Special Session Summary Agood to the Last Drop@: Perspectives on Thrift and Frugality


Eric J. Arnould (2003) ,"Special Session Summary Agood to the Last Drop@: Perspectives on Thrift and Frugality", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 321-324.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 321-324



Eric J. Arnould, University of Nebraska, USA

The aim of this session is to challenge the axiomatic assumption of consumer wastefulness (Lastovicka, Bettencourt, Hughner and Kuntze 1999). Across the social sciences, many models of consumer behavior build in the presumption that consumers are wasteful, perhaps because they recognize that capitalism is a wasteful economic system. In economic theory, the idea of infinitely expanding consumer wants unites models as diverse as neoclassical theory and Veblen’s (1994) theory of conspicuous consumption. In sociology, Colin Campbell (1987) proposes that the Romantic current in Protestantism, supplanting the thriftiness espoused by the earlier Calvinist variety, and evident in early American consumer behavior (Witkowski 1989), fuels an unquenchable passion for material things. Presumably, the frugal republican yeoman is no more. In anthropology, case studies of the erosion of idealized traditional cultures (commodity poor but ecologically sound) faced with the presumably irresistible flood of Western consumer goods are a staple of textbooks and undergraduate readers.

Movements that challenge modern consumer culture also seem to presume consumer wastefulness as a condition that needs rectification. The consumer behavior literature on recycling, for example, deals primarily with the problem of non-compliance or mechanisms to increase compliance with recycling plans (Chew and Wirtz 2001; Dahab, Gentry, and Su 1995; Jackson, Olsen, Granzin and Burns 1993; Thogersen and Grunert-Beckmann 1997). Backed up by undeniably alarming macro-level statistics about energy consumption, consumer debt, carbon dioxide emissions, global warming, and landfill use, recent work on sustainable consumption similarly focuses its attention on the search for incentives to reduce waste by reducing consumption (Czech 2000; Chapman, Lorey 2002; Petersen and Smith-Moran 1999). The voluntary simplicity movement entwined with the popularity of PBS’s 1996 Affluenza documentary likewise extols the delights of consuming less as against the (sinful?) inducements of marketers to wasteful consumption (Elgin 1993; Pierce 2000).

The popular press provides compelling evidence in such vehicles as the Tightwad Gazette, that frugality is alive and well among many consumers (Lastovicka, et al. 1999). Nevertheless, the consumer behavior literature is virtually silent on thrift and frugality. Only Lastovicka, et al. (1999) challenge this silence to develop a trait measure of frugality. The other exceptions are literature that explores deal proneness (Lichtentein, Burton and Netemeyer 1997; Blattberg, Buesing, Peacock and Sen 1978; Shoham, Kahle and Rose 1995), and a few papers on hoarding (e.g., Stiff, Johnson and Tourk 1975). These literature streams treat both deal proneness and hoarding as explicable from a utilitarian perspective. None of this literature entertains the possibility that such behaviors might be driven primarily by the desire for the sacred, as Miller (1998) argues or by ludic and hedonic motives as contributors to this panel suggest. By contrast, the literature on collecting distinguishes it from hoarding on just these grounds (Belk, Wallendorf, Sherry and Holbrook 1991), but papers in this session challenge this neat distinction.

Setting aside the systemic inducements of market capitalism temporarily, the papers in this session begin with a different axiomatic premise, i.e., frugality is a fundamental consumer motive and goal. The papers build from three specific sources of insight, Miller’s (1998) discovery that giving while saving motivates mundane shopping behavior; Belk, et al.’s (1991) documentation of the vast scope of everyday collecting; and Spelman’s (2002) whimsical identification of Homo reparens. Not only do the papers recast saving behavior as ludic and hedonic, papers in this session explore three moments in a cycle of frugality. Bardhi’s paper examines purchasing to save in a thrift-shopping context. As urged by Lastovicka, et al. (1999), Arnould and Price look at saving in product use. Coulter and Ligas examine storing for saving. The papers in this session also anticipate future theory building. Miller (1998) looked at saving in the purchase of household necessities as a form of giving to the family. Arnould and Price extend on Miller in looking at saving while giving in the framework of use. Bardhi extends on Miller’s work by examining saving on luxury purchases as constitutive of an extended network of significant others. Coulter and Ligas examine a category of behaviors that maps tidily neither to hoarding nor collecting in Belk, et al.’s (1991) framework. Their work focuses on storage in anticipation of saving through giving and reuse of useful things.

Together the papers in this session encourage future work in two areas: first, on frugality and consumption and, secondly, on frugality, re-use and giving as forms of productive consumption. Our session chair, Lorna Stephens, who speaks as a professional expert in retailing, a participant observer of trash shopping, and as a collector developed further research directions and theoretical implications.

Gleaning is generally associated with gathering or picking up ears of corn or other produce after the reapers (Oxford English Dictionary). In this context, gleaners constitute a differentiated segment of people, generally marginalized and economically disadvantaged. Renderings that are more contemporary refer to gathering or picking up in small quantities or scraping together and primarily describe gleaning intangibles such as information or experience. Only recently have researchers turned attention to gleaning as a metaphor for how consumers derive value from products, but again gleaners have typically been depicted as fringe elements of contemporary societyCdumpster divers, thrift shoppers, and homeless consumers (Meamber and MacLaran 2002). In "Eeryday Gleaning in the American Midwest," Eric Arnould and Linda Price examine the everyday product gleaning behaviors of middle-class North America Midwesterners in order to inform understanding of consumer thrift and frugality in contemporary consumption.

Arnould and Price’s research builds systematically on research that identifies frugality and saving impulses in the context of purchase behaviors to explore these urges in product use and reuse (Lastovicka et al 1999; Miller 1998). Their study also extends research examining the meaning of post-acquisition activities (Arnould and Price 2001, Curasi, Arnould and Price 2003, Price, Arnould and Curasi 2000). In this paper, they draw on 80 semi-structured depth interviews and observations with a convenience sample of consumers interviewed in their homes on the topic of using up products. Informants were diverse in gender, age, socio-economic and lifestyle characteristics. Observations involved taking photographs throughout the home including garages/attics/storage areas, junk drawers, laundry room, refrigerators, bathrooms, recycling, and even cars, purses, and wallets to capture product depletion and reuse tactics. Interviews focused on: whether and how consumers use up products, how this varies across characteristics of the products, criteria used in deciding whether and how to use products up, feelings and emotions associated with gleaning, and finally situational, social, intergenerational and individual factors that consumers believe contribute to their own product use behaviors.

Arnould and Price’s findings illustrate that consumers working creatively to extract value from mundane products and extend their useful life saturates everyday consumption. Certainly not all consumers pursue savings, but their results suggest consumer gleaning is a meaningful product use behavior among middle class American Midwesterners.

Several general observations about gleaners and gleaning emerge. Gleaning behavior is selective: sometimes expensive products like perfume and fashions are used to the last drop, but often inexpensive products like personal care items and cleaning products are. Sometimes favorite products are used up; sometimes less favored products are used to the last drop. Arnould and Price also found that some people are gleaners, but some just engage in selective gleaning behaviors. They also found that there are recognizable sub-groups including savers, who want to get the most out of things by using them up, pack-rats (see Coulter and Ligas’ paper below), who hoard things for an indefinite future use; re-users (Bardhi’s trash shoppers?), who find creative ways to repair and transform things; and tightwads, for whom frugality is a terminal value. Not surprisingly, they recorded notable gender differences in the domains in which gleaning behavior occurs. And, they found that in general, older consumers practice more and extreme savings and reuse behaviors, and generally use more tactics than younger consumers. Finally, Midwestern consumers in their sample express little eco-consciousness, beyond relatively vague concerns about landfills or the inherent good in recycling.

Arnould and Price elaborate several central themes. First, they focus on the rich, and ambivalent emotions associated with using or not using things up. Although some consumers feel embarrassed as they reveal unique and extreme antics for gleaning mundane products such as toothpaste and laundry soap, they also feel proud and accomplished to have wasted nothing. Many brag about the number of uses they have gleaned through their innovative strategies. Avoidance of guilt is prominent, as is resistance to the wastefulness of consumption. For example, consumers report retaining products they do not use (and probably won’t) in order to avoid the feeling that they wasted money buying them. Sometimes, college age consumers associate their heightened gleaning to their newly adult social status; thriftiness is closer to the values and behaviors of their parents. Consumers also report frustration and exasperation with products that they cannot use up because of packaging or their own lack of imagination. For example, after saving leftover anti-perspirant for a long time, one consumer abandons hope because he just could not figure out how to use the stuff up. Another consumer facing this same dilemma finally uncovered a solutionCshe melts several of them in the microwave and then combines them into one.

Second, discussion surrounding these emotions gives us insights into consumers’ meanings for using things up and the sources of those meanings. Intergenerational socialization, "stickiness," previous hardship, ecology, time, storage and habit figure prominently. But, many of their informants also believe they have special knowledge and skills to which other consumers may not be privy. For example, if other consumers had any idea how much was left in that sealed lotion container, they too would find a way to extract it, or if other consumers were as effective at constructing storage, they too would save it. Arnould and Price find that gifts, even unwanted gifts, and favorite products exhibit a curious "stickiness." Consumers are loath to part with them when they are worn out, and sometimes simply hold on to their packaging. Although product characteristics, especially shelf life, influence product use, some characteristics such as the expense of the product make less difference than one might suppose. In general, Arnould and Price’s Midwestern consumers are concerned with non-wastefulness rather than a particular economic savings. Some feel that savings is a way to "put one over" on marketers who induce waste.

Third, their findings suggest ways consumers rotate products among applications and areas of their home to extend their useful lifeCfrom public to private, from one kind of a container to another, from one kind of use to another and from one area of the home to another. Some consumers try to move still useful products into someone else’s careCCool Whip containers become gifts of leftovers for grown children; thirty-two ounce empty milk containers go the elementary art teacher; gallon ice cream buckets store household cleaners. Consumers discover new value in re-used objects; value that exceeds the original value the marketplace assigned to the object. This is particularly so of those who repair and restore disused items, making a quilt from old athletic T-shirts or sofas from automobile bodies. Available storage offers a consistent barrier thwarting consumer efforts to conserve, but consumers overcome this in a variety of ingenious ways. They view storage, even in the absence of use, as a utility enhancing consumption practice, as is the intention to use something up, even if they do not quite realize this intention. For example, individuals households will save for months or even years objects "just in case," believing they will "some day" be useful, and feeling good about that intention. They outline several future research directions for exploring saving through consumer use.

Fleura Bardhi’s study "Thrift and Pleasure: Understanding Consumer Values Derived from Thrift Shopping," examines a process largely ignored in marketing, thrift shopping. Thrift shopping is shopping in second hand settings, such as estate sales, auctions, garage sales, but especially in thrift shops. The study focuses on thrift shopping that takes place in so-called thrift storesCretail stores that sell secondhand items, and often run for charitable purposes, such as Goodwill. Currently, this particular category of thrift shopping represents a thriving industry with an annual growth of ten percent and with an estimated 15,000 thrift stores around the US.

In the context of this special session, the study of thrift shopping is important for a number of reasons. First, thrift shopping provides a unique context for the study of the concept of thrift. Thrift shopping as a money saving activity is commonly associated with thrift, frugality, savings, and poverty. Marketing traditionally conceptualizes thrift and frugality from utilitarian economic perspectives that is, in terms of budgets, transaction costs, and savings (Blattberg et al 1978; Lastovicka et al 1999). Generally, thrift is not considered as an end in itself, but in terms of short-term sacrifices in current consumption for future long-term goals (Lastovicka et al 1999; Miller 1998).

This study challenges and extends the concept of thrift by taking a hedonic perspective, influenced by the work of Miller (1998) and Campbell (1987). This literature has suggested that one of the important motivations for shopping is to save; consumers go shopping to experience saving money (Miller 1998). Thus, this paper studies thrift in the experience of spending (shopping) as a valued end in a market economy itself.

Second, study of thrift shopping allows us to examine the values and benefits that consumers derive both from this activity and from the consumption of the items purchased. The purpose here is to provide evidence that in contemporary American consumer society, where consumption, luxury and hedonism are important values, thrift and savings coexist with them.

The research was conducted through qualitative observations and interviews in two thrift stores in a Midwestern town, USA. The participants of this study are consumers that consider themselves regular thrift shoppers. Findings show that thrift emerges as an important discursive framework of thrift shopping in three aspects. First, consumers perceive the thrift stores’ cheap prices and numerous sales promotions as a preferred vehicle to achieve desirable consumer lifestyles. Thrift shopping allows consumers to "have a life" that they desire in difficult financial times. Some participants in the study also go thrift shopping because they perceive it as wasteful to buy new items. Further, consumers engage in surrogate shopping (Solomon 1986) to enable their friends and family to save money in pursuit of their lifestyle goals, as well.

Second, thrift stores represent a chance for consumers to recycle non-desirable items instead of throwing them away. Further, itineraries of thrift-shopped items show that many items end up back at thrift stores after present owners exhaust their value. They also pass unused items on to friends and family as gifts. Very little get wasted in this process.

Third, a major motivation to go thrift shopping is the ludic and hedonic experience of finding the best bargain and the thrill of the hunt. Low prices and the numerous sales promotions offered every week focus the thrift shopping process in a competitive search for the best bargain. As a process, thrift shopping emerges as a serious time consuming activity where shoppers hope to find objects of desire at the lowest price possible. Best bargains are handmade, collectibles, or designer brands made with quality raw materials. Thus, thrift shopping merges with luxury shopping. Further, consumers derive pleasure and hedonic benefits from thrift shopping in terms of surprise, pride in expertise, and indulgence of fantasies. In sum, Bardhi’s study shows how consumers engage in highly autotelic behavior by encapsulating it in a shopping context in which thrift is the accented discursive frame.

In 1996, PBS produced the documentary, Affluenza, which highlighted the extravagant and supposedly wasteful lifestyle of the American consumer. The premise of the report was over-consumption and materialism gone awry; the central message was the eventual deterioration of society, the economy, and the environment. Is it possible that consumers could no longer control their purchasing urges, and as result their mindset has became one of constant disposal and replacement of possessions? In "Saving for Whom?, for What?, and How?: Exploring the Mindset of Packrats," Robin A. Coulter and Mark Ligas provide a stark contrast to this materialistic consumer by focusing on packrats, consumers who exhibit "extreme" saving, sometimes referred to as hoarding, behavior. In the paper, they draw upon semi-structured depth interviews with fourteen self-described packrats (7 males, 7 females) to consider packrats’ motivations for saving.

Their findings suggest that packrats’ behaviors run counter to those espoused by the Affluenza documentaryBpackrats are thrifty, resourceful and not wasteful; they worry that as soon as they throw something away, they will need (and not have) it. Coulter and Ligas’ informants are proud of their saving behavior, and look unfavorably upon more materialistic consumers. Packrats are different from collectors; packrats save a broad array of things (e.g., used clothing, old paintings, old tires, broken bicycles, old newspapers). Their fourteen informants provide insights about saving motives and behaviors from several perspectives: 1) for whom are they saving things? 2) for what reasons are they saving things? and 3) how are they saving things?

First, they find that packrats save for themselves and for others, whether acquaintances (e.g., family or friends) or not (e.g., "trash" shoppers). Importantly, packrats strongly believe "someone" will have a need for the things they are saving, and packrats are selective with regard to whom they will give, sell or donate their goodsBpackrats want the new owner to be a good caretaker of their things.

Second, Coulter and Ligas find that packrats save because they perceive their things have some functional or symbolic value. With regard to functional value, packrats note that "This is too good to throw away," they want to extract all use from a product before disposing of it. For example, packrats conceive that either they or someone can reuse the thing (e.g., an old painting) in its current form. Additionally, packrats save things for future needs; e.g., a broken bicycle, so that they or others could later take parts from that bicycle to rebuild or fix another bicycle. Further, their informants indicate that figuring out new uses for saved things (e.g., making a swing or sandbox out of a used tire) is important to them. In addition to fulfilling functional needs, packrats also commented on the symbolic value associated with their saved belongings. Sentimentality is prominent in the minds of packrats. Packrats’ memories related to their things come tagged with information about when and how these things figured in their lives.

Finally, there is some variability with regard to how and where packrats save their things. Some packrats report being very organized and careful storing their things, others less so. Some have their things in the attic, the basement, the garage, or their own personal closet and drawer space; others report that their things are not only in their own space, but encroaching on others’ space.

By examining packrats’ saving motivations, Coulter and Ligas’ research contributes to a growing body of literature about consumers’ shopping motivations. They are also investigating packrats’ acquisition strategies and motivations for initial purchase, as well as more about their disposition strategies.


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Eric J. Arnould, University of Nebraska, USA


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003

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