A Study of Consumer Irritations During Shopping

ABSTRACT - This article presents the results of a study conducted among Canadian consumers. In the preliminary phase of the research, typical irritations that consumers endure when they shop were uncovered. The second phase of the research involved a survey with a probabilistic sample of 281 shoppers where the degree of irritation and the frequency of occurrence of the irritants were assessed. The results indicate that certain shopping situations are more irritant and more frequent than others. Also, perceptions of irritability and frequency of incidence are associated with age and gender. Directions for future research are suggested.


Alain d'Astous, Nathalie Roy, and Helene Simard (1995) ,"A Study of Consumer Irritations During Shopping", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 381-387.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 381-387


Alain d'Astous, University of Sherbrooke

Nathalie Roy, University of Sherbrooke

Helene Simard, University of Sherbrooke

[The authors wish to thank Francois Coderre and Richard Vezina for helpful comments made on this paper.]


This article presents the results of a study conducted among Canadian consumers. In the preliminary phase of the research, typical irritations that consumers endure when they shop were uncovered. The second phase of the research involved a survey with a probabilistic sample of 281 shoppers where the degree of irritation and the frequency of occurrence of the irritants were assessed. The results indicate that certain shopping situations are more irritant and more frequent than others. Also, perceptions of irritability and frequency of incidence are associated with age and gender. Directions for future research are suggested.


Shopping is a frequent activity in which consumers engage. Research on shopping as a consumption experience (Holbrook and Hirschman 1982) has looked at consumers' motivations for shopping. Tauber (1972) for instance found that, in addition to simple buying motives (e.g. shopping for a new dress), shopping is a means of fulfilling personal (e.g. shopping for fun) and social (e.g. shopping to see other people) needs. Donovan and Rossiter (1982) suggest that shopping is essentially a pleasurable task where consumers enjoy the store environment, browse around, talk to merchants and spend money.

The experiential aspects of shopping are of great interest to retailers. In today's tough competitive environment, retailers are concerned about the factors that impact on the feeling states of their patrons and try to implement appropriate strategies aimed at making the shopping experience a pleasant one. Creating a good store atmosphere (Kotler 1974), improving service quality (Zeithaml, Parasuraman and Berry 1990), designing pleasant retail environments (Donovan and Rossiter 1982) and training sales personnel to interpret and modify shoppers' moods (Gardner 1985) are different marketing strategies that retailers may choose to implement in order to reach that goal. It is believed that strategies like these can create significant retail competitive differentiation (Pearce 1992).

While research in this area has contributed significantly to our understanding of the shopping experience, most studies have adopted a position where shopping behavior seems associated only with personal gratifications. Yet, simple introspection is sufficient to convince us that shopping is not always a pleasant activity. This may be related to personal predispositions (see e.g. Stone 1954) or situational factors. Though it is useful to know that a pleasant retail environment may contribute to render the shopping experience a positive one, it might be even more relevant to identify the factors that irritate consumers during shopping.

The objectives of this article are to provide retailers and consumer researchers with a description of the aspects of the shopping experience that are most likely to irritate consumers and to explore the relationships between consumer demographics and perceptions related to shopping irritants. Results from a study conducted in Canada are presented and discussed.


The first step in the research consisted in identifying aspects of the shopping experience that consumers consider most irritating. This step was accomplished by means of a qualitative study with a convenience sample of 20 consumers. Subjects were interviewed individually. After making sure that they were regular shoppers, the interviewer asked them to enumerate typical irritations that they had experienced during shopping and the consequences that such irritations had on their behavior. Subjects were instructed not to consider factors associated with the purchase itself, such as product quality or after-the-sale service. At the end of the interview, subjects were asked to narrate in detail a particularly irritating shopping experience that they had lived. Each interview lasted approximately 15 minutes and was tape-recorded.

Table 1 presents the list of all shopping irritants that the participants in the qualitative study mentioned. For convenience, these have been grouped into five categories: sales contact (irritations caused by sales personnel), product assortment (irritations related to the availability and variety of products), store organization (irritations related to structural factors within the store that interfere with the purchase process), physical environment (irritations caused by physical characteristics of the shopping environment) and situational factors (irritations caused by particular circumstances associated with the shopping experience).

We can see in Table 1 that some irritants have a high frequency of mention. For instance, almost all subjects (19 out of 20) indicated that high-pressure selling irritates them when they shop. Other frequently mentioned irritants are crowding (f=8) and hodge-podge merchandise (f=7). The greatest number of total mentions occurs in the sales contact category (f=37), followed by store organization (f=15), situational factors (f=20), physical environment (f=14) and product assortment (f=8). The sales contact and physical environment categories obtain the greatest number of distinct irritants (9 in both categories as compared with 5, 7 and 8 in the other categories).

Subjects mentioned several consequences provoked by the irritants. A first category of consequences comprises behavioral reactions such as leaving the store, complaining, accelerating the buying process and going to another store. A second category relates to specific feelings induced by the irritants like frustration, discontentement, stress, anger and agressiveness. The results of the preliminary study indicate that there are numerous sources of irritation associated with shopping. The shopping irritants that have been identified may have disastrous effects on retail business. Behaviors such as complaining or going to another store are reminiscent of the types of responses associated with consumer dissatisfaction (Day et al. 1981). Also, reports of negative feelings by subjects suggest that shopping irritations may affect people's moods. Recent discussions in the consumer research literature have proposed that people's moods may in turn have significant effects on their consumer behavior (Cohen and Areni 1991, Gardner 1985).

In order to appreciate the importance for retailers of the factors listed in Table 1, it is necessary to evaluate the extent of irritation that they create as well as their frequency of occurrence in the general consumer population. These were the objectives of the main study.


The main study was a survey conducted in Sherbrooke, a French-Canadian city of approximately 80,000 inhabitants. The irritants uncovered in the preliminary study served as stimuli for constructing the survey questionnaire. The 38 irritants were presented using short statements and two five-point scales were associated with each statement. The first served to assess respondents' perceptions of irritability (that irritates or would irritate me enormously, a lot, medium, very little or not at all). The second scale served to assess the perceived frequency of occurrence (that has happened to me very often, often, sometimes, rarely or never). In addition to these measures, questions concerning frequency of shopping, education, age, gender, family income and number of children were included.



Data Collection

In order to get a probabilistic sample of shoppers, a modified area sampling procedure was used. The city was first divided into three geographic areas. Streets were then randomly drawn in each sector. Over a one-week period, three interviewers visited every second residence of the selected streets and tried to obtain residents' participation in the study. The person responsible for the shopping in the household was asked to complete the questionnaire which was picked up the next day by the same interviewer. If more than one individual were responsible for the shopping within the residence, the person with the most recent birthday was selected as participant (Salmon and Nichols 1983).

The interviewers knocked on the door of 553 residences. There were no answer in 165 cases, 49 persons refused to participate and 15 were rejected for various reasons (e.g. do not shop). Of the 324 transmitted questionnaires, 304 were recuperated by the interviewers and 281 were considered usable for analysis. The contact rate in this study is thus 58.6 percent and the completion rate 86.7 percent.


Description of the sample

The sample comprises a majority of women (74 percent). This is consistent with the common belief that women are generally more likely to be responsible for shopping than men. The education level of respondents is relatively high: 39 percent hold a university degree, 26 percent have complete or partial college education and 33 percent have attended secondary school. Age ranges between 16 and 80 years old, with an average of 38. Almost half of the respondents have an annual family income of more than 25,000 (Canadian) dollars, 37 percent between 10,000 and 25,000 dollars and 14 percent less than 10,000 dollars. Respondents indicated that they shop about twice a week (2.17) on average. Compared with census data of the Canadian population, the participants in this study are more educated, somewhat older and have a higher income (Statistics Canada 1994). The proportion of female respondents in the sample is also greater than normal.

Irritability/Frequency Analysis

The mean irritability and frequency of occurrence ratings associated with the 38 irritants are presented in Table 2. For ease of interpretation, Figure 1 displays graphically these mean ratings on a two-dimensional grid (see Figure 1). The irritability/frequency grid is divided into four quadrants using the scale mid-points: low frequency-high irritation, high frequency-high irritation, low frequency-low irritation and high frequency-low irritation. Though the dividing lines which define the quadrants are somewhat arbitrary, the grid provides useful information, as the following descriptive analysis attempts to show.

High Frequency-High Irritation. This is obviously the important quadrant for retailers. It contains 10 of the 38 irritants considered in the survey. Interestingly, some of the most frequently mentioned irritants in the qualitative study appear in this quadrant (high-pressure selling, crowding, waiting lines).

Low Frequency-High Irritation. Most of the irritants in this quadrant (13 out of 14) are sales contact (e.g. no. 7: being deceived by a salesperson), store organization (e.g. no. 21: no mirror in the dressing room) and physical environment (e.g. no. 28: store is not clean) factors. They are consequently controllable by retail managers. The results show that, as far as these irritants are concerned, retailers appear to do a good job of limiting the occasions of irritation. However, some of the high-irritation factors contained in this quadrant have higher perceived frequencies of occurrence (e.g. no. 2: unavailability of salespeople, no. 23: music inside the store is too loud, no. 3: feeling of being watched by salespeople) and therefore should be a source of concern for retailers.

Low Frequency-Low Irritation. Almost two-third of the irritants found in this quadrant (8 out of 13) are related to store organization (e.g. no. 19: inadequate directions) and situational factors (e.g. no. 34: turbulent kids around). In general, retailers should probably worry less about them since the level of irritation that they provoke is low and they are not perceived by shoppers as occurring frequently. However, the variation within the quadrant is great and some irritants are near the arbitrary frontier of high irritation (e.g. no. 4: indifference of the salespeople, no. 29: inadequate lighting in the store).

High Frequency-Low Irritation. The only factor in this quadrant is solitary shopping. Apparently, respondents are somewhat indifferent to being alone when shopping, even though they perceive that it occurs fairly frequently. There is little that can be done by retailers to correct this situation and the low level of irritation that solitary shopping seems to create implies that perhaps nothing should be attempted.

Additional Analyses

A series of statistical analyses were performed to examine the relationships between the irritability and frequency measures and the different variables used to describe the respondents, i.e. frequency of shopping, education, age, gender, family income, and number of children. Before discussing these results, it is important to mention that these analyses are exploratory. No attempt was made to generate hypotheses beforehand. Given the large number of statistical tests conducted, there is a high risk of obtaining spurious associations occurring by chance and, consequently, caution must be exercised in interpreting and generalizing these results.

The effects of frequency of shopping, age, and number of children (the three metric variables) were examined using regression analyses. Each descriptor served as dependent variable in two regression models, one model involving the 38 irritability ratings and the other the 38 frequency ratings. [From a conceptual point of view, the descriptors correspond to independent variables since we are interested in explaining the variation in irritability and frequency ratings. From the point of view of analysis however, it does not matter to enter each descriptor as dependent variable and the ratings as independent variables in a multiple regression model. Statistical tests (not the parameter estimates) conducted within the context of the general linear model are not affected by whether the variables are treated as dependent or independent variables. In the present case, given the large number of irritability and frequency ratings, it was deemed preferable to treat them as independent variables in the regression analysis even though they are truly dependent variables in our mind.] Six regression modelsCtwo per descriptorCwere thus estimated. The only significant results were obtained with the age variable. Table 3 presents the multiple regression results. It can be seen that the older the respondent, the higher the level of irritation provoked by loud music in a store. Being in a hurry, being the object of pressure selling or feeling that salespeople are watching are situations that are more irritating for younger shoppers. Older people are also more likely to perceive certain potentially irritating situations -too hot in the store, directions are inadequate, salespeople are unavailable, shop is cold and austereCas happening more frequently. However, they perceive that pressure selling, being watched by salespeople and an unclean store are less frequent.

We can try to make sense of the results reported in Table 3. As individuals grow older, the need for help in consumption and shopping activities is likely to increase. Salespeople probably play an important role in providing older consumers information and easing their buying process, behaviors that younger consumers would perhaps perceive as pressure selling. Young consumers are more autonomous. They like stores with a dynamic atmosphere (e.g. rock music) and do not appreciate being followed by a salesperson as they are browsing. Older people need to be oriented by adequate store directions and are irritated by being hot while shopping.





The effects of gender, education, and level of income (the three nonmetric variables) on irritability and frequency ratings were examined through the use of multivariate analyses of variance (MANOVA). The 38 irritability ratings and the 38 frequency ratings served as two distinct vectors of dependent variables in MANOVA models involving each descriptor separately (see Note 1). The only statistically significant results were obtained with gender. For irritability ratings, Wilk's lambda was 0.6708 with a p-value of 0.0002. For frequency ratings it was equal to 0.7018 with a p-value of 0.0001. One-way analyses of variance (ANOVA) involving each rating as a unique variable were run to complement the multivariate analyses. Gender had a significant effect in nine cases involving the irritability ratings (no. 9, 13, 14, 20, 21, 25, 31, 35 and 36). In all cases women scored higher than men. This pattern of results was also observed with the great majority of irritability ratings. Gender had a significant effect in 17 cases involving the frequency ratings (no. 1, 3, 9, 11, 12, 13, 16, 17, 20, 21, 22, 25, 28, 31, 33, 35 and 36). Women scored higher than men in all cases except one (no. 28: store is not clean). Again, this pattern of results was observed with most frequency ratings.

One possible explanation for the observed differences between men and women is that in general women shop more frequently and, consequently, may have more concrete instances of irritating events in memory. They would then judge these situations as more frequent (Tversky and Kahneman 1973) and more irritating.

Another possible explanation is differential involvement. Because they are more involved in shopping, women may be more likely to exagerate the extent of irritation that some situations cause as well as their frequency of occurrence. A study by Guiltinan and Monroe (1980) brings some credence to the differential involvement explanation. Shoppers were classified by cluster analysis into six basic types. One group, named the "involved traditional", was composed of the greatest proportion of women (62.9 percent). In another study, Celsi and Olson (1988) have shown that involvement is positively associated with attention effort and semantic elaboration. Though this latter study focused on the effects of involvement on the processing of ads, the conclusions reached by the authors seem sufficiently general to apply to shopping behavior.




The findings discussed in this article should be of interest to those involved in retailing activities as well as consumer researchers interested in shopping behavior. To the authors' knowledge, there has been no previous research dealing specifically with the factors that induce irritations during shopping.

There is however one study that is relevant to the present discussion. Westbrook (1981) was interested in identifying sources of consumer satisfaction towards retailing establishments. He obtained ratings of satisfaction relative to 24 in-store experiences with regard to a particular department store. Some of the experiences considered by Westbrook (1981) bear similarity to the potentially irritating situations uncovered in the present study: helpfulness of the salespeople, number of salespeople available, roominess of the store, ease of finding products, etc. A multiple regression of overall store satisfaction on the experienced-based satisfaction ratings revealed that the most important sources of retail satisfaction were (1) satisfaction with salespeople, (2) satisfaction with special sales, (3) satisfaction with products and services, (4) satisfaction with store environment (organization, appearance, etc.) and (5) satisfaction relative to value.

While Westbrook's (1981) study deals with shopping experiences that are sources of positive feelings, the present study focuses on negative shopping experiences that are sources of irritation. This is an important difference. Some research on affective states suggests that bad feelings are not symetrically opposite to positive feelings (Abelson et al. 1982). Moreover, it seems that people in a negative affective state (e.g. irritated) are more likely to engage in causal reasoning about the events that have caused this state than are people in a positive affective state (e.g. satisfied) (see Schwarz 1990). Therefore, irritated people may be more inclined to try to explain their feelings than satisfied people. Such higher level of processing is likely to lead to better memory for the irritating events. In this sense, it would appear that studying consumer irritations is more important.

One justification for studying sources of irritation during shopping is the possible impact that consequent negative feelings may have on consumers' evaluation of stores, products and brands. Although no measures of affective states were taken at the survey stage of this research, the results of the qualitative study suggest that consumer irritations are likely to elicit negative affective states. There is a need for further research on the consequences of such negative affective states on shopping behavior. The irritations discussed in this article may be a good starting point for such research. For example, one could write up different shopping scenarios by manipulating the degree of irritability of chosen factors and measure the effects on affective and behavioral reactions. Likewise, observation studies aimed at examining the relationships between certain irritants (e.g. crowding), feelings (e.g. frustration) and evaluative responses (e.g. attitudes toward the stores) could be conducted.

Lastly, research is needed to further specify the types of shopping that consumers engage in and the corresponding irritations that they may experience. In this study, shopping was taken as a general activity. However, it seems obvious that shopping for a dress is different than, say, grocery shopping. Better focused knowledge on shopping irritants may certainly lead to relevant implications for retailers.


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Alain d'Astous, University of Sherbrooke
Nathalie Roy, University of Sherbrooke
Helene Simard, University of Sherbrooke


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1995

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