What Characterizes 'Truly’ Loyal Online Shoppers? Modeling the Influence of Variety Seeking, Satisfaction, Trust and Involvement on Online-Store Commitment

ABSTRACT - The purpose of this paper is to develop a theoretical model to explain the effects of consumer variables on online store-commitment. We distinguish between calculative and affective store commitment and argue that the affective component of commitment is the decisive one for 'true’ loyal customer behavior to manifest online. In accordance with existing research we include satisfaction and trust as core predictors of affective commitment. We further argue for the inclusion of different facets of involvement, which are product, purchase, and task involvement, as well as experiential factors that hitherto lack theoretical and empirical consideration in the loyalty literature. We expect different effects for different types of involvement on store commitment, due to different underlying predispositions of the individual. Finally, a theoretical model is constructed and tested to predict the varying effects of the proposed antecedents of affective online store-commitment, and its implications and limitations are discussed.



Citation:

Andrea Hemetsberger and Eva Thelen (2003) ,"What Characterizes 'Truly’ Loyal Online Shoppers? Modeling the Influence of Variety Seeking, Satisfaction, Trust and Involvement on Online-Store Commitment", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 361-367.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 361-367

WHAT CHARACTERIZES 'TRULY’ LOYAL ONLINE SHOPPERS? MODELING THE INFLUENCE OF VARIETY SEEKING, SATISFACTION, TRUST AND INVOLVEMENT ON ONLINE-STORE COMMITMENT

Andrea Hemetsberger, University of Innsbruck, Austria

Eva Thelen, University of Innsbruck, Austria

ABSTRACT -

The purpose of this paper is to develop a theoretical model to explain the effects of consumer variables on online store-commitment. We distinguish between calculative and affective store commitment and argue that the affective component of commitment is the decisive one for 'true’ loyal customer behavior to manifest online. In accordance with existing research we include satisfaction and trust as core predictors of affective commitment. We further argue for the inclusion of different facets of involvement, which are product, purchase, and task involvement, as well as experiential factors that hitherto lack theoretical and empirical consideration in the loyalty literature. We expect different effects for different types of involvement on store commitment, due to different underlying predispositions of the individual. Finally, a theoretical model is constructed and tested to predict the varying effects of the proposed antecedents of affective online store-commitment, and its implications and limitations are discussed.

INTRODUCTION

E-loyalty has recently received considerable attention, first in the management literature and increasingly in academia (see: Webber, 1998; Reichheld and Schefter, 2000; Szymanski and Hise, 2000; Schultz and Bailey, 2000; Abbott et al., 2000; Srinivasan et al., 2002; Reibstein, 2002). The contributions mainly focus on the importance of the factors trust and satisfaction for e-customer loyalty. Especially with regard to e-satisfaction measures have been developed and tested that take the different online context into account. E-loyalty still lacks conceptual thinking and empirical research, especially with regard to consumer variables and their effects on different types of commitment (Abbott et al., 2000). One of the main issues is whether or not existing models of brick and mortar retailer loyalty are applicable to an online setting. If not, what are the differences and what specific factors influence customer loyalty to Internet offers?

The main objective of our article is to shed light on consumer variables influencing e-loyalty. To this end, we will discuss important characteristics of online consumer behavior and their implications for e-loyalty, based on a brief summary of existing research on loyalty in general. We will further argue that affective commitment represents the most relevant concept to be explained in an online context. Consequently, the main objective of our contribution is to uncover the factors influencing affective commitment towards an online retailer, in particular. To this end, a variety of cognitive-affective, and experientially based antecedents of affective store-commitment is reviewed and built into a comprehensive theoretical model. In accordance with existing research satisfaction and trust are included as core predictors of affective commitment (Bloemer and de Ruyter, 1998; Surprenant and Solomon, 1987; Kelley and Davis, 1994; Morgan and Hunt, 1994; Geyskens et al., 1996). Considering the environmental context of online shopping and the more active role of online shoppers in the service encounter we argue for the integration of different sources of involvement as important antecedents of e-loyalty. We present a theoretical model and empirical testing of affective online store-commitment and end with a discussion of its implications.

CONCEPTUALIZATIONS OF LOYALTY AND COMMITMENT

With the paradigmatic shift towards relationship marketing theory establishing and maintaining successful relational exchanges with customers became a core concept in marketing theory and practice (Morgan and Hunt, 1994). The importance of relationships in marketing has received considerable attention, particularly in service and channel contexts (Macintosh and Lockshin, 1997). A number of authors have argued that loyalty is a relational phenomenon (Jacoby and Kyner, 1973; Sheth and Parvatiyar, 1995). Research on relationships in retailing has not been as extensive, even though many retail stores are using relationship building programs in the hope of enhancing store loyalty.

Research on customer loyalty is well conceptualized and supported by a rich empirical basis. Perhaps the most common operationalization and measurement refers to the behavioral aspect of customer loyalty with customer satisfaction being the most influential concept. Two main arguments have been put forward in that respect. Firstly, behavioral intentions as well as actual loyal behavior are easy to operationalize. Secondly, these concepts are closest to companies’ and organizations’ main objective of selling and making profit.

Other researchers proposed that behavior must be based on enduring predisposition or attitude (e.g.: Day, 1969). Hence, the conceptualizations of loyalty have been extended by attitudinal facets. It has been argued that only by means of these attitudinal aspects one can distinguish loyalty from mere repeat purchase (Jacoby and Kyner, 1973; Bloemer and Kasper, 1999). Following this argument Jacoby and Kyner (1973) defined loyalty as "(1) the biased (i.e., nonrandom), (2) behavioral response (i.e., purchase), (3) expressed over time, (4) by some decision-making unit, (5) with respect to one or more alternative brands out of a set of such brands, and (6) is a function of psychological (decision-making, evaluative) processes." (Jacoby and Kyner, 1973, p.2). The individual develops a degree of commitment to the brand in question, meaning that he/she is loyal. The notion of commitment, they further argue, provides an essential basis for distinguishing between brand loyalty and other forms of repeat purchasing behavior. Also Morgan and Hunt (1994) suggest that measures of loyalty based on attitude are consistent with their conceptualization of commitment. Furthermore, there is ample evidence that commitment is an important predictor of customer return intentions and actual loyal behavior over time (Barksdale et al., 1997; Garbarino and Johnson, 1999; Wetzels and de Ruyter, 1998; Baldinger and Rubinson, 1996). Customer commitment is therefore a good indicator of attitudinal loyalty and relationship marketing success (Liljander and Roos, 2002).

In their work on store loyalty Bloemer and de Ruyter (1998) additionally argued that marketers should differentiate between affective, calculative and moral commitments. According to Allen and Meyer (1990) moral store-commitment refers to a feeling of obligation to an organization. Mathieu and Zajac (1990) argued that moral commitment is rare in business relationships, thus, calculative and affective commitment seem to be most relevant for business relationships. Calculative commitment is the extent to which a person feels a need to maintain a relationship based on a 'cold’, rational calculus of benefits in relation to switching costs. Calculative commitment is almost exclusively due to non-psychological exit barriers. In contrast to this, affective commitment is defined as the desire to continue a relationship and expresses a sense of loyalty and belongingness (Morgan and Hunt, 1994). We find this distinction to be important as different types of commitment will lead to different behavioral outcomes. In the absence of affective commitment, consumers are likely to switch to other providers when switching costs are low, whereas, if they are affectively committed to a store they feel the desire to stay within the buyer-supplier relationship.

IN WHAT WAY IS E-LOYALTY DIFFERENT?

Many successful e-businesses benefit from the compelling advantages the Internet offers over conventional brick-and-mortar stores, including greater flexibility, enhanced market outreach, lower cost structures, faster transactions, broader product lines, greater convenience, and customization (Srinivasan et al., 2002). However, the characteristics of the Internet also led to challenges with respect to relationship building and customer loyalty. Due to the easiness to obtain nearly full information about prices, products, and services offered exit barriers and switching costs are fairly low for customers (Nielsen, 2000). What follows is that calculative commitment is less likely to occur in an online context. Moreover, loyal behavior which is exclusively based on a calculative rationale is rather vulnerable to price offers of competitors, whereas affective store-commitment results in lower price sensitivity (Reibstein, 2002). Affectively committed customers are willing to pay a premium to continue doing business with their preferred retailers rather than incur additional search costs (Reichheld and Sasser, 1990). In the light of these arguments, affective commitment seems the more important facet of e-loyalty and should b looked at in detail.

Gutek et al. (1999, 2000) found that personal relationships lead to higher perceived customer satisfaction, trust and commitment. However, in an online context fostering commitment is challenged by the absence of face-to-face interaction. Even in self-service retail contexts customers have at least the possibility to get help from personnel whereas in an online setting there is none. The question arises how online stores could establish affective commitment of consumers to the store without personal interaction. Successful service providers, like amazon.com, therefore concentrate on personalization to establish a trustful 'pseudo-individual’ relationship on the one hand, and managing exit barriers on the other hand. Moreover, customers are much more integrated in and active creators of the service encounter, hence their level of involvement in an online shopping task should be higher than in an offline context. As long as researchers and practitioners are not aware of how affective commitment develops and thus, are not alert to factors that might influence customers’ propensity to stay or leave, e-loyalty is being reduced to managing exit barriers. Hence, in the sequel we will concentrate on discussing antecedents of affective commitment towards an online store as proposed in the literature as well as argue for the inclusion of different sources of involvement and experiential variables.

Satisfaction and trust

Research has shown that customer satisfaction is an important antecedent of store loyalty (Bloemer and de Ruyter, 1998; Surprenant and Solomon, 1987). Store satisfaction is defined as the customer’s overall evaluation of the store experience. Greater rewards as reflected in higher satisfaction evaluations increase the attractiveness of a relationship to customers and, hence, their commitment to the relationship (Kelley and Davis, 1994; Morgan and Hunt, 1994). Whereas earlier research proposed a direct effect of customer satisfaction on purchase intentions, Dick and Basu’s (1994) conceptual framework suggests that the attitudinal component mediates the effects of satisfaction on purchase intention. Therefore, we expect a positive direct effect of satisfaction on affective commitment which reflects the attitudinal component of loyalty. However, satisfaction is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for affective commitment to prosper. Dick and Basu (1994) argue that commitment also implies a belief in the superiority of the service compared to alternative suppliers. We consider this to be an important argument because it relates to the distinction between calculative and affective customer commitment. Customers may be satisfied and loyal simply because of a lack of attractive alternatives. This form of commitment is purely calculative and it is very likely that customers would switch to new attractive offers when affective commitment is absent (Stauss and Neuhaus, 1999). However, when the product and service offer is experienced as superior, customers are more likely to develop affective commitment towards the service provider. Hence, contrary to most operationalizations of satisfaction in loyalty research, we argue that satisfaction measures should reflect consumers’ evaluation of the service compared to relevant other service offers.

H1: customer belief in service superiority is positively related to affective commitment

In the relationship marketing literature trust has been found to be one of the most important antecedents of commitment (Morgan and Hunt, 1994; Geyskens et al., 1996). Morgan and Hunt (1994) define trust as one party’s confidence in an exchange partner’s reliability and integrity. This definition is consistent with others in the marketing literature. Recent research on privacy and security concerns of online buyers underlines the importance of trust in the online context (Aksoy and Bloom, 2001; White and Schneider, 2000; Morris, 2001). Trust is an indicator of a growing relationship that tends to foster higher levels of commitment. Therefore, we expect a strong effect of trust on affective online store-commitment.

H2: trust is positively related to affective online store-commitment

When customers once bought a product and are satisfied, they will be assured that they can trust an online store, thus the level of trust should remain stable or even increase when consumers belief in the superiority of the service. On the other hand, when a trustful relationship is established, we would also expect a positive bias on perceived service superiority. Consequently, we define the relationship between trust and perceived superiority of the service as bi-directional.

H3: trust positively influences perceived service superiority and vice versa

Product, purchase and task involvement

It has been argued before that involvement constitutes an important concept that should be included in loyalty research (Engel et al., 1995, Peter and Olson, 1996). Involvement is an affective-cognitive concept and generally refers to the perceived personal relevance of an object or event to a consumer (Zaichkowsky, 1985).

According to Bloemer and Kasper (1999) brand and retailer involvement positively influences loyalty towards the brand and towards the retailer. The authors additionally argue for a differentiated view of involvement including product and purchase involvement (Mittal and Lee, 1989). In addition to this, the different environmental context of the Internet suggests different and additional effects of involvement that could be explanatory with respect to e-loyalty. Much has been written with regard to the emancipatory function of the Internet. Consumers can play a much more active role in e-business and they do. The Internet allows them to compare prices, products and services across a wide variety of stores and decide for the ones that perfectly fit their expectations. As consumers turn from more passive 'reaction’ to a retail service into active participants in the service delivery process, a number of additional factors are likely to moderate the buying experience, including product and service involvement and shopping goals (Woodruff, 1997; Mathwick et al., 2001).

Purchase involvement is situational and may be defined as "...the extent of interest and concern that a consumer brings to bear upon a purchase-decision task." (Mittal, 1989, p.150). It represents perceived financial and social risk associated with buying a product (Mittal and Lee, 1989) or what the right or wrong choice would mean to a customer. Higher purchase involvement reflecting perceived financial risk would probably lead to browsing different stores or price agents to compare prices and make an optimal choice. Reibstein (2002) found that price is decisive for attracting new customers however, price is least important for re-purchase decisions. Hence, we conclude that higher purchase involvement is more likely to reflect social risk and/or the risk of not being satisfied with the product chosen. However, social risk and the risk of choosing the wrong product is much lower when customers buy from an online store they already know. Bloemer and Kasper (1999) found a direct positive effect of purchase involvement with cars on brand loyalty. In the context of an online book store where the store is the brand, we can conclude that higher purchase involvement will lead to higher affective commitment towards the store.

H4: consumer purchase involvement positively influences affective commitment

The antecedents of product involvement are different. Product involvement has a long-term character. It has been defined as the instrumental and enduring importance of a product class for a consumer which refers to the social significance as well as the personal relevance for the consumer (Laurent/Kapferer, 1985). We expect that consumers who are highly interested in books in general will be active information searchers and, thus, regularly browse different sites and stores in order to obtain full information and make an optimal purchase decision. Furthermore, high product involvement may also result in a desire to hold the product in one’s hand, browse the content, and look for face-to-face communication with experts. Hence, highly involved customers are probably more likely to prefer a brick-and-mortar shopping environment.

H5: higher consumer product involvement leads to lower affective online store-commitment

In addition to being involved with the purchase situation or with a specific product class, customers also have to fulfill an online shopping task they may be involved with or not. According to Rothschild (1979) response involvement or involvement with the task encompasses information processing and learning. Thus, it will lead to increasing knowledge and familiarity of the shopping task and, as a consequence, determines the consistency in decision making (Johnson and Payne, 1985; Payne, 1982). Consequently, higher task involvement should lead to a more consistent decision for/against a specific e-tailer. A person who is less involved with the task will less likely consider the shopping experience as stimulating and search for more variety and different stores. Additionally, a familiarity effect could be expected which leads to a positive effect regarding the attitudinal component of e-loyalty. Moreover, Srinivasan et al. (2002) found that the character of an e-tailer’s website, comprising design features, tools and the attractiveness of the shopping task, had the highest impact on e-loyalty among eight e-business characteristics. We therefore expect a strong positive effect of high task involvement on affective store-commitment.

H6: consumer task involvement is positively related to affective online store-commitment

Experiential variables

In addition to the cognitive processing and evaluation of the online service encounter, Internet shopping has a highly experiential and playful facet as well (Mathwick et al., 2001). Whether or not an individual experiences high task involvement with online shopping certainly depends on the degree to which a person is involved with browsing the Web in general. Novak et al. (2000) argued that creating a compelling online experience is the key to success in e-business. They found, what they call 'telepresence’ or total immersion to be an important predictor of flow which represents a highly enjoyable experience. In order to measure this experiential aspect we included this variable in our model. We propose that the higher an individual is involved with browsing the Web, the 'smoother’ and more enjoyable the shopping task will be experienced. Consequently, we hypothesize that telepresence leads to higher task involvement.

H7: telepresence is positively related to task involvement

Browsing the Web is also a playful activity and often leads to exploratory behavior. Surfing the Web then becomes a goal of its own and leads to browsing several sites and stores rather than finishing the shopping task. If individuals like to browse several different WebsitesBare online variety seekersBthey will, similar to 'real-world’ shoppers, rather visit several different online stores and be less committed to a specific e-tailer. It is important to note here that in an offline setting variety seeking mostly refers to the variety of product offers customers are looking for. In contrast to this, here we focus on variety seeking in terms of online experience. The rationale behind this proposition is that, contrary to 'brick and mortar’ stores, offering a great variety of products and services in online stores is very common and a much easier task because the products offered do not have to be physically present at the time. On the other hand, customers who do not need or want a broad assortment can easily focus their search on a specific product or category without getting confused or irritated. As a consequence, empirical reality shows that most e-tailers offer a broad range of products and assortments. Thus, we argue that the influencing variable on store commitment is exploratory behavior in general rather than seeking for product variety.

H8: variety seeking negatively influences affective commitment towards an online store

METHODOLOGY

Data Collection. Data collection has been carried out in different undergraduate and graduate classes. Only students who had at least bought a book once at an online bookstore in the last year, have been selected. The majority of the respondents (79%) were graduate students. Of the 329 questionnaires collected, 318 could be used for analysis. Although the use of college students may restrict the generalizability of the findings, a relatively homogeneous sample is deemed appropriate for theory testing (Calder et al, 1981).

FIGURE 1

A THEORETICAL MODEL OF AFFECTIVE ONLINE STORE-COMMITMENT

Measures. All measures used have been validated and used in previous research. Some scales or parts of it have been adapted to the online context. Affective commitment was measured with three statements which refer to Garbarino and Johnson’s (1999) study on different roles of satisfaction, trust and commitment in customer relationships. Trust was measured according to Chaudhuri and Holbrook (2001). Measures of satisfaction with an online retailer were based on Szymanski and Hise’s (2000) study on dimensions of e-satisfaction. However, the scale was adapted to fit our proposition that commitment is based on an individual’s belief in the superiority of the service offered rather than an independent evaluation of the online store. Product and purchase involvement were adapted from Laurent/Kapferer (1985) and Mittal (1989) by modifying the items to fit the retail context. The task involvement scale was adapted from Tyebjee as reported in Mishra et al. (1993). Additionally the Novak, Hoffman and Yung’s (2000) 'exploratory behavior’ scale was used, a modified scale from Baumgartner and Steenkamp (1996) made applicable to exploratory behavior on the Web, as well as their 'telepresence’ scale (Novak, Hoffman and Yung, 2000). The reliability of the scales was tested in a first step using exploratory factor analysis and coefficient Alpha. All Eigen-Values exceeded 1.9, factor loadings range from 0.711 to 0.91 and all Coefficient Alpha’s range between 0.73 and 0.86.

RESULTS

The model and hypotheses were tested using EQS, a structural equation modeling software. The results showed that the proposed theoretical model (Fig 1) did not fit the data with a c2 (1022) / df (354) ratio of 2.9, CFI=0.793 and RMSEA=0.08. Four of the hypothesized direct paths of the proposed model were not statistially significant (t-value<2). The model as proposed had to be rejected as well as hypotheses H1, H4, H5, H7, and H8, in particular. Looking at the results in more detail revealed that trust significantly influences affective commitment, hence H2 was not rejected. We also found that trust and service superiority are significantly interrelated which supports H3. However, we found no direct effects of service superiority on affective commitment and had to reject H1. Surprisingly, purchase and product involvement also produced no effects on affective commitment. Thus, H4 and H5 were rejected as well. However, we found support for hypothesis 6. Task Involvement had the strongest direct impact on affective commitment in our first model. In hypothesis 7 we proposed that 'telepresence’ will have an impact on task involvement. Our data did not support this hypothesis. Variety Seeking was supposed to have a direct negative impact, which is not supported by the data, so H8 had to be rejected as well.

What follows from these results is that the theoretical model shown in Figure 1 had to be substantially revised. Modification indices were used to improve the model. The modified model (Figure 2) provides a good fit for the data with c2 (373) / df (202) ratio=1.8, CFI=0.94, Robust CFI=0.93 and RMSEA=0.05 (Bagozzi and Yi 1988). The revised model explains 36% of the variance of the dependent variable.

Perceived service superiority leading to trust turned out to be an important predictor of affective commitment, hence we kept hypothesis 2 and 3. The revised model shows a significant effect. Trust constitutes an important requirement for commitment to establish; however, in order to excite consumers it seems that experiential variables are of considerable importance in an online retailing context. If so, individuals who like to browse different sitesBare online variety seekersBwill get deeply involved with this different online 'world’ (telepresence) and vice versa. The revised model shows that the more individuals get immersed in the browsing experience, the more they feel affectively committed to an online retailer who provides this experience. On the other hand, if people like browsing the Web they are also more involved with the shopping task. The effects of variety seeking on telepresence and on task involvement are considerable with 0.41 and 0.43, respectively. The results also show that task involvement constitutes a central variable for explaining affective commitment towards an online store. Task involvement in turn is influenced by perceived service superiority and to a considerable extent by online variety seeking.

FIGURE 2

A STRUCTURAL MODEL OF AFFECTIVE ONLINE STORE-COMMITMENT

DISCUSSION

The conceptual model developed in our paper was designed to predict the various influences of consumer variables on affective online store-commitment. We know a fair amount about the influence of satisfaction and trust on loyalty for which there is ample empirical evidence. However, we know much less about the effects of consumers’ individual predispositions in an online context. The fact that in an online environmental context consumers are far more active and play an integral role in the service delivery process gave reason to suspect that consumer involvement may play an important role. However, consumer involvement has many different facets and only a few of them seem to be relevant in an online context. Neither purchase involvement nor product involvement had an impact on affective store commitment in our sample. A replication study will be necessary because other studiesBat least in an offline contextBshowed different results (Bloemer and Kasper, 1999). However, if our results make sense, then we would have to conclude that diving into a different world online creates a different experience, also in a shopping context. Hence, experiential variables, such as being involved in browsing the Web in general, browsing an e-tailer’s site, enjoying the task of buying products, playing with a virtual shopping basket, filling it, putting things aside again, enjoying oneself by playing a virtual 'monopoly’ game, and eventually buy something seems to be the best explanation for affective commitment to an online store alongside with trust. Establishing trust and creating a compelling online experience then become the most important success factors in online retailing.

Nevertheless we have to be aware of some important limitations of the study. Buying books may not be very risky in general which could explain the nonexistent effect of purchase involvement on affective commitment. Secondly, we sampled only customers who already bought online. Most of them are regular buyersBalthough not heavy buyersBat the biggest online bookstore, hence they had a positive experience before and thus are already committed to a specific store. This familiarity effect might explain why task involvement and telepresence had such a strong direct effect on affective commitment in our study.

Like all models, we discussed only a part of reality which in our case is limited to consumer variables influencing online store commitment. We argued for affective commitment as core dimension of e-loyalty however, calculative commitment should not be overlooked in future research. Although calculative commitment tends to produce 'spurious’ as opposed to 'true’ loyal behavior (Liljander and Roos, 2002), managing exit barriers is a valid and interesting option to bind customers in the first place before they develop an attachment or sense of belonging towards a specific online store. We also believe that other forms of commitment, as is for instance commitment towards the consumer community of an online store, are important to consider for future research into e-loyalty. As suggested by Srinivasan et al. (2002) consumer-to-consumer interaction could reduce perceived risk and enhance trust in an online store. Understanding the complex interplay of consumer variables on various forms of commitment towards an online store could be an important prerequisite for the long-term success of online retailers.

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Authors

Andrea Hemetsberger, University of Innsbruck, Austria
Eva Thelen, University of Innsbruck, Austria



Volume

E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003



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