Evolution of Retail Categories-An Explanation From Consumers' Point of View


Andrea Groppel (1995) ,"Evolution of Retail Categories-An Explanation From Consumers' Point of View", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 237-245.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 237-245


Andrea Groppel, University of Paderborn


The current strategic retail trade situation in western industrialized countries is characterized by fierce international competition and increasing tendencies towards concentration (Zentes, 1989). In addition, the power of retail demand in recent years has led to a change of attitude towards 'retailing' as a research subject. Little attention was paid to it in postwar times. The questions in retail marketing have become "socially acceptable" again (Hansen, 1990). Retailing is no longer regarded as playing a minor role in the producers' perspective. Instead, there is a common agreement about the necessity of developing unique marketing tools for retailing as a 'service industry' and of making special research efforts to identify key factors of success in retail business (Tietz and Diller, 1992, p. 403; Mo1ler-Hagedorn and Geune, 1992). Recently, even supporters of classical retail theory (for example Barth, 1993, p. 1251ff.) recommended the consideration of findings in behaviourist science and especially data on images of retail outlets in the process of planning a retail store's sales which can be regarded as "causes for outlet-oriented behaviour". [All quotations from German sources have been translated by the author.]

The inclusion of consumer research in contemporary German marketing literature undoubtedly draws on Werner Kroeber-Riel. His standard work" Konsunientenverhalten (Consumer Behaviour)" was published in the fifth edition in 1992. Kroeber-Riel understands consumer research as applied behaviourist science aiming at an explanation of consumer behaviour and an empirical detection of laws or rules. For this purpose consumer research as an interdisciplinary science makes use of psychological, sociological, social psychological, behaviourist-biological and physiological findings. While behaviorist science publications are comprehensive in producer-oriented marketing literature, behaviourist science aspects of retail marketing are only sporadically taken into consideration (even in American Literature). [Thus, an analysis of Association for Consume r Research -proceedings revealed that only 6% of the contributions to the European conference in June 1992 dealt with retail -marketing, at the American autumn conference even only 4%.] These small number of articles and monographs refer to image-research in retailing, [Heinemann, 1976; Geise, 1978; Heemeyer, 1981; Muller and Beeskow, 1982; Jacoby and Olson, 1985; Theis, 1992; as well as Trommsdorff and Schuster, 1987.] the influence of in-store atmosphere on consumer behavior [Donovan and Rossiter, 1982; Sommer and Ailkens, 1982; Weinberg, 1986 and 1992; Diller and Kusterer, 1986; Bost, 1987; Groppel, 1991.] and the price behavior in food-retailing. [Nystrom, 1979; Diller, 1981 and 1985; Muller-Hagedorn, 1983; Lenzen, 1984; Simon, 1992.] For the behavioral science-oriented researcher larger and partly unprocessed fields of research in retail-marketing exist. For example:

- the intensive analysis of consumer behaviour in the different retail categories,

- the field of store design from an environmental psychological perspective (Kroeber-Riel, 1992, p. 438),

- the creation of successful internationalization-strategies for retail stores on the basis of cross-cultural- and cross-in-store behaviour research, or

- the development of a consumer-oriented trade marketing, which can possibly represent a basis to solve conflicts for producers and retailers.

An additional topic which so far has been neglected from the behavioural science perspective will also be covered in this article. The contribution of behaviourist science findings to an explanation of the evolution and the acceptance of categories within retail trade will be discussed. (However, this attempt can partly be enriched by sound empirical research results.)


For more than 60 years, the genetic theory of institutions has dealt with the evolution of retail categories (Hansen, 1990, p. 31). [Following Muller-Hagedorn (1993, p. 23) categories can be described as"usually multidimensional characteristics of a company's policy, especial ly concerning the size of store, the service-system, the assortment and the price policy."] The best-known attempts (McNairs' "wheel of retailing," 1931; Nieschlag's "Dynamik der Betriebsformen," 1974; the life-cycle concept of Davidson et al., 1976; dialectic explanations by Mason and Meyer, 1987) try to explain the categorical changes and detect regular patterns in retail evolution. Of course, Nieschlag's theory belongs to the most important explanations of contemporary German literature in the theory of retailing.

Following Nieschlag (1974), the evolution of retail categories can be divided into two phases. Within the phase of innovation and development a new retail category was conceived and realized. Due to aggressive pricing, this category was successful and copied by other market participants, thereby gaining importance in the market. During the phase of maturity and assimilation, retailers of the new category changed their policy by extending their assortment, adapting to the traditional retail categories, equipping their stores better, and offering improved service. This policy of trading up ultimately raises the costs and the retailers are no longer able to stand the formally price-aggressive behaviour. As far as traditional retailers are concerned, they try to copy the innovative aspects of the policy of the new retail category and to lower their own prices due to the pressure of competition. Consequently, retail categories tend to resemble one another in the long run (Potucek, 1987).


Muller-Hagedorn (1993, p. 78) acknowledged Nieschlag's dynamics of retail categories as one of the most important concepts to explain the evolution in retailing, but he criticizes that the "if-then-hypotheses", which are the basic elements of Nieschlag's work, are too general and vague in nature and that a vast array of "nonconforming examples" in practice challenges the empirical value of his statements. Furthermore, current retail categories recently show that there is an increasing polarisation of supply- and experience-oriented trade and that not all retailers follow the cycles of McNair's "wheel of retailing." There are sonic retailers who are not trading-up but are pursuing low-price policy, and others are entering markets with a deliberate high-level policy (Kohler, 1990). Therefore, practitioners and economists are calling for new attempts to explain the dynamics in the development of retail categories and are asking for answers to the question of which determinants (or changes in the macro-environment) are responsible for price-, or low-price policy respectively (Potucek, 1987, p. 292). In addition, it is frequently criticized that consumers' values, preferences and shopping-motives are neglected by taking a purely institution-oriented (and thus supply -oriented) perspective (Marzen, 1986, p. 285; Muller-Hagedorn, 1993, p. 72ff). Because retail categories, following Nieschlag (1974), are defined as "management concepts," attempts to explain the evolution of retail categories were not surprisingly based exclusively on the retailers' perspectives.

Thus, it is challenging to supplement Nieschlag's institution oriented theory and to explain the development of retail-trade companies from a consumers' point of view. It is not interesting to determine which factors drive trade companies to decide for or against trading-up, or trading-down strategies respectively, but the question is which retail category is preferred by the consumer. Therefore the thesis is: Only those retail categories call survive in the market, which are appreciated and frequenied by the consumer. In formulating this thesis, the isolated case is not ruled out that a trade company fails because of mismanagement, despite a positive image and high customer frequency. However, it is highly improbable that an entire retail category disappears from the market under these circumstances.

First and foremost, a behaviourist science oriented explanation of trade evolution requires a definition of the term "retail category" from a consumers' point of view. In the following, the term is understood as a more or less conscious clustering of retail outlets in the consumers' minds because of certain perceptible characteristics (such as location, outward appearance of the retail outlet, service-system, size of the store, merchandise presentation, store design and advertising), which are experienced by the consumer as being similar. Multidimensional scaling, which is based on similarity-evaluations stated by the consumer, shows that a consumers' cluster of retail stores resembles the retail categories from a trader's perspective (Groppel, 1993a). [By using the MDS-procedure for furniture retailing, furniture discounters were clearly distinguished from specialist stores, and specialist stores from furniture-design-boutiques, all in the two dimensional store positioning map percepted by the consumer (Groppel, 1993a).] An explorative opinion poll, which included 50 interviewees from Paderborn (Germany) asked to describe different shopping alternatives without a presentation of any retail-category name, revealed that consumers rarely employ the name of retail categories like discounter, specialist store or warehouse. Instead, they are differentiated by visible distinguishing marks, and examples are added to describe the retail categories (Aldi, Obi-Baurnarkt, Kaufhof).

Especially for an explanation of the acceptance of different shopping alternatives in retailing, the involvement concept must be considered in addition to shopping motive research. Trommsdorff (1993, p. 48) draws attention to the importance of the involvement construct. In his eyes it is one of the "key -constructs" in marketing.

Involvement and selection of retail categories

Involvement is regarded as a psychic construct, which is defined as an intervening variable within the scope of the SOR-model. Involvement -or as Kroeber-Riel (1992, p.347)puts it, the internal engagement or devotion of an individual for a subject matter - is not only linked with cognitive processes (searching and processing of information), but also with emotional ones and it is determined by external variables (situations, products) as well as internal variables (personal preferences). Kroeber-Riel (1990, p. 379) and Jeck-Schlottmann (1987, p. 76) emphasize that the emotional component, and thus the sensory linkage with a subject matter, should not be neglected. Accordingly, emotional involvement concerning an object can be high and cognitive activities 'can' be, but 'are not necessarily' high as well. Therefore, behaviour with a low cognitive share must not be equated with low-involvement behaviour. It is thus advisable to distinguish between emotional and cognitive involvement. Within the scope of this article involvement is characterized as being"high" if both processes ("hot cognitions") are strongly stimulated or if at least one of the emotional or cognitive psychic processes is developed above-average.

In the Sixties the involvement concept was introduced into marketing literature by Krugman (1965 and 1966) and it mainly dealt with advertising problems (Trommsdorff, 1993, p. 49). Even today, the involvement construct is employed to explain the effects of adverts (Bekmeier, 1989). Kroeber-Riel (1992, p. 627ff.) distinguishes between two ways of advertising-effects in this case. Highly-involved consumers perceive and process advertising messages attentively. The formation of attitudes towards a subject matter is the result of the perception and assessment of information and it determines the shopping-intention. Instead, following Kroeber-Riel an extensive transfer of information to low-involved consumers is not possible. Because of the low level of attention while perceiving information, only a small amount of simple information can be transferred. For communication-pol icy purposes with regard to low-engaged recipients "pleasing instead of convincing" (Weinberg, 1994) is important. In the case of low involvement the attitude towards a product is formed after sales. Within the shopping situation the consumer selects the product because he knows the name and maybe because he personally likes it, not because he has gained a previous insight into the characteristics of the product and has thus developed brand preferences.

Within the scope of this article the relevance of the involvement construct for the selection of retail outlets will be discussed. Table I displays the transfer of involvement-causing factors to retailing.

The product- or assortment involvement is basically determined by the interest an individual shows fora certain product (e.g. a coat) or an assortment (e.g. textiles), respectively. The empirical study by Kapferer and Laurent (1985) revealed that the purchase of products with a high shopping-risk (which can be determined by technical or social factors; 'speciality-goods') causes higher involvement in comparison with the purchase of convenience-goods. An empirical investigation in the field of textile-retailing (thus, products with high shopping-risks) by Groppel (1991) showed that if emotional and cognitive involvement is strong and activation is high, consumers are ready to perceive various stimuli within the process of shopping. For example, the consumer deliberately visits stimulus-oriented store environments of experience-retailing [Experience-orientation in retailing implies the application of a long-term positioning-strategy, which refers to the whole marketing-mix, adjusting to long-term trends of values, causing deep pleasant feelings, which exceed the pure satisfaction of the needs of supply and making a contribution to the quality of life (leisure time, communication, etc.) (Groppel, 1991, p. 37).] and tries to hear, smell, see and feel as much as possible and does not Protect against the influence of stimuli (Groppel, 1991). The consumer likes to talk to the personnel at the point of sale, is interested in manifold information and wants a high degree of entertainment. Thus, emotional and cognitive involvement in the process of shopping Could explain why consumers prefer experience-oriented stoics. [Likewise, experience-oriented retailing could be selected in the case of an only high emotional involvement, which can be evoked by the shopping-motive "stimulation". Then, the consumer mainly wants to be surprised and enjoys shopping. The shopping-motive "stimulation" and its effect oil the selection of retail categories will be discussed in detail in chapter 3.2.]


Instead, many supply-shopping activities can be explained by basic low-involvment. While purchasing convenience- or preference-goods, the consumer is not actively collecting and processing information concerning the price-performance ratio of different retail outlets. Without above-average activation of emotional and cognitive processes he rather habitually selects certain retail categories. The consumer assumes that these retail categories offer favourable prices and allow fast and comfortable shopping (Knoblich, 1992, p. 967). Hence, the retail outlet should be within reach and offer convenient possibilities to park. The items should be cleary arranged, one-stop-shopping should be possible and the retail category should have a positive price image.

Following Nystrom ( 1970), the price-image of a store can be defined as the consumer's evaluation of the store as to whether it sells products at favourable prices or not. [Diller (1992, p. 938) recommends a specification of the general term "price image" by "favourableness" and "worthiness" of' prices. In assessing the favourableness of' prices, evaluations are made on the basis of price comparison; in assessing the worthiness of prices, evaluations are made on the basis of the price-performance ratio.] Due to recent research (Simon, 1992, p. 535) price-image evaluation is formed by realized purchases and on the basis of prices of many items. Once a price image is developed it changes only gradually and thus it can be described as temporarily stable (Simon, 1992, p. 536). Lenzen's empirical study in the food-retailing sector (1994) underscores the importance of the price image and shows a significant correlation between the selection of retail outlets and the price image.

It can be assumed that a consumer who has to buy convenience-goods repeatedly without being interested in them, does not process pre-sale information. In the case of a positive evaluation of a retail-outlet's price image at an earlier date, [Here, it is interesting to address the question of whether the "price-guarantee" promised by some retail outlets is really giving "price-assurance" to the consumer, thus leaving him low-involved.] the consumer will continue to visit it habitually. A stable price image can represent a cognitive relief to the consumer, thus making "low-involvement purchases" possible.

The shopping involvement with regard to previously routine supply-shopping activities can be stimulated again, however, if the consumer receives dissonant information to the already formed price image. This can lead to the fact that the consumer evaluates the price image of the store once again, for example, by studying price announcements or by making independent price comparisons.

As mentioned earlier, the question of whether retail outlets are "within reach" and if shopping is "comfortable" are important factors to explain the repeated selection of stores in parallel to the price image, because consumers do not want to have any trouble with unimportant supply-purchases. Thus, the store-design should not be neglected in supply-retailing. Empirical findings (Sommer and Aitkens, 1982; Bost, 1987) show that stores with easy in-store orientation, distinct store layout and a clear presentation of items have a high consumer-preference ratio.

In comparison with other retail categories, especially the large retail stores outside the city meet the criteria of a positive price image, comfortable shopping, being within reach and contributing to the possibility of supply-purchasing without high emotional and cognitive engagement from the consumer's perspective.

Thus, it can be generally assumed that a different degree of consumer engagement is evoked depending on the available assortment and the connected risk. Experience-oriented specialist stores are selected in the case of high emotional and cognitive involvement. Instead, if engagement is low, favourable large retail stores outside the city are chosen. Hereby, the polarisation between experience- and supply-oriented retailing can be explained.

The vast array of retail categories is not sufficiently taken into account by a framework of hypotheses with a simple structure based only on the nature of the assortment and the desire to offer comfortable shopping. It can not be explained why some food discount chains (e.g. Aldi), despite the uncomfortable shopping environment for the customer, as well as expensive gourmet food temples or pricy filling-station shops are so successful. Consequently, further investigation additionally considers both "personality" and "situation" as factors causing involvement in parallel to the "assortment".

Situative factors are on the personal side of responsibility, such as perceived time pressure during the shopping activity or the lack of knowledge about the shopping location, can lead to the consumers putting up with "second best selections" of retail categories. It can be assumed, however, that this behaviour affects all retail categories in the same manner on a statistical average and that no contribution to an explanation of the competitive strength of particular categories is made. Situative factors which are rather the responsibilities of the states or communities, such as the law governing the hours of trading or the provision of parking space, can strongly influence the acceptance of different retail categories. Thus, due to the limited provision of parking space in the city, many consumers are forced to shop in large retail stores outside the city. For example, after shop-closing time filling stations are very popular in Germany despite the high price level. Another example are the Seven-Eleven Shops in Sweden which are equipped with a special license. Hence, situative factors play a minor role in explaining consumer preferences in comparison with person-specific causes of involvement. The person-specific involvement will be discussed in the following chapter in connection with individual shopping motives.

Shopping motives, selection of retail categories and in-store behaviour

In 1972, Tauber was one of the first to ask the question: "Why do people shop?" Tauber carried out an explorative study using in depth interviews. Thirty Americans from Los Angeles were asked to describe their last shopping trip and to talk about their activities, feelings and experiences. Tauber identified various types of consumers with different shopping motives. Four of these are of special interest: Self-gratifying consumers, as a first group, try to alleviate depression by spending money. the shopping process is motivated not by the utility of consumption but by the buying process itself. Secondly, physical activity may appeal to people living in a congested urban environment Who might welcome the opportunity to walk in spacious and appealingly laid-out centres and malls. Following Tauber, the third category of' sensory-stimulation-seekers enjoy the physical sensation of handling merchandise, the pleasant background music and the scents. Finally, the motive "pleasure of bargaining" should be recognized. These consumers enjoy negotiating prices. As the prices are fixed in most of the stores, these consumers try to satisfy their shopping motive by comparing the prices of different stores and by searching for a special bargain.

Taking Tauber's findings into consideration, Westbrook and Black (1985) hypothesize seven major dimensions of shopping motivation in an empirical study which varies appreciably across individuals and shopping situations. Westbrook and Black paint a picture of motives as "hypothetical and unobservable psychological constructs postulated to explain both the energized and directive aspects of human behaviour." Accordingly, motives are "forces instigating behaviour to satisfy internal need states." (Westbrook and Black, 1985, p. 89) Thus, shopping motives are fundamental, target-oriented forces going on in the organism, which can be satisfied by shopping activities. In addition, Westbrook and Black emphasize that shopping motives can be independent of the product to be purchased, as"enduring characteristics of individuals." (p. 87) Hence, shopping motives can also be interpreted as person-specific causes of involvement. Westbrook and Black differentiate between seven shopping motives as follows:

"anticipated utility" =desire for innovative products, expectation of benefits or hedonistic states which will be provided by the product to be acquired through shopping

"role enactment" =culturally prescribed roles regarding the conduct of shopping activity, such as careful price and product comparisons

"negotiation" =motivation to seek economic advantages through bargaining interactions with sellers

"choice optimization" =Wish to buy the "absolute optimum"

"affiliation" =motivation to affiliate with friends, other shoppers or retail merchants, shopping is understood as a social process

"power and authority" =Wish to be superior to the retail personnel

"stimulation" =motivation to seek novel and interesting stimuli from the retail environment ,shopping just for fun

Westbrook and Black developed a statement-battery to register the shopping motives mentioned above and interviewed 203 adult female shoppers, who were classified into six groups by means of a cluster analysis. With regard to socio-demographic criteria, these groups were identical - with regard to their attitude toward the shopping motives, these groups were different. Thus, following Westbrook and Black, one can identify highly-involved consumers, who try to satisfy all kinds of shopping motives, as well as apathetic, indifferent consumers who regard shopping as a secondary problem which must be settled within a minimum of time. Two additional clusters are characterized by the fact that they set great store on one of the described motives. Westbrook and Black call these two"choice optimizers" and "economic shoppers", according to their preferences.

Against the background of the environmental psychological behaviour-model of Mehrabian and Russel (1974) [For further information, see Groppel (1991).] and of Westbook's and Black's shopping motives, Dawson et al (1990) carried out an empirical study to investigate the connection between shopping motives on the one hand and reactions and emotional states at the point of sale on the other hand. Their results show that consumers with strong shopping motives of "stimulation" and "product interest" (= the desire to obtain as much information as possible about the product) experience the most pleasure and the highest level of activation in the marketplace. Likewise, the shopping motives influenced the length of the stay in the store as well as the desire to discover the shopping environment.

In an empirical study, Groppel (1993b) interviewed more than 500 consumers on their evaluation of various furniture retail stores belonging to different retail categories, as well as on possible furniture shopping motives and revealed that the diverse retail categories satisfy different shopping motives. The shopping motives were operationalized with regard to Westbrook and Black [In comparison with Westbrook and Black the motive "price orientation" was more important.] and, by means of factor analysis, the following superior dimensions were found (see Table 2).

As a next step, a causal analysis was employed to determine the significant relations between the subjectively perceived degree of suitability of single retail categories (dependent variable) and the shopping motives. The results are as follows in Figures 1 and 2.

For furniture-discounters: The more consumers are price-oriented and the more importance they attach to aspects of practicability and the less engaged they are concerning purchase- optimization, the better they will evaluate the retail category ,discounter".

For specialist-furniture stores: The more important advice and a stimulating shopping atmosphere are and the less developed the price orientation is, the better consumers evaluate the retail category "specialist store".



Hence, shopping motives can influence the acceptance of retail categories. Previously in this article, shopping motives were defined as factors causing involvement. Therefore, involvement will be regarded in the following as an intervening variable between shopping motives and the retail-category selection or in-store behaviour, respectively. Involvement is divided into its emotional and its cognitive component, because it is quite possible that both components are not strongly stimulated, but at one time the cognitive and at the next time the emotional activities, depending on the nature of the prevalent shopping motive.

Thus, Aldi's [Aldi is a very cheap, German food-discounter.] success, for example, can be explained in the following manner: If Consumers arc only strongly motivated in regard to the price-orientation motive, the cognitive involvement grows and the consumers, in comparison with low-involvement purchasers, arc ready to go to the trouble of shopping (i.e. bad air, standing in the queue for the cash register, narrowness of the store, cardboard boxes), in order to satisfy the shopping motive. This behaviour can also be applied to the purchase of branded products, and thus the success of factory outlets in Germany can be explained. Consumers have to cope with a lack of comfort, they have to drive long distances and do without the usual in-store service or the experience-oriented design of specialist stores in order to purchase high-quality brand products at favourable prices.

In contrast, while visiting pricy gourmet-temples or fresh markets, the shopping motives of stimulation and quality orientation are more likely to be relevant to behaviour. Frequently, the reason for the bad competitive position of department stores and warehouses in Germany can be found in the fact that these retail categories are not able to address either the customer's price- or quality motive, or his leisure-oriented shopping motive.

In the case of generally low shopping motives, behaviour is coupled with pure low-involvement. This leads to the consumers habitually visiting retail categories that meet the necessary requirements (for example, large retail stores outside the city). The following heuristic scheme paints a picture of the relations between the single shopping motives, combinations of shopping motives and the selection of retail categories on the basis of high involvement concerning the motives. The "X" displays which psychic processes are developed above average. (Table 3).







In parallel to the institution-oriented point of view, the consumer-oriented perspective of the evolution of retail categories includes a "dynamic element" because of two reasons:

1. Concerning the evaluation of single retail categories, the effects of learning can come into play (see chapter 4).

2. Shopping motives can change over time.

Values, the general shopping-atmosphere, etc. can shift the importance of single causes or require the adjustment of operationalization to the actual spirit of the times (,,Zeitgeist"). The consumer's price orientation, for example, can be influenced by changes in the overall economic framework. Kroeber-Riel (1986, p. 1139)explains that even the experience orientation of consumers is a secular trend reflected in the need for emotional arousal. Thus, the described shopping motive "stimulation" is of growing importance. In fact, the consumer's need for emotional stimulation at the point of sale was already identified 100 years ago, In his novel "The Ladies' Paradise" published in 1883, Emile Zola gives a detailed account of the consumers' pleasure and enthusiasm about the new warehouse "Bon Marche' in Paris:

Von der Stromung erfafBt, konnten die Damen nicht mehr zuruck. Gleich den Flussen, die die schweifenden Gewasser eines Tales an sich ziehen, schien die Flut der Kundinnen, die sich in der Vorhalle ergoB, die StraBenpassanten aufzuschlucken, die Bevolkerung von allen Ecken und Enden einzusaugen. (Zola, 1988, p. 287).

In summary, the following hypotheses are generated, which can be examined with regard to both the position of the different retail categories to one another as well as the importance of a single retail outlet within a retail category:

Basic assumptions:

1. Shopping involvement is mainly caused by the nature of assortment and the relevance of shopping motives.

2. Shopping involvement is high if at least one of the two psychic processes (emotional / cognitive activities) connected with involvement is developed above average.


Shopping involvement is low if emotional as well as cognitive psychic processes are developed below average.

High-involvement case:

If consumers are high-involved, they select specific retail categories in order to satisfy their shopping motives. => The more optimal a retail category addresses the shopping motives of its customers, the stronger will be the competitive position of this retail category in comparison with others.

Low-involvement case:

If consumers are low-involved, they want to shop without any trouble, within a short period of time and at favourable prices. fit lite case of low shopping engagement consumers are not willing to compare prices actively in order to check the price level before the purchase. therefore, they rely on lite price image of the retail category.  =>  /n the case of low involvement, consumers habitually select those retail categories with a positive price image and a high degree of shopping comfort.


The theses here-to-fore can not explain the importance and the position of the different retail categories to one another within an economic system over time. Why, for example, do more and more consumers prefer specialized discount stores? The turnover of this retail category has tripled from 1982 to 1989 (Tietz, 1992, p. 276). Following Tietz (1992, p. 275), specialized discount stores have developed since the Sixties into the retail category with the highest growth rate, and in addition, "outstanding chances for further expansion" during the nineties can be predicted so that the market share, and thus the importance of specialized discount stores, increases to the debit of other retail categories. Factory outlets are also very popular in Germany.

The following will discuss whether consumers use a process of generalisation- learning according to the retail outlets of one category and if such a "thesis of generalization " contributes to the explanation of the success of new retail categories in the marketplace (from the consumers' point of view).

Hofstatter (1965, p. 195) defines learning as a "change in the probability, in which a behaviour occurs under specific stimuli-constellations, unless they are caused by an injury of the organism or spontaneously in the course of a maturing process, but going back on previous contacts with the same or a similar stimuli-situation." Therefore learning is based on experience (Kroeber-Riel, 1992, p. 322).

Following Kroeber-Riel (1992, p. 329), learning would be an "unpractical adaptation-mechanism, if only the same stimuli, again and again, cause a specific reaction, and if the consumer regards only a few deviating but similar stimuli as a new stimuli-constellation."The individual, however, learns to generalize the meaning of a stimulus and to transfer it onto other stimuli. "In the case of a generalization of stimuli, the individual reacts to similar stimuli, as if it concerns the same stimuli." (Kroeber-Riel, 1992, p. 329) This learning scheme has been used for a long time to explain decisions concerning the product policy. For example, consumers frequently buy me-too-products, because the similar presentation of the original brand and the copy represents a similar stimuli from the consumers' perspective. Hence, it causes the same reaction. In addition, generalization-learning explains the product-political success of a certain product line and basically causes the formation of consumer preferences: "The consumer transfers gained preferences to other products, which are similar to the preferred product." (Kroeber-Riel, 1992, p. 330).

Following Kroeber-Ricl (1992, p. 329), similar shopping situations can also cause an effect of generalization. The "thesis of generalization" discussed in this article continues from these insights which can be formulated on the basis of Kroeber-Riel in the following manner: "The consumer transfers gained preferences (aversions, respectively) on other retail outlets, which are similar to the preferred (to the refused, respectively) retail outlet". The similarity is not necessarily based on the nature of the assortment, but can also refer to the shopping situation and thus, for example, to the characteristics of a retail category: general shopping atmosphere, store design, service system, etc.

If, for example in Germany, a consumer has positive experiences with a factory outlet for high-quality textiles due to a learning process and appreciates this specific retail outlet, he is able to transfer the gained preferences of special conditions onto other factory outlets. Consumers have "learned" to shop in the new retail category, the factory outlet: They find their way in these new stores, they know how to orientate themselves and they can make buying decisions without the advice of the sales personnel. If consumers have positive experiences with a factory outlet (i.e. for textiles), this "good-will" can lead to the possibility that they visit other factory outlets as well (i.e. factory sale of' shoes, glassware or sports clothing).The real effect of generalization then sets in at the point of sale. If the characteristics of the new store (nature of item presentation, self-service, etc.) are similarly experienced as in the old shopping situation, preferences gained in the ,old" stores can be transferred to the new store. Due to this effect of generalization, consumers possibly develop a positive attitude not only towards single stores, but towards the whole retail category. [The negative case is also possible: Aversions, and not preferences are transferred. Thereby, the importance of a retail category is weakened.]

From the consumers' point of view, the success of the retail category "specialized discount stores" can also be explained by a transfer of preferences across the assortments. Even ten years ago, for example, most toy-retailers, which are organized in cooperation systems, considered it unlikely that large toys-discounters outside the cities could enter into real competition in Germany. They were convinced that the German consumer would remain loyal to the traditional specialist retail store while buying toys because they would never do without a service system and extensive advice. The success of Toys 'R' Us was quite a surprise for many experts. However, it is possible that consumers got to know the advantages of the specialized discount store principle and that they transferred the preferences to the toys-discounter because of the similar shopping situation.

The effect of generalization can start, only if:

- consumers dispose of a clear, internal image in their memory of the retail outlet selected first,

-they can compare the first image with the actually perceived picture of the new shopping situation, and if

-these two pictures are as similar as possible.

Thus, the effect of generalization can strengthen the importance of a retail category, if the preferences at the scene of action are also transferred across the assortments. This means not only from construction-specialist store to construction-specialist store, but also from a construction-specialist store to a furniture-specialist store and to an electronic-specialist store, etc.

What happens, however, if the marketing-mix of the retail categories adjusts, and if consumers are no longer able to notice differences between the single retail categories and thus all shopping situations resemble one another? The effect of generalization can also start in this case and consequently, retail categories that do not possess a clear, distinguishable, external presentation to the consumer are experienced as being interchangeable. Following Nieschlag, one can talk about the assimilation of retail categories from the consumers' point of view, if an effect of generalization occurs between different retail categories.

To draw a conclusion: This article supplemented an explanation of the "evolution of retail categories" by taking a consumer oriented perspective. The involvement-concept, the shopping-motivation research as well as the theory of generalization-learning served as essential constituent parts. The proposed theses must obviously await further empirical study. Hence, this article generally encourages further integration of behaviourist science findings into retail marketing.


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Andrea Groppel, University of Paderborn


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1995

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