Constellations, Configurations and Consumption: Towards a Conceptualization of Intermediate Patterns of Joint Consumption

ABSTRACT - This paper examines intermediate patterns of joint or cumulative consumption whereby constellations, anti constellations and configurations are seen as representing patterns of consumption which lie between the traditional micro (product-centred) and macro (societal-centred) studies of consumption. The paper extends existing U.S. work on product and consumption constellations, examining the formation of consumption configurations within the framework of symbolic interactionist approaches to understanding self, in relation to a group of U.K. consumers. Following the conceptualization of the forces which influence the formation of configurations, a series of models are developed and tested via the application of correspondence analysis to data on mail order shoppers drawn from a large U.K. commercial database.


Margaret K. Hogg and Paul C.N. Michell (1995) ,"Constellations, Configurations and Consumption: Towards a Conceptualization of Intermediate Patterns of Joint Consumption", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, eds. Flemming Hansen, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 3-9.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2, 1995      Pages 3-9


Margaret K. Hogg, University College Salford

Paul C.N. Michell, Manchester Business School

[The authors would like to acknowledge the generous support of the British Market Research Bureau/Target Index Group, Ealing, London, for this study. The authors would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.]


This paper examines intermediate patterns of joint or cumulative consumption whereby constellations, anti constellations and configurations are seen as representing patterns of consumption which lie between the traditional micro (product-centred) and macro (societal-centred) studies of consumption. The paper extends existing U.S. work on product and consumption constellations, examining the formation of consumption configurations within the framework of symbolic interactionist approaches to understanding self, in relation to a group of U.K. consumers. Following the conceptualization of the forces which influence the formation of configurations, a series of models are developed and tested via the application of correspondence analysis to data on mail order shoppers drawn from a large U.K. commercial database.


The emphasis in much of the consumer behaviour literature has been on the consumer buying process and on consumer decision making. Models of consumer buyer behaviour (Howard and Sheth 1969, Nicosia 1966, Engel, Roger and Miniard 1993) have been largely concerned with decision making at the level of discrete product purchase decisions. In examining intermediate levels of joint or cumulative consumption, this paper is positioned between studies of consumer behaviour which concentrate either on micro issues, such as decision making at the product or brand level, or on macro issues, such as the factors which influence societal patterns of consumption (Firat 1978). The interest here is in the aggregation of choices across products and services by individual consumers, and relates to earlier work by researchers such as Levy (1964), Kernan and Sommers (1967), Wells (1968), Green, Wind and Jain (1972), Solomon (1983), Solomon and Assael (1987), Kehret-Ward (1987) Solomon (1988), and Solomon and Buchanan (1991) on joint or cumulative consumption.


The framework for the study is the social psychological perspective of symbolic interactionism (Cooley 1902, Mead 1934, Solomon 1983) which argues that individuals make sense of their world in terms of the social realities from which they derive their identities; and that actions and behaviours constitute ways of enacting their social reality and identities.

Self image and self concepts were two of the constructs which provide an important part of the context for this examination of the relationship between self and consumption. Grubb and Grathwohl (1967) used Rogers' (1951) theory of individual self-enhancement to propose that as the self concept was of value to the individual then behaviour would be directed towards the protection and enhancement of an individual's self concept. Whilst acknowledging the concerns expressed about the use of the self concept construct in the consumer behaviour research literature (Sirgy 1982, Lee 1990), situational self concept (Schenk and Holman 1980) will be used here because of the recognition of the central role of the situation or context in determining consumer decision-making, and the emphasis on the interdependency between the consumer and the cultural context. Schenk and Holman proposed 'situational self concept' as "a way of linking past research on self-image/brand image congruency with that on situational effects" (Schenk and Holman 1980:610). Lee (1990) explored the relationship between situational self, the symbolic meanings of products and consumption situations where "the situational self is dependent upon the parameters of a product (symbolic meaning) and its consumption situation" (Lee 1990:399). A number of studies have confirmed that characteristics of self-image are congruous with characteristics of brand image (Dolich 1969; Green et al 1969; Landon 1974; Ross 1971; Sirgy 1982; Snyder and de Bono 1985).

However the idea that a single product or brand can be seen as representative of a consumer's self concept has been challenged (Douglas and Isherwood 1979, Solomon and Assael 1988). Solomon and Assael (1987) and Solomon (1988) developed consumption constellations: "a cluster of complementary products, specific brands, and/or consumption activities associated with a social role" (Solomon and Assael 1987:191) in examining patterns of joint or cumulative consumption. This study examines constellations which can be associated with groups of U.K. consumers. Marchand's ensembles (1985) and McCracken's Diderot unities (1988) can also be related to this holistic approach to consumer behaviour which reflected Douglas and Isherwood's argument (1979) as well as Belk's point (1988) that in order to understand consumption it is necessary to examine the full picture of consumption, and not just the choice of any one particular item. Intermediate patterns of joint or cumulative consumption have to be understood in relation to the 'extended self' (Belk 1988)and like ensembles, represent the 'diverse aspects of self' (Belk 1988:140).

As part of the corollary of this approach, that consumption decisions reflect consumers' statements about themselves, the model building also incorporates the notion of 'anti constellations' which represent non consumption. It is recognized that non consumption can represent both non choice and anti choice. Non choices can include products and services which are simply not bought, for instance, because they are not within the means of the consumer. Anti choices can include products and services which are positively not chosen, for instance, because they are incompatible with the consumer's ensemble or consumption constellation. [The authors acknowledge an important point of clarification which was offered here by an anonymous reviewer.] The treatment of absence (representing either non choice or anti choice) of categories and sub categories in the consumption configurations was only broached tentatively in the study reported here; and the discussion of absence, and the consequent assumption of the non or anti complementarity of goods, services and activities, from which to create non or anti constellations, has been hedged around with a number of caveats, partly because of the nature of the data used for this study.

Consumption is seen as one of the means by which individuals create their identities and this is linked with McCracken's approach to culturally constituted meaning systems:

"They [consumers] use the meaning of consumer goods to express cultural categories and principles, cultivate ideas and sustain lifestyles, construct notions of self, and create (and survive) social change... " (McCracken 1988:xi).



An important argument which is fundamental to this study is that shopping channels, as well as products, are used by consumers to create and interpret cultural meaning; and patronage choices are inherently part of the process by which consumers construct and constitute their world. Consumption acts, therefore, incorporate both purchase and patronage (i.e. usage) decisions and involve individual consumer decisions across groups of products and services, including across groups of retail outlets, as well as within products or services or within channels.

Underlying the model building are a set of assumptions that a number of linkages can be established: firstly linkages between products and brands; secondly linkages amongst consumption choices (represented by product constellations); thirdly an important linkage is proposed between consumption constellations and anti constellations which are seen together as forming consumption configurations, and these configurations can be linked in turn, with the creation, maintenance and enhancement of social identities (this linkage is not discussed in detail here).

It is proposed that there are three forces which can be identified as influencing configurations within consumers' patterns of consumption: a symbolic-functional force, represented by the nature of the product (understood in its widest sense of goods or services); the physiological-esteem-self actualization force which is represented by the nature of the need(s) to be met (covert behaviour); and the instrumental-expressive force which is represented by the nature of the overt behaviour, that is the actions and activities which are involved (Figure 1). These three forces are seen as interdependent. Consumption configurations are seen to be the result of the interaction of these three forces.

The second model (Figure 2) proposed that configurations consist of consumption constellations and anti constellations, which in turn represent the complementarities and anti complementarities amongst the goods and services used by consumers.


The working hypothesis proposed that intermediate patterns of consumption: constellations, anti constellations and configurations, exist and can be identified; and that the composition of these intermediate patterns can be established via the quantitative analysis of a large consumer database using correspondence analysis. The specific objectives were firstly to establish the existence of constellations in the data set; secondly, to identify the composition of constellations of products, services and activities from the behavioural data and from which configurations could be derived; thirdly to elicit constellations of retailers, as representative of a service category of consumption, hitherto not explored in detail in earlier studies of patterns of joint consumption; fourthly to identify potential anti complementarity constellations; fifthly to see whether consumption configurations could be formed from consumption constellations and anti constellations, and could be associated with different groups of users amongst the mail order catalogue users.


Previous studies of joint or cumulative consumption (Wells 1968, Alpert and Gatty 1969, Solomon and Buchanan 1991) have employed the analysis of large consumer databases in pursuit of evidence of patterns of joint or cumulative consumption. For this study data was extracted from a large, commercial database: BMRB/TGI which is compiled from an annual consumer survey based on stratified sampling, with replacement, using self completion postal questionnaires, which are distributed to 40,000 households to generate 25,000 responses. A wide variety of product categories are surveyed ranging from fast moving consumer goods to details such as television viewing habits and attitudes to a range of products and services. For the purposes of the analysis here a selection of data was extracted on the users of the main eight U.K. mail order catalogues across a range of product and media habits.

The BMRB/TGI contingency tables contain aggregated categorical data. Correspondence analysis was chosen as the most appropriate statistical technique for analyzing this type of data, as it is a variant of principal components analysis which operates on categorical rather than continuous data (Greenacre and Hastie 1987) and because its multivariate treatment of data allows it to reveal relationships which would not be detected via a series of pairwise comparisons (Hoffman and Franke 1986:213). Using the 'transition formulae' produced by correspondence analysis it is possible to see not only which features are clustered together, but also to understand why they are clustered together (Underhill and Peisach 1985:41). However, the element of subjectivity in interpretation has also to be acknowledged (Dittmar 1992): "By its flexibility, correspondence analysis can lead to greater insight into the phenomena being studied because it affords several different views of the same data set. Subjectivity of analysis is part of the price of this flexibility" (Hoffman and Franke 1986:225).




In choosing the components to represent joint or cumulative consumption in the configurations, the aim was to incorporate categories which had been established by earlier studies (Solomon and Assael 1987, Solomon 1988, Solomon and Buchanan 1991) as being significantly linked to occupation and social roles and which had been used in earlier experiments to explore joint or cumulative consumption. Seventeen categories were included in the model building and this was similar in number to Solomon and Assael's study (1987) which had reduced seventeen general categories to thirteen in order to construct product and consumption constellations.

Solomon and Assael (1987) had found that three categories: clothing, electronic equipment and cars, had represented almost half of the product elements elicited when subjects were asked to specify the products which they associated with a particular range of occupations. Clothing, electronic equipment and cars were therefore included as components for consumption constellations here since they could potentially represent significant differences amongst the consumption constellations. Some categories, for instance luggage, furniture jewellery and accessories, were excluded because they had only represented a small proportion of responses in earlier studies. Other categories carried forward from Solomon and Assael's study for the model building included liquor and tobacco, media, food, personal care products, sports equipment and home products. In order to extend the product categories which could be linked with patterns of joint consumption in the configurations some categories from the later studies (Solomon 1988 and Solomon and Buchanan 1991) were also included such as luxury appliances, credit cards and discretionary use of leisure time. Some additional categories, which complemented existing categories, were also incorporated into this model building to explore patterns of joint consumption and these categories were holidays (which linked to the category: 'discretionary use of time'), and health and diet (which were linked to sports and keep fit equipment). The most important new addition to the product/service components in this model building was represented by the inclusion of retailers as a separate and identifiable category. It was expected that retail constellations would form a significant feature in consumption constellations and anti constellations, and would indicate important differences between the groups of shoppers which could be linked to the forces which influence the formation of consumption configurations.


Data was extracted from the BMRB/TGI database on users of eight mail order catalogue titles across a range of categories. The catalogue titles represented the eight major U.K. mail order companies (G.U.S., Kays, Littlewoods, Freemans, Grattans, Empire Stores, Next Directory and J.D.Williams). In 1990 Next Directory and J.D.Williams held approximately 2.5% and 3.8% of the U.K. mail order market respectively (Verdict 1991). J.D.Williams was one of the most long standing amongst British mail order companies: it had been established in the 1880s; it had operated from its Manchester base for over 100 years; and its traditional market has been the older and larger woman shopper. Next Directory, in contrast, was a relative newcomer to the mail order business, having been created as a spin off from the very successful 1980s high street retailing concept developed by George Davis and Next Group plc. Next Directory was launched in the second half of the 1980s and was aimed at the prosperous, younger end of the fashion market. In 1990 GUS/Kays, Littlewoods, Grattans, Freemans and Empire Stores held approximately ninety five per cent of the mail order market (Verdict 1991). These companies continued to operate the traditional agency system of mail order selling, although they were coming to rely increasingly on the growth in direct selling to personal customers. Although these mainstream mail order catalogues are generally seen as appealing to the same mass market, the companies and their catalogues have certain differentiating characteristics which make them distinctive within the mail order industry.GUS/Kays remains the largest U.K. mail order business, taking over 35% of the market in 1990 and dominating the industry with a number of catalogues, of which only the shoppers from the two major 'own name' catalogues were studied here. Littlewoods is the second largest mail order company and appeals to a similar customer base as GUS/Kays. Grattans represented the third company in size of market share, but with a slightly younger image and is perceived as more upmarket than GUS/Kays and Littlewoods. Freemans has a younger image and is also slightly more upmarket than either GUS/Kays or Littlewoods. Empire Stores is the smallest of the six mail order operations, and tends to have an image of being younger and slightly more downmarket than GUS/Kays and Littlewoods; it is the most popularly 'second held' catalogue (Verdict 1991:57) Figure 3 shows a plot of the respective mainstream mail order catalogues along two axes: age (18-40) plotted against U.K. socio-econonic groups (A-E).



The data matrix for the study consisted of eight columns (the users of the mail order catalogues) by over two thousand rows, which spanned such categories as: clothing, electronics, liquor, media, food, personal care goods, sports equipment, tobacco, home products, cars, credit cards, financial instruments, luxury appliances, discretionary time including holidays, retailers and health and diet.

Correspondence analysis was used to identify potential groups and subgroups among the users of U.K. in-home shopping; and to identify combinations of retailers, goods and services which were used and which were not used by the various mail order shoppers.

The relationship between the mail order catalogues (the column profiles) and the dimensions can be seen from Table 1.

The relationships, using the COR and CTR figures, can be summarized as follows: Next Directory (dimension 1); J.D.Williams (dimension 2); Kays (dimension 3); Freemans and Grattans (dimension 4, negative axis); Empire Stores and GUS (dimension 4, positive axis); Grattans (dimension 5); Empire Stores (dimension 6, negative axis); GUS (dimension 6, positive axis) and Littlewoods (dimension 7).

Inertia indicates how well each column or row is represented by a particular dimension. The inertias for the seven dimensions produced by correspondence analysis of the BMRB/TGI data are shown in Table 2. Over 60% of the inertia is represented by the plot of first two axes.

A two stage procedure was adopted in constructing and interpreting the constellations. The tables of transition formulae were examined to identify constellations amongst the row profiles from which to elicit product constellations and anti constellations. Those row variables which could be clearly associated with one predominant axis were included as part of the 'set of consumables' which were relevant to the users of the catalogue which could be linked to that dimension or axis. One difficulty was deciding what the measure of 'relevance' should be, particularly in the absence of any preceding research using correspondence analysis for identifying combinations in the data set. Table 2 had shown that nearly 61% of the inertia in the data had been accounted for on the first two axes, and that the remaining 40% inertia had been accounted for by the remaining five dimensions. Within the context of these inertia figures it was decided to use COR values of over 500 for the Next Directory shoppers linked to dimension 1; COR values of over 400 for J.D.Williams shoppers linked to dimension 2; and COR values which fell between 300 and 400 for the remaining five dimensions, which were associated with the mass market catalogues, when identifying the consumption combinations.

The second stage of this procedure, the interpretation of the constellations, anti constellations and configurations was undertaken within the framework of the model building of the forces which influence intermediate patterns of joint or intermediate consumption. It was expected that different product constellations and anti constellations would be found and these consumption combinations would reflect the different interaction of the three forces which influence consumption.


[Details of the tables of transition formulae, and most importantly of the COR figures for the product categories, are not included in the paper because of lack of space.]

What emerged clearly from the data analysis were three identifiable shopper groups in the data set. Two of these groups could be linked with the focused catalogue offerings in the mail order market place: Next Directory and J.D.Williams, and the third group, containing a number of sub groups, could be linked with the mass market catalogues: Empire Stores, Freemans, Grattans, G.U.S., Kays and Littlewoods.





It is possible to demonstrate the different associations which could be found both between the various product categories, as well as across product categories, from a brief review of the tables of transition formulae produced by correspondence analysis. Only the major categories will be discussed here.

In earlier research on product constellations (Solomon and Assael 1987, Solomon 1988 and Solomon and Buchanan 1991) three product categories: cars, clothing and electronic goods had been identified as significant contributors to consumption constellations. In this study different makes and models of cars appeared in the consumption constellation for each group, which suggested that cars had the potential to reflect the different interaction of the forces which influence consumption. An example would be the predominance of cars which convey clear images of upmarket status in some constellations (e.g. such as expensive foreign models from BMW and Volvo in the configuration associated with Next Directory shoppers) compared with the emphasis in other consumption constellations (such as Littlewoods shoppers) on smaller, family cars from some of the Japanese, British and American car ranges (e.g. Nissan, Datsun, Ford and GM/Vauxhall) which would reflect the influence of functional and instrumental forces in the choice of car within this consumption configuration.

Another important category was electronic goods which were represented by a range of cameras, music centres and a range of phones (including car phones, cordless phones and answering machines). Different combinations of these products were found in the consumption configurations. The electronic product constellation associated with Next Directory shoppers included different types of camera from the expensive end of the range, also expensive music centres and a range of telephonic equipment. In contrast the electronic product constellation for some of the users of the mass market catalogues included cameras from the cheaper end of the range, cheaper music centres and, in some cases, the absence of telephonic equipment from the home. In considering the interaction of the three forces on consumption, the Next Directory configuration reflected the impact of the expressive and symbolic forces with the emphasis on expensive electronic equipment and the emphasis on symbolic and status goods (such as car phones and cordless telephones). A contrast could be seen with the electronic product constellation of the mass market shoppers where a combination of symbolic and instrumental pressures resulted in the purchase of cameras from the lower end of the product range. The lack of telephone equipment in some households suggested a concern with budgetary pressures which meant that telephones were largely a part of the anti constellation of electronic products. The impact of budgetary pressures on the realization of needs suggested that forces from the instrumental and physiological ends of the spectrum had influenced the consumption configuration of this group of shoppers.

The third important product category identified in previous research had been clothing which was seen as a potentially substantial contributor to establishing product constellations which could be related to the different social roles and social identities. Branded jeans and trainers were used to explore this part of the consumption constellation and these can be seen as an example of associations across products which can be revealed by correspondence analysis. The Next Directory clothing constellation included Levi 501s and other Levi jeans, L.A. Gear, Nike and Reebok trainers. These branded clothing products did not feature in the J.D.Williams constellation, and can therefore probably be counted as part of the anti constellation in their consumption configuration. Lee Cooper jeans were associated with Littlewoods shoppers, Champion trainers with Kays and GUS (dimension six) shoppers, Umbro trainers with Grattans, GUS and Empire Store (dimension four) shoppers, Falmers jeans with Grattan and Freemans catalogue users, and Adidas trainers with GUS shoppers. The most pronounced effect of the interaction of the symbolic and expressive forces was in evidence again in the consumption configuration of the Next Directory shoppers who purchase the most image-laden brand of jeans: Levis. This group of shoppers also buy the trainers which are most heavily advertised: L.A.Gear, Nike and Reebok, and which represent brands from the top end of the market, which would reinforce support for seeing the importance of the symbolic and expressive forces in influencing the consumption configuration of this group of shoppers. This would be in contrast to the purchase patterns among branded products such as jeans and trainers for the mass market shopping group. The consumption constellation across products for this group of shoppers reflects a different interaction amongst the forces. This consumption constellation is influenced by the combination of the symbolic force (represented by the choice of branded clothing products), and the instrumental force (represented by the purchase of goods from some of the lower priced brands) interacting with the force for self esteem (where self image would relate to the apparel choice of branded clothing in the jeans and trainers product category).

The other important category to consider is that of the retail component of the constellations and anti constellations. Concern with brand is particularly in evidence again in the Next Directory retail constellation, where the symbolic and expressive forces contributed to the choice of outlets such as Laura Ashley, Benetton, Jaegar, Principles, River Island, Selfridges, Harrods and Harvey Nichols. The anti constellation of the Next Directory shoppers can be seen in the non usage of mass market mail order catalogues which are largely absent from this configuration. In contrast the instrumental and functional forces which seem to drive many of the consumer choices amongst the users of the mass market catalogues can be seen again in the patronage of the high street chains such as Bhs, Littlewoods, C&A, Index and Woolies. The retail constellation of the J.D.Williams group of shoppers is dominated by the usage of mail order catalogues such as Ambrose Wilson, Oxendales, Heather Valley, Fashion Extra and Fashion Plus which would indicate the significant impact of the instrumental force in influencing the retail choice decisions of this group of shoppers.

A consumption configuration can be derived for Next Directory shoppers and it seems to be influenced primarily by the interaction of the symbolic and expressive forces, with a particular emphasis on upmarket branded and status goods. The emphasis in many of the consumer choices seems to be on meeting the needs from the self esteem-self actualization end of the spectrum, and this is the third influence on the formation of the consumption configuration for Next Directory shoppers. A consumption configuration for the mass market shoppers seemed to reflect the interaction of the symbolic and the instrumental forces to meet a combination of needs from the physiological-self esteem end of the spectrum. The J.D.Williams shoppers seemed to be influenced by a combination of functional and expressive forces; food figured significantly in their consumption configuration suggesting a concern with physiological needs; however extensive use of discretionary time for a range of cultural activities suggested that these expressive activities were used to meet the self esteem and self actualization needs for this group of shoppers.


This research is interested in exploring product and service choices within the context of a stream of consumption decisions made by consumers. A model has been proposed of the conceptualization of the forces which influence joint or cumulative consumption and the construct of configurations (which embraces both consumption constellations and anti constellations) has been proposed within the framework of symbolic interactionist approaches to understanding self. The initial findings provide evidence for the existence of constellations in the data which can be associated with shopper groups; and there was some evidence of anti constellations. The findings also provided support for the idea of consumption configurations which could be associated with the three shopper groups. The next stage would be to subject this conceptualization of the intermediate patterns of consumption to statistical verification by further studies. The relationship between social roles, social identities and consumption constellations has only been tentatively explored here using quantitative data analysis techniques, however these findings would confirm that the relationship between social roles, social identities and consumption configurations would reward more detailed study via a series of in-depth interviews in searching for further understanding of the patterns in the stream of consumer decision making.


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Margaret K. Hogg, University College Salford
Paul C.N. Michell, Manchester Business School


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 2 | 1995

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