Grocery Shopping on a Low Income: How Do People Cope?

ABSTRACT - The paper explores the potential contribution of theories of coping to understanding how impoverished consumers respond to exchange restrictions in the marketplace. Literature on grocery shopping behaviour is examined within this theoretical framework and an argument set forth that comprehensive understanding of consumer responses to exchange restrictions can be achieved by more detailed attention to problem-solving and emotion-focused coping strategies and the mediating appraisal processes. The article is a first step towards a psychological model of disadvantaged consumer coping that will compliment existing work on macro-social influences.


Sally Hibbert and Maria Piacentini (2003) ,"Grocery Shopping on a Low Income: How Do People Cope?", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 277-282.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 277-282


Sally Hibbert, Nottingham University, UK

Maria Piacentini, Lancaster University, UK


The paper explores the potential contribution of theories of coping to understanding how impoverished consumers respond to exchange restrictions in the marketplace. Literature on grocery shopping behaviour is examined within this theoretical framework and an argument set forth that comprehensive understanding of consumer responses to exchange restrictions can be achieved by more detailed attention to problem-solving and emotion-focused coping strategies and the mediating appraisal processes. The article is a first step towards a psychological model of disadvantaged consumer coping that will compliment existing work on macro-social influences.


In the UK it is estimated that between 13 and 14 million people live in poverty and that a third of children are born into poverty. While there are many issues associated with poverty, of particular interest to consumer behaviour researchers is the restrictions that it imposes on accessibility of consumer goods and services (Alwitt and Donley, 1996). It is well documented that people on restricted incomes experience limitations in accessing housing, transportation, utilities, financial services, health and educational services, work and leisure facilities, and good quality foodstuffs (see Lee and Murie, 1999 for a review). In this paper we focus specifically on problems surrounding access to quality foodstuffs, although many of the issues discussed herein are applicable to other sectors in which low-income consumers experience restricted access.

Environmental and structural factors play an important role in limiting physical and financial access to goods and services. With respect to grocery shopping, changes in the retail structures and competition over the last two decades have led to a dramatic decline in small and local food stores. This trend has exacerbated problems of retail access, in rural and deprived urban contexts (Beaumont et al., 1995). Yet those who experience exchange restrictions vary considerably in their response to these circumstances. Indeed, studies of shopping behaviour has documented that consumers living in deprived areas have quite heterogeneous experiences of disadvantage and the accompanying stresses and strains (Piacentini et al., 2001; Williams and Hubbard, 2001).

In this paper we take a closer look at experiences of and responses to exchange restrictions encountered by low-income consumers in relation to grocery shopping. Adopting the conceptual framework of coping behaviour (Lazarus, 1991; Carver et al., 1989) we identify a range of shopping-related activities that cause stress for low income consumers and explore their coping responses. The paper starts with a brief summary of Lazarus’s (1991) conceptualisation of coping followed by a review of literature on consumer coping. It then proceeds to consider research on disadvantaged consumers and shopping behaviour that offers insights into aspects of coping in the context of impoverished consumers’ grocery shopping.


Prominent authors that have provided the foundations for research on coping behaviour include Lazarus (1991), Lazarus and Folkman (1984), Carver et al. (1989) and Carver and Sheier (1994). Lazarus (1991) defines coping to "consist of cognitive and behavioural efforts to manage specific external and internal demands (and conflicts between them) that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the person" (p 112). Coping is closely linked to emotional processes. Emotions and the desire to change feeling states experienced may stimulate coping responses. Accordingly, coping affects subsequent appraisals and is therefore an antecedent of the resulting emotions (Carver and Scheier, 1990).

Lazarus (1991) argues that emotions result from two types of appraisal: primary appraisal in which a person evaluates whether the situation is relevant to his or her goals and secondary appraisal, which involves an assessment of the individual’s ability to confront the situation given personal resources available. In other words, secondary appraisal is the prospect that the person can adequately cope with the situation. Two types of coping are distinguished: problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping. Problem-focused coping involves taking action that will resolve a problem and thus dissipate the negative emotions. In reality, the emotional distress is not always dispelled and in some circumstances it actually intensifies. In contrast, emotion-focused coping involves cognitive activity rather than action-based solutions. Psychological distancing (denial) and avoidance both seek to deal with the emotional distress by changing the meaning of an emotional encounter. There is some overlap between appraisal and emotion-focused coping, as both the appraisal and the coping response influence the emotional meaning of the event. Lazarus (1991) notes that emotional coping is indeed an appraisal in its own right although it is self-generated and often ego-defensive.

Consumer behaviour researchers have turned their attentions to coping relatively recently (most notably in the later 1990s) and there have been only a few studies of consumer coping. Given that stress and coping responses are often stimulated when there is conflict between the demands that people face, researchers have identified a number of aspects of consumption that create conflict. Otnes et al. (1997) examine consumer ambivalence (experienced during wedding planning), Mick and Fournier (1998) concentrate on the paradoxes of technology (e.g. efficiency/inefficiency, fulfils/creates needs) and Luce (1998) focuses on the conflict experienced in making difficult trade-offs during the decision process.

Otnes et al. (1997) and Mick and Fournier (1998) conducted qualitative research to identify antecedents of conflict/ambivalence and anxiety/stress in their respective research contexts and distinguish consumer coping responses (before, during and after consumption). Sujan et al. (1999) also examined coping through qualitative research but they regarded it within a more general context. They focused on how levels of stress and self-efficacy relate to coping responses, with a view to distinguishing between more and less efficacious consumers. Stress commonly related to choice and in-store ambience and coping behaviour was determined by interactions between stress and self-efficacy. For example, in high choice stress situations both problem solving (planning, prioritising, searching for and processing information) and deferral strategies are used. The specific problem solving strategies adopted varied with perceptions of self-efficacy such that those with high perceived self efficacy were more prone to plan compared to those whose perceived self efficacy was low but less likely to search for and process information.

Nyer (1997) and Luce (1998) conducted a series of experiments to test the relationships between cognitive appraisal, emotions and behaviour as represented in theories of coping. Nyer (1997) demonstrated that primary and secondary appraisal (represented by goal relevance, goal congruence, attribution and coping potential) were determinants of consumption emotions such as anger, sadness and joy/satisfaction. In turn, these emotions were shown to influence post-consumption behaviour (word-of-mouth intentions). Focusing on primary appraisal, Luce (1998) showed that manipulation of attributes of the decision (to alter the degree of conflict between attribute values) affected the emotions experienced. However, she emphasised that primary appraisal interacts with secondary appraisal and her findings reveal that the opportunity to choose avoidant strategies mitigates the level of emotions experienced. Finally, the research showed that the more emotion-laden the decision environment (the greater the conflict) the more likely it is that avoidant coping strategies will be chosen.


Early work of Caplovitz (1967), who claimed that "The Poor Pay More", provides the foundation for much of the research into disadvantaged consumers. Since, prominent contributions to our understanding of impoverished consumers have been made by Andreasen (1975), Hill and colleagues (e.g. Hill and Stamey, 1990; Hill and Somin, 1996; Hill and Macan, 1996), Alwitt and Donley (1996) and Crockett (2001) (see Darley and Johnson, 1985 and Andreasen, 1993, 1997 for reviews). In the UK, disadvantaged consumers have attracted the attention of consumer researchers over the last decade but by far the greatest interest has been in relation to retailing (e.g. Bromley and Thomas, 1995; Hare et al., 1996; Williams and Windebank, 2000; Williams and Hubbard, 2001; Piacentni et al., 2001; Wrigley et al., 2002).

Although much research into disadvantaged groups implicitly considers coping behaviour, rarely have researchers explicitly incorporated a conceptualisation of coping into their study. The extant literature clearly identifies the structural restrictions on exchange, which include financial, physical and psychological access (Lumpkin et al., 1985; Leather, 1992; Bromley and Thomas, 1995), and behavioural responses to such restrictions. Despite wide acknowledgement that low-income consumers’ experiences of disadvantage are heterogeneous (e.g. Piacentini et al., 2001; Williams and Hubbard, 2001), the absence of an explicit conceptual context has resulted in a lack of clarity in the differentiation of behavioural responses to exchange restrictions. Moreover, there has been limited consideration of intervening variables in the exchange restrictionBcoping behaviour relationship.

Recent literature in which coping behaviour among impoverished consumers is explicitly recognised includes Hill and Stephens (1997) and Crockett (2001). In both cases coping is conceptualised as a response to the macro-social causes of poverty. For example, Hill and Stephens (1997) advanced a model of impoverished consumer behaviour that suggests a causal relationship between exchange restrictions, consequences (e.g. isolation, loss of control) and coping strategies. Hill and Stephens (1997) suggested that coping involves problem-focused strategies, such as shopping with friends, 'subbing’ each other, generating illicit income and exploiting the environment (e.g. collecting discarded items to sell on for recycling) and emotion-focused strategies such as distancing ('I’m not like those.’), fantasising and future planning. Similarly, Crockett (2001) reports a range of response strategies, although he differentiates between 'resistance’ and 'coping’ strategies. Resistance aims to alleviate structural problems associated with disadvantage (e.g. out-shopping for groceries to broaden the range of quality foods available) and coping strategies are designed to make disadvantage 'less impactful’ (e.g. checking expiry dates on goods purchased at a neighbourhood store to ensure a minimum quality level is achieved despite being unable to alleviate the structural constraints) (p156).

These studies provide a useful starting point for considering the coping behaviour of disadvantaged consumers. However, there remains a substantial gap in the literature with respect to the psychological processes that explain heterogeneity in consumer response to disadvantage. Yet understanding of these factors is essential to gain appreciation of why some consumers cope reasonably well while others suffer severe consequences from living under such restrictions.

In the following section we review literature on disadvantaged consumers within the framework of the coping concept with a view to build more detailed understanding of differences between consumers who have to cope with exchange restrictions. In developing this discussion we take grocery shopping as a focus. It is widely acknowledged that poverty impacts upon diet and health (Townsend, 1979; Blaylock, 1991; Dobson et al., 1994; Hill, 1996; Dowler, 1998). Poor health has such a profound impact of the lives of the poor, and consequences for public services beside, that the issues has been a prime focus of concern in policy circles (e.g. Department of Health, 1996; 1999). Besides proposing health care interventions, policy documents in the UK have also devoted substantial attention to distribution systems for groceries (Wrigley et al., 2002). In particular, concern has been expressed about low-income consumers’ access to quality foodstuffs and lack of skills such as food preparation. Moreover, because there is a reasonable body of research into the grocery shopping behaviour of disadvantaged groups it is possible to draw on extant research to develop plausible research propositions.


The model of coping advanced by Lazarus (1991) highlights that coping behaviour varied depending on the level of stress experienced in relation to a consumption-related task and the efficacy of the consumer in dealing with that stress. These two aspects of coping related to a person’s primary and secondary appraisal of the situation.

Primary Appraisal

Primary appraisal is the evaluation of the behaviour in terms of the well being it will bring the individual. It is at this stage that the individual considers the impact of the behaviour in terms of their goals. The three main aspects of the primary appraisal in relation to goals: goal relevance, goal congruence and goal content (Luce et al 2002:62). Goal relevance is the assessment of the relevance of the behaviour to a person’s goals, that is, their level of involvement. Goal congruence refers to the assessment of whether the behaviour is likely to involve positive or negative outcomes, and hence whether positive or negative emotions will result. Finally, goal content involves the assessment of the particular goals at stake, influencing the exact form of the emotional experience. Within the goal-directed frameworks proposed by Bagozzi & Dholakia (1999), the individual is guided in their behaviour by life goals and themes, life projects and current concerns. The consumer purposefully determines these goals, giving consideration to the relation between goals and considering the implications of satisfying one goal for the achievement of another. Another aspect of primary appraisal that will influence emotional processes is conflict among goals and the competition for resources. Goal theorists (e.g. Heckausen, 1991) have emphasised that people need to prioritise goals in order that resources can be devoted to those that are most pressing. This has significant consequences for subsequent behaviour.

Grocery shopping is part of the work-role of the homemaker (Campbell, 1997) and it is generally regarded as an essential chore that people just want to get through as quickly as possible (Mintel, 1986). Yet, many people who are not in employment, such as senior citizens and those out of work, regard grocery shopping as an opportunity for social interaction, an activity to "get them out of the house" and as a means for satisfying hedonic goals (Piacentini et al., 2001). Primary appraisal of goal relevance for grocery shopping activities is likely to depend on the subjective relevance of food and nutrition and the role of homemaker to an individual, as well as other values that are served through grocery shopping (e.g. environmentalism, community spirit). Yet, attention should also be paid to salience of social and hedonic needs fulfilled through grocery shopping.

Secondary appraisal

Secondary appraisal involves an assessment of the individual’s ability to confront the situation given personal resources available. Evaluations related to the context, possible courses of action, the person’s coping potential and the likely consequences of engaging in the coping activity (Luce et al, 2002; Nyer, 1997). The individual assesses their own beliefs about whether or not they can improve their situation, as well as the reasons as to why they face this situation, similar to the concept of attribution described by Nyer (1997).

In the literature on low-income consumers it is well documented that grocery shopping situations present a number of challenges. Indeed, the most prominent theme in this body of research is that disadvantaged consumers, or at least some sub-segment therein, face financial, physical and social restrictions.

Financial access is a fundamental cause of constraint. Low wages, insecure and unstable employment, inadequate state benefit, limited access to credit and other financial services and the high proportion of income spent on housing and utilities (Caplovitz, 1967; Hill and Macan, 1996, Hill and Sephens, 1997; Lee and Murie, 1999) leave millions of people struggling to meet basic dietary requirements. This situation has been exacerbated by developments in the marketplace, which follow lifestyle trends for mainstream consumers (Leather, 1992). In Western economies this tends to inflate prices for even basic goods and services and results in limited choice for people of low incomes.

Physical access to stores is another important restriction and its effects have been widely reported (e.g. Andreasen, 1975; Lumpkin et al., 1985; Bromley and Thomas, 1995; Kaufman, 1995; Hare et al., 1996; Crockett, 2001; Williams and Hubbard, 2001; Piacentini et al., 2001). Retail developments since the 1980s have resulted in a highly concentrated grocery sector such that UK consumers now purchase more than 80% of foodstuffs from large supermarkets that favour out-of-town retailing and edge-of-town/off-centre developments. As a result, there has been a decline in town centres and small, independent retailers face ever-greater competitive pressures (Smith and Sparks, 1997). Leather (1992) argued that this has exacerbated the position of disadvantaged consumers, especially low income groups that are often restricted in their mobility due to carlessness and concern has been expressed about consumers becoming stranded in "food deserts" (Lang and Caraher, 1998). In the 1990s, however, regulation, alternative forms of retail competition and government funding of social projects in deprived areas have all sought to better serve the needs of disadvantaged groups. (Wrigley, 1998; Dept. of the Environment, 1993; 1996; Cummins and Macintyre, 1999).

Privatisation of public transport and particularly bus services has also affected physical access to grocery stores for UK consumers. Carless households in rural communities have been most hard hit by this development. In contrast, for many living in deprived urban neighbourhoods public transport has improved because these communities offer a large market and there is competition among service providers. However, restrictions are still felt in relation to grocery shopping; bus routes determine the retail sites that can be accessed and the prospect of carrying heavy groceries to and from bus stops can be daunting. Indeed, for some it is near impossible when age, health problems or the fact that they also have small children in tow impairs physical mobility.

Finally, social factors are also suggested to play a role in constraining consumer shopping activity. There is evidence that disadvantaged consumers are turned off certain retail sites due to problems of interacting with particular groups of people (e.g. sales assistants, security guards, other shoppers) and feelings of "otherness" experienced when they sense that they do not "fit in" (Williams and Hubbard, 2001).

Coping Potential

An individual’s evaluation of his or her coping potential in face of these restrictions is suggested to relate to self-efficacy. While self-efficacy has been demonstrated to be a key determinant of consumer coping, motivation researchers (e.g. Cunningham, 1988; Thayer, 1989; Morris, 1992) have suggested that other 'personal resources’Bnotably physical and social resourcesBalso play an important role in coping. Research on disadvantaged consumers suggests that there is greater likelihood of each of these types of personal resource being scarcer than is typical for consumers in the mainstream of society. Moreover, there are interactions between types of resources such that the lack of one is exacerbated when it coincides with the lack of other resources.

Feelings of self-efficacy are a product of self-awareness, self-evaluation and memory (Bandura, 1986). They reflect an individual’s beliefs about how well s/he can employ her/his skills to achieve the behaviour, how much effort this will involve and how much time s/he is willing to commit to achieving this goal (Benjamin and Stewart, 1989). Low self-efficacy is often found amongst individuals living in disadvantaged communities (alongside a lower eed for achievement, lower expectations of success, lower self-esteem, negative self concept and external locus of control [Allen, 1970, Furnham and Lewis, 1986]), and it is conceived as a relatively permanent attribute of individuals (Rosenbaum et al (2002:71). There are indications of low self-efficacy with respect to grocery shopping; some low-income consumers have suggested modern retail environments to be stressful due to size and layout (Wrigley et al., 2002), which challenge their experience. In contrast, others have a strong sense of control and perceptions of self-efficacy are high. One such example is reported by Piacentini et al. (2001):

"Some of the things, I could shop for at Newvale you know, I’m very thrifty. I could tell you the price of a pound of onions in that shop and a pound of onions in that shop, they are a penny dearer so we’ll go in that one, that’s just me, I’ve always lived on a budget so I’ve always shopped on a budget"

Self-efficacy is unlikely to fluctuate to any great magnitude but it can be influenced to a degree by recent successes and failures.

Physical energy varies with temporary factors such as sugar ingestion, physical exercise and the use of drugs, for example caffeine, or with more stable influences such as age, health and metabolic rate (Morris, 1992). Physical resources are more likely to be restricted for low-income consumers in that temporary and more stable features of their lives are consistent with low physical energy (e.g. poor nutrition, long-term illness). Awareness of physical resources appears to affect behaviour in that anxieties are aroused by crowding and security, particularly among older consumers, many of whom avoid city centres at the weekend when they are very congested and there are noisy and sometimes aggressive youths around (Williams and Hubbard, 2001). Thayer (1989)’s view of the role of biological factors was that there is conscious awareness of the state of the whole body at any point in time. He suggests that moods and emotions serve as the signal systems of resources and depletions, providing a continuing indication of readiness for action or the need for rest and recuperation, and possibly the need to avoid the situation altogether.

Finally, the role of social resources is recognised to influence goal-directed behaviour. Since humans are social beings they often depend on others to help them to achieve goals, and the availability of the help of others may also be a varying resource, again as a temporary or more permanent feature. The work of both Hill and Stephens (1997) and Crockett (2001), reported earlier, provide evidence of low-income consumers drawing on social report. Piacentini et al. (2001) also found that support from family, friends and neighbours makes a dramatic difference to how people cope in the face of restricted grocery shopping access.

Primary appraisal coupled with the perceived balance between situational demands and available resources results in higher or lower levels of stress. As grocery shopping is undertaken on a regular basis there are opportunities for trial and error in coping strategies and reappraisal. Over time, there is scope for people to improve their coping strategies and thus feel more content with their ability to cope. By association, the level of stress linked to grocery shopping activity might be expected to be low. However, where resources are highly restricted (e.g. time, money, mobility) even well rehearsed coping strategies often turn out to be inadequate. For example, Dobson et al (1994) demonstrated that while families that participated in their study had enough to eat there was evidence of self-denial, family stress and deterioration in diet and eating habits. Therefore, there are likely to be examples of consumers who experience low and high levels of stress in relation to grocery shopping.

Coping responses

Within the literature there are multiple examples of problem-solving strategies adopted by low-income consumers confronting each aspect of the grocery shopping event Among them are illustrations of the range of problem solving approaches identified by Sujan et al. (1998) - planning, prioritising, searching for and processing information, exploiting social resources as well as simplifying strategies. Moreover, as these authors demonstrate, there are various combinations of strategies employed to address different aspects of shopping activity (choice of retail site and store, travel, product choice and managing interaction with social and physical retail environment). There is extensive evidence of simplifying strategies being employed in the choice of retail site. Researchers have documented that lower income and carless families are heavily reliant on local stores (Bromley and Thomas, 1995; Andreasen, 1975) and traditional (and often declining) retail sites such as independent stores, district centre and city centre (Williams and Hubbard, 2001). In some cases there is evidence of greater planning that involves accessing other resources such as social support. For example, higher levels of out-shopping are reported where a person’s core social network is strong (Crockett, 2001; Piacentini et al., 2001; Wrigley et al., 2002). Yet, simplifying strategies cannot be categorically regarded as inferior. It has also been found that interpersonal interactions are often greater in the local shopping environment (Choe et al., 1997), and this is an important aspect of the shopping experience for the low-income consumer (Hibbert et al., 2002). Thus, use of the local shopping area may in fact be a coping strategy directed towards satisfying social goals. With respect to store and product choice it has been reported that some low-income consumers select retail outlets that offer core lines at lower prices and to shop around quite extensively to acquire additional products that they require at reasonable prices (Piacentini et al., 2001). Further, some impoverished consumers shop together as a risk reduction strategy (Harris et al., 2000) and to alleviate some of the financial pressures (for example in sharing transport costs, share special deals). Shopping with friends can also help to reduce the stress of social experiences during the retail encounter.

There is also evidence of what appear to be emotional strategies, particularly distancing/denial. For instance many express that they are quite content with the retail environments in which they shop and their shopping habits (Williams and Hubbard, 2001; Piacentini et al., 2001) despite the fact that these sites are not regarded to provide attractive retail environment to most consumers. The strategy of overall avoidance of grocery shopping is likely to be rare because people have to eat. Choosing to eat out is a limited option for low-income consumers because of the cost, but meals can be provided through fast-food/takeouts and snacks (e.g. crisps and chocolate). Where restrictions are severe, as is the case for housebound elderly people, services such as meals-on-wheels may be sought. Avoidance strategies are more prominent for some aspects of shopping activity. For instance, people avoid social environments where they experience discomfort in interacting with sales people, security etc. (Williams and Hubbard, 2001).

As has been found in prior research into consumer coping (e.g. Luce, 1998; Mick and Fournier, 1998) some strategies serve both problem-solving and emotional ends. Shopping at discount retailers enables people to save money on core product lines but also avoids shopping in stores selling a range and quality of goods that are beyond their means, present money-wasting opportunities (Barratt, 1997) and heighten the risk of encountering embarrassing situations at checkouts (Wrigley et al., 2002).

Although a range of coping behaviours are documented in the literature on disadvantaged consumers’ grocery shopping, they are not clearly associated with the different aspects of the grocery shopping task. Moreover, there remains a lack of clarity in explanations of the differences among individual responses, which we feel can be illuminated by reference to theories of coping.


This paper has elaborated on the concept of consumer coping with a view to providing more detailed insights into the way in which disadvantaged consumers cope with exchange restrictions. Relation of the coping concept to the context of impoverished consumers’ grocery shopping behaviour is a first move towards developing understanding of this issue with closer attention to psychological processes that mediate behavioural responses to restrictions on exchange imposed by structural conditions.

On the basis of foregoing discussion, qualitative interviews are being undertaken in order to validate some of the ideas advanced and to start developing research propositions and building robust theory in this area. Specifically we hope to identify a more comprehensive range of problem-focused and emotion-focused strategies that are adopted to confront the four key aspects of grocery shopping activity. Subsequently, we will look to the qualitative data to develop research propositions that identify relationships between primary and secondary appraisal processes, stress/emotions and coping responses.


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Sally Hibbert, Nottingham University, UK
Maria Piacentini, Lancaster University, UK


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003

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