI=0.987; AGFI=0.962; RMR=0.031; ECVI<ECVI saturated model; NFI=0.973). This result corroborates Bellenger and Korgaonkar (1980) dichotomy between recreational shopping and convenience shopping.

Control possibilities (informational, decisional and behavioral control) were measured by five items describing store familiarity, density anticipated, temporal constraints, store choice and shopping hour choice. The respondents were asked to describe their experience in the store by checking a five point scale (from "not at all" to "extremely so"). Because of items heterogeneity (Bartlett test =77, MSA=0.53), common factor analysis was not completed. So, each item was individually introduced in the model.



Primary evaluation which deals with whether or not something of relevance to a person’s wellBbeing has occurred was measured through buyers’ pleasure. That way preconceived of retail crowding were avoided. Pleasure was assessed using a fiveBpoint semantic differential scale of six items selected from the "Pleasure" scale of Mehrabian and Russell (1974): "annoyed/pleased, despairing/hopeful, unhappy/happy, unsatisfied/satisfied, melancholic/contented and bored/relaxed". Exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis confirmed the unidimensional structure (r=0.80, rvc=0.45). The fit values indicate a good fit of the data to the model (c2/dl=2.7972; GFI=0.982; AGFI=0.945; RMR=0.033; ECVI<ECVI saturated model; NFI=0.966).

Secondary evaluation which concerns perceived control over the situation was measured by a fiveBpoint semantic differential scale of six items selected from the "Domination" scale of Mehrabian and Russell (1974). Two composite scales were formed from these items. The fit values indicate a good fit of the data to the twoBdimensional model of perceived control (c2/dl=1.065; GFI=0.998; AGFI=0.982; RMR=0.011; ECVI<ECVI saturated model; NFI=0.990). The first scale consisted of "guided/autonomous and cared for/in control". We labeled this construct "freedom" (r=0.60, rvc=0.44, rvc>r2). The second scale consisted of "controlled/controlling and awed/important" which we labeled "power" (r=0.58, rvc=0.44, rvc>r2).

The initial crowding scale consisted of 41 fiveBpoint Likert scales preceded by the prompt "In the store, I felt:". The items describing positive and negative crowding feelings in retail environment were compiled from literature review and pilot studies. Three composite scales were formed from these items. The fit values indicate a good fit of the data to the threeBdimensional model of crowding (c2/dl=1.52; GFI=0.978; AGFI=0.954; RMR=0.042; ECVI<ECVI saturated model; NFI=0.967). The first scale consisted of "uncomfortable, stuffy, dull and annoyed". We labeled this construct "discomfort" (r=0.80, rvc=0.50, rvc>r2). The second scale consisted of "lost and confused" which was labeled "disorientation" (r=0.81, rvc=0.70, rvc>r2). The third scale consisted of "rushed and cramped". It was labeled "rush sensations" (r=0.67, rvc=0.51, rvc>r2).

A 58 item list based on stressBcoping literature and results of the two exploratory studies was drawn up. The respondents were asked to describe their experience in the store by checking a five point scale (from "not at all" to "extremely so"). Four composite scales were formed from these items. The fit values indicate a good fit of the data to the model (c2/dl=0.789; GFI=0.990; AGFI=0.976; RMR=0.029; ECVI<ECVI saturated model; NFI=0.953). The first scale consisted of the items "I blamed myself" and "I criticized myself". We labeled this construct "selfBblame" (r=0.58, rvc=0.42, rvc>r2). The second scale consisted of "I rushed others" and "I forced my way through the crowd". It was labeled "aggressiveness" (r=0.70, rvc=0.57, rvc>r2). The third scale consisted of the items "I looked fo promotions" and "I through it was possible to make good deals". It was labeled "opportunism" (r=0.65, rvc=0.51, rvc>r2). The fourth scale consisted of "I postponed nonBurgent purchases" and "I did not fulfill my purchase plan". It was labeled "avoidance" (r=0.63, rvc=0.46, rvc>r2).


The data were analyzed through modeling of structural equations (using AMOS, Arbuckle, 1997). Because of some nonBnormal variables, results were estimated with a bootstrap procedure (Didellon and ValetteBFlorence, 1996). The model was proved to be identified through a procedure suggested by Bagozzi (1983).

The various goodness of fit indicators lend sufficient support to deeming the results as an acceptable representation of the hypothesized constructs (c2/dl=0.851; GFI=0.956; AGFI=0.936; RMR=0.045; ECVI<ECVI saturated model; NFI=0.819). Coefficients are shown in Figures 2, 3 and 4 (the model was split in three figures in order to be more easily readable). Examination of the t values associated with each coefficient indicates that all of them exceed the critical value for the 0.10 significance level. Any normalized residuals exceed 2.58. Two coefficients have modification indicators slightly above the suggested level. The t values associated with each multiple correlation coefficient do not fall below the critical value for the 0.05 significance level. Yet, multiple correlation coefficients are not too high.

In conclusion, the assessments of measurement and structural models lend substantial support for the proposed model.








The use of structural analysis provided an interesting and suggestive exploration of the sequential relationships among many variables pertinent to retail crowding. Results identified density influences on consumers and the processes underlying crowdingBrelated phenomena:

* the social and the spatial dimensions of density were differentiated;

* a crowding typology was developed;

* consumers’ coping to high density situations were isolated;

* coping processes were identified.

Perceived density

Exploratory and confirmatory factor analysis yielded a twoBfactor scale. This biBdimensional structure confirms Loo’s (1975) distinction between social density (number of people) and spatial density (amount of space). Perceived density is enhanced when control possibilities are higher (Figure 2). Social as spatial density directly exerts an effect on perceived control, discomfort feelings and avoidance behaviors (Figure 4). However, their impact is not exactly the same. Social density leads to aggressive behaviors. Spatial density influences selfBblame reactions in a positive way and opportunism in a negative one (Figure 3).


The results provide insights into shoppers crowding feelings. Three factors emerged from factor analysis: disorientation, rush sensations and discomfort. In other words, some people feel lost in a cramped store. They have difficulties finding their way. Others feel rushed and pushed. Others feel uncomfortable, stuffy and annoyed. This multidimensional structure suggests that crowding do not consists of a unitary experiential condition. The term crowding has multiple experiential referents, and these referents comprise different experiences. According to Hui and Bateson studies (1991), crowding is mediated by perceived control. Results indicate that processes are more complex. Crowding sensations are shaped in many different ways. For instance, the relation between density and rush sensations is direct (Figure 3). Discomfort feelings take more time to develop. The influence of density is mediated by pleasure and perceived control. Progressively, consumers’ pleasure and perceived control decrease, which produces discomfort feelings development (Figure 4).


Four factors were identified: avoidance, aggressiveness, opportunism and selfBblame. That is to say, in a crowded store, some do not fulfill their purchase plan in order to leave the store quicker. Others force their way through the crowd and do not hesitate to rush others. Some try to take advantage of the situation. They look for promotions and good deals. As for the last group, consumers are angry with themselves about coming in rush hours. They blame themselves. This coping structure provides richer information than approachBavoidance behavior in Hui and Bateson studies (1991) for instance. Next, high density in retail environment produces the same withdrawal and aggressive behaviors like those observed in prisons, dormitories, laboratories, residential settings, etc. (Lepore, 1994). Finally, three copings are problemBfocused and one is emotionBfocused. Relations between some few adjustments (selfBblame, aggressiveness, opportunism) and density related variables (perceived density and crowding) are direct (Figure 3). Other copings such as avoidance behaviors take more time to develop. They are mediated by pleasure and perceived control (Figure 4).

Coping processes: spontaneous and chronic reactions

Two kinds of influence processes were isolated (Figure 5): spontaneous and chronic reactions.

Spontaneous reactions: When shoppers face a momentary difficulty, they react instantly. They are angry with themselves (selfBblame) or with others (aggressiveness). They limit approach behaviors.

Chronic reactions: When difficulties multiply and goalBenvironment incompatibility increases, consumers’ pleasure and perceived control decrease, which provokes discomfort feelings and avoidance behaviors.

This process is amplified by positive relations between control possibilities and avoidance through pleasure on one hand, perceived control and discomfort feelings on the other hand. Indeed, when control possibilities are limited, shoppers feel less satisfied, less free, not at ease and lost. Furthermore, they do not fulfill their purchase plan. These avoidance behaviors have something in common with learned helplessness reactions studied by Seligman (1967). Indeed, when shoppers face repetitive difficulties in which they perceive a chronic absence of control over the situation, they believe events are uncontrollable and they prefer to leave.


This research provides an interesting picture of inBstore buyer behavior under conditions of crowding. However, few limitations are reported. Because of obligations to carry out studies over a short period of time and only during rush hours, the number of interviews was limited. We were not able to develop a contextBspecific scale for each construct. The field study was undertaken over few weeks. Atmosphere variables may have not been perfectly constant over the test period. The experimentation was conducted in a hypermarket in Niort (France)Ba town of 70000 inhabitants. Before generalizing findings, the study should be replicated in other places. Finally, this research is based on declared behaviors. Affective dimensions are difficult to measure that way (Filser, 1996).


Theoretical contributions

First, this research explore a theme that is not much approached in marketing. Findings increase knowledge on shoppers’ reactions under conditions of crowding and confirm the importance of atmosphere factors.

Second, this research validates the analysis of the personBenvironment relationships when subjects are confronted to enduring events. Results completed the analysis in distinguishing reactions to a temporary event (immediate and direct responses) and reactions to a chronic event (responses mediated by cognitive and affective factors). This extension is attractive because the analysis was essentially evoked to explain stress reactions related to chronic diseases (cancer, HIV, etc.) (Thompson and al 1996) and not to study reactions related to temporary events.

Methodological contributions

There are two methodological contributions. The scales measuring perceived density, crowding and coping were developed. The innovative methodology allowed a depth study of coping processes.

Managerial implications

Several practical implications follow from these findings. Besides, classical actions aimed at spreading out density (yield management, flows management, etc.), actions on shoppers reactions and perceptions can be conducted.

Store environment: agoraphile and agoraphobe zones. Marketplaces should be considered as an antic agora that is to say a meeting point. They are not exclusively a commercial area, but also an entertainment and relaxing place. In that perspective, it is important to implicate shoppers (for instance Virgin stores multiplied selfBservice computers, comfortable lecture areas, dedications, expositions, etc.). Shoppers participation is also a sensory implication (Hetzel, 1996). It is also important to satisfy their discovery and distraction wants. This explains the development of thematic stores such as Disney or Nature and discovery stores which allow shoppers to evade from their daily routine and to experiment new sensations (Gottdiener, 1998).

TaskBoriented shoppers look for efficacy. To help them, it is necessary to facilitate circulation, to space out counters, to improve counters "legibility," etc. To satisfy recreational and task oriented shoppers, stores can be organized through agoraphobe zones for non recreational activities and many agoraphile zones organized with thematic areas for distraction and discovery activities.

Incertitude reduction, choice and control possibilities increase. This research emphasize the importance of control. It is a powerful concept in explaining consumers’ reactions to density in a commercial environment. Indeed, control variables influence density perceptions, shoppers’ pleasure nd coping to crowding situations. In a cramped store, shoppers react less negatively when incertitude is limited and when they can anticipate and control their environment.

Actions which limit incertitude, increase anticipation and control possibilities allow shoppers to anticipate events and so, to prepare themselves as well as to adopt efficient coping strategies. Furthermore, control feelings give them a better image of themselves. They feel competent, which reinforces their pleasure. Finally, perceived density is reduced when incertitude is limited. However, control may not be appropriate in every case. For instance, standardizationBpersonalization choice depends on services’ nature, circumstances and shoppers.

Reorganizing space in agoraphile and agoraphobe zones, limiting incertitude and increasing control sources make it possible to conciliate crowd and satisfaction.


Several other directions for future research are suggested by the study. First, similar studies should be carried out in various commercial areas (luxury stores, restaurants, discount stores, etc.), and in specific crowding period (sales and Christmas purchases), and offBpeak hours. Second, multigroup analyses would allow to develop a specific model for each group and so, to identify more precise structures. Third, a longitudinal analysis should be undertaken in order to validate consumers behavior under conditions of crowding. Fourth, others factors should be introduced in the model: personal factors (crowding sensibility, desired control, implication, instruction, causal attributions, etc.) and atmospheric factors (luminosity, music, odors, ...). Furthermore, because of control factors’ importance, it might be relevant to concentrate attention on this notion. Control possibilities should not be restricted to density related issues. It should be extended to purchase. That way, we could know if target control compensate that is to say if a loss of control provoked by the crowd is counterbalanced by an increase in purchase control. Desire of control (Burger, 1985) should be introduced. A contextBspecific control perceived scale should de developed based on gregariousness. It should be evaluated to what extend buyers feel carried away by the crowd, guided by others, etc. Finally, an ethnography could be conducted. On one hand, rich information on consumers’ behavior under conditions of crowding and on coping processes would be gathered. On the other hand, an ethnography would allow to study density on psychological and sociological stand point, that is to say to analyze individuals’ behaviors in the crowd and mass movements, crowd attractiveness power, mimetic behaviors, in the same time.


Results identified density influences on consumers and the processes underlying crowdingBrelated phenomena. The social and the spatial dimensions of density were differentiated and each one influences were analyzed. The crowding concept was clarified. Consumers’ coping and coping processes were identified. Managerial suggestions to face the crowding dilemma were proposed. Market places should not be considered exclusively as a commercial environment, and also, as a physical and social environment which exerts an important effect on buyers behaviors.


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Delphine Dion, Rennes University, France


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 4 | 1999

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