An Ethnoconsumerist Enquiry Into International Consumer Behaviour

ABSTRACT - This paper reports some qualitative research using an ethnoconsumerist approach to 'culture-crossing’ consumer behaviour. Nationality is shown to be a poor indicator of the consumer behaviour of international visitors. The experience of 'culture-crossing’ differs by product category and buying situation. International visitors use perceptions of culturally specific market characteristics as a strategy to understand, contrast and differentiate between the cultural values of the places travelled to and from. This 'consumption mirror’ forms an important basis of sense making and orientation to new cultural environments.


Andrea Davies, James Fitchett, and Avi Shankar (2003) ,"An Ethnoconsumerist Enquiry Into International Consumer Behaviour", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 102-107.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 102-107


Andrea Davies, University of Exeter, UK

James Fitchett, University of Nottingham, UK

Avi Shankar, University of Exeter, UK


This paper reports some qualitative research using an ethnoconsumerist approach to 'culture-crossing’ consumer behaviour. Nationality is shown to be a poor indicator of the consumer behaviour of international visitors. The experience of 'culture-crossing’ differs by product category and buying situation. International visitors use perceptions of culturally specific market characteristics as a strategy to understand, contrast and differentiate between the cultural values of the places travelled to and from. This 'consumption mirror’ forms an important basis of sense making and orientation to new cultural environments.


While a firm may choose to conduct its activities in one (typically its own) domestic market, the global movement of people means that even domestic firms have to embrace some notion of globalisation simply because its consumers, and perhaps its most profitable ones, are increasingly likely to have diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. This international dimension to consumption effectively means that no firm can dismiss global marketing trends, even those who retain a specific domestic locale. Successful global marketing requires understanding of international consumer behaviour and how cultural dimensions affect it (Usunier, 2000). This demands some consideration of the ways that international consumers adapt, orientate and integrate into new market environments when they cross cultural boundaries.

People move or cross cultural spaces for many reasons. Much of the work on cross-cultural consumption has looked at cross border movement in terms of migration by people from the developing world moving to developed cultures. These acculturation studies have shown that individuals experience a wide range of emotional, practical and symbolic disorientation when they enter new cultural environments (Ward and Kennedy, 1994; Ethier and Deaux, 1994; Chataway and Berry, 1989). The vast majority of acculturation studies examine immigration by one migrant group into a particular host cultural context (usually the US). Considerable effort has been given to examining the processes of acculturation among African, Hispanic and Asian people into Anglo-American culture (O’Guinn and Faber, 1985; Jun et al, 1993; Penaloza, 1989, 1994; Penaloza and Gilly, 1999).

One of the persistent problems with developing research in the area acculturation is the degree to which findings from studies conducted in one cultural context can be transferred to other contexts. In order to use models of acculturation and cross cultural experience developed from, for example, research based on Mexican immigrants moving to the US to inform studies into immigrants moving to a European context, it is necessary to assume that acculturation processes are, at least to some relevant extent, non-culturally bound. Such an assumption is highly debatable. Different cultures have varying attitudes towards ethnicity, cultural homogeneity, immigration and acculturation. The process of adapting to a new culture can thus be expected to be highly, if not totally dependent on the cultural history of the immigrant or immigrants (Chataway and Berry, 1989; Piontkowski et al, 2000), the cultural identity of the host culture (Nesdale and Mak, 2000), as well as particular institutions and situations. The experiences of a professional Asian migrating to a metropolitan area in the US for work and permanent residence would be expected to be qualitatively different to, for example, the experiences of a Russian student migrating to a mainly rural region in the UK for a limited and pre-specified period of study. Visitors from the US would be expected to find greater levels market commonality in the UK than if travelling to other parts of Europe, in terms of for example, common branding and common retail chains. There is a strong argument to suggest that cross cultural marketing research should be seen as culturally relative to specific contexts. Rather than looking to develop generic models of cross cultural movement it is more appropriate to take a case by case approach with the objective being to examine the types of experiences among particular groups of individuals in particular cultural contexts and settings.

This research is based on an in-depth three month longitudinal ethnographic study of international students who travelled to the UK for the purpose of studying. Whilst the selected group may appear at first glance to be limited, closer consideration clearly illustrates the problem with research that seeks to examine 'typical’ international consumer behaviour in 'typical’ cultural contexts. Different types of cross cultural movement are to a certain extent qualitatively different and non-comparable. The group of individuals examined here show that culture can only be examined in context. For example, whilst there may be a desire to try out and experience host UK culture there is no necessity to do so. The visitors examined here can, if they wish to do so, spend most of their time and build most of their friendships with other people who are equally unfamiliar with UK culture. This may include people who share their own ethnic background as well as other migrants who have different ethnicities to their own (Lee, 1994). The period of residence in the UK was pre-determined prior to moving and all of the migrants planned to return to their home cultures at a specified future date. Furthermore, the student environment is a particular type of host environment that is more cosmopolitan, culturally diverse, and ethnically tolerant than many other social contexts in the UK. The cross-cultural experience is also willingly entered into, rather than forced or coerced by, for example, economic or political factors. Finally it is predicated, at least in part, on the idea of 'experiencing a new culture’ and being away from home for a specified period (Gmelch, 1997). This brief description shows that all cross cultural movements, whether among students, economic migrants, refugees or long-term tourists, have their own specific characteristics and motivational contexts, in addition to the complexities of the type of culture moved from/to.


Many of the codes and categories that construct consumer behaviour as a meaningful activity have been shown to be culturally derived (e.g. Briley et al, 2000). Consumption and markets have been conceptualised as a crucial cultural information system and a process through which categories of culture are made visible and stable (Douglas and Isherwood, 1978). Individuals in consumer societies utilize consumption and other marketing technologies (such as brands) as resources to construct and their identities (Bauman, 1988; Belk, 1988; Elliott and Wattanasuwan, 1998; Gabriel and Lang, 1995), to communicate with one another, and to integrate into everyday social life. Developing a sense of place and identity in the UK involves developing a sense of what is appropriate consumer behaviour and understanding how markets operate and function. However, consumption is not only a process that has to be learnt but also a process of learning. Many of the studies on consumer acculturation locate culture as an antecedent of consumer knowledge rather than consumer behaviour as an antecedent of cultural knowledge (e.g. Penaloza, 1989). Consumption is not simply something into which the international visitor needs to orientate him or her self so as to manage and negotiate new cultural environments, but constitutes an important mechanism through which cultural norms are accessed.

Consumption symbolism often has transnational signification especially in the case of global consumer brands. For example, visitors arriving in the UK may find the rules of social behaviour alien but are likely to find at least some aspects of the supermarket shelf, the high street and advertising familiar. Getting to know people, making friends, sorting out official documentation and working out how the transport system works may be a highly disorientating process, but the basic process of shopping, including where to shop for various items, selecting goods, exchanging money and assessing product choice are likely to be easier to negotiate for many international visitors. There is something 'trans-cultural’ about shopping, using services and buying goods. Even reasonably complex cultural readings, such as evaluating brand quality and reading brand symbolism may be possible if only at a very basic and rudimentary level. Markets, marketing and consumption provide what is perhaps the most global and cross cultural sign system available to visitors faced with an unfamiliar alien environment. The piece of research reported here examines the experiences of international visitors to the UK and considers some of the ways that they come to understand and evaluate the market place during the first few months of arriving.


The temptation to draw comparisons and distil universal categories is always present, and is to some extent necessary. The telling issue, which justifies an ethnographic approach, is that the very basis of measuring cultural differences is itself culturally specific. Just as Ger and Belk (1990) recognised the need to 'modify’ scales of measurement to attend cultural differences in the measurement of materialism and possession centrality (Belk 1985), so to must this enquiry into the experiences of international consumer behaviour acknowledge the culturally embedded aspect the experiences themselves. Marketing researchers have acknowledged this dimension to cultural research. One of the most relevant and coherent suggestions for how to conduct such research is that of 'ethnoconsumerism’ suggested by Venkatesh (1995).

Ethnoconsumerism calls for all marketing research into cultural aspects of consumer behaviour to acknowledge that people from different cultures, ethnic backgrounds and nationalities see and evaluate the world differently. Furthermore, researchers themselves have a particular cultural 'lens’ through which they describe, analyse and interpret the market place. In-depth research into international consumer behaviour can only be achieved if marketing researchers set out with the objective of trying to understand consumption from the consumer’s own cultural view point rather than imposing a particular perspective on the research before hand. Whilst the ethnoconsumerist approach does in one sense offer an obvious and significant opportunity for cross cultural researchers, it also demands certain limitations be acknowledged. It has to be accepted that deriving a common scale of measurement across or between cultural categories is not possible. The purpose of the ethoconsumerist approach is to develop in-depth understandings of cross cultural consumer experiences as understood from the point of the consumer, or consumers themselves, rather than looking to impose generic and universal categories onto their behaviour.

22 international students who had come to the UK to study for a university degree were invited to take part in a three month longitudinal research program. All of the students had been in the UK for less than 18 months. Some of them had only been in the UK for a few weeks and only intended to stay for a few months. Others were studying for a degree program with duration of more than one year and had been in the UK for several months. They represented a wide range of nationalities and ethnicities including Romanian, Nigerian, Spanish, Chinese, French, Italian, American (USA), German, Singaporean, and Canadian. Whilst nationality provides a crude measure of ethnic diversity, it is also limited. For example, one of the students had lived in France all her life but her parents were both of Arabic origin. Similarly one of the Canadian students involved with the research had Vietnamese parents. One of the Italian students preferred to give their background as Sicilian and one of the Spanish students identified themselves strongly with a specific region of Spain. To try and further distance the ethnographic study from the limitations of specific cultural viewpoints, the research team was also culturally diverse and included British, Irish, Romanian, French, Italian, and Malaysian members. Each researcher took responsibility for two or three student participants for the research period. Data was collected using a variety of qualitative techniques including observation, participant observation, interviewing, accompanied shopping, and photography of personal living spaces. Meetings with the visiting students typically took place at twice monthly or monthly intervals although at some points meetings were held on a weekly basis. The collected data consisted of field notes, semi-formal interview transcripts and photographs. Each researcher took responsibility for preparing initial analysis of data collected from their own student respondents. These analyses were then forwarded to all other members of the team and discussed in a series of weekly or bi-weekly meetings.

The 'data’ from the ethnographic research is presented here in two parts. The first part shows how the experiences of each student are substantially non-comparable because they represent reflective and relative experiences. However, whilst visitors with different backgrounds have different experiences they all seem to conceptualise the UK in terms of a 'mirror’ in which their own cultural experiences can be reflected. Developing this level of interpretation, the second part of presenting the data specifically identifies and discusses the role of consumption in the experience of cultural disorientation for the students involved.


Perhaps inevitably, the ethnographic data reveals more about the experiences of the visitors themselves rather than the cultural environment moved into. When one reviews the field notes and diaries collected during the research it is necessary to remember that they all refer to life in the same physical space (i.e. the UK) despite the enormous variations in the types of descriptions given. This extract is taken from an interview with a Nigerian visitor, (Female, aged 22 'Amy’):

"I find it easier to interact with international people, both foreigners and English people that have lived abroad. I feel I have more to talk about. I think that the English atmosphere is more formal and, on the whole, less free, than in Africa; people are not as open, and, at the same time, when you open up to them, they are not very discreet. I feel that the British think that being overly open can be impolite... therefore I often find myself in difficulty because of this."

'Amy’ interprets English social relations as being more formal, less free, and less open than her experiences of social relations in her home culture. In some respects they share similarities with the comments given by 'Mark’, a Spanish visitor (male, aged 21) during a semi-formal interview:

"The British have another kind of social network: they need societies in order to have a reason to meet, they are not spontaneous like in Spain, where you just go out and then meet new people just like that."

Here British society is interpreted as being more socially formal and less spontaneous than Spanish society and this was a source of frustration and annoyance. However, in some diary notes written up from an informal conversation held during an accompanied shopping trip with 'Peter’, a visitor from Singapore (Male, aged 23), a similar experience is reported but in a generally positive manner:

".. the conversation went on to the question about the different behaviours between people in the UK and in Singapore. He said that he found that people in UK were more polite and good mannered. He said that a lot of Singaporeans could 'learn a lesson or two from them".

The same experience of British society, i.e. of formality and politeness, is given in terms of a negative reflection on the visitor’s reflexive attitudes about his home culture. In stark contrast to these comments, 'Dave’ another Singaporean visitor (male, aged 22) reported that he found British society to be more informal and outspoken than people at home in Singapore:

"When I asked about the difference between the people in the two countries, he said that Singaporeans were more reserved while the British were more outspoken and friendly. He gave me quite a lot of differences of living in the UK and living in Singapore. In the UK, racism is a bigger issue and I could sense that he was quite angry abou it. There was also the difference of climate, i.e. the cold weather in UK while Singapore was always hot. He also felt he was more independent and had more freedom to live his life."

These excerpts illustrate the danger of drawing categorical boundaries around aspects of individual experiences of cultural disorientation on the basis of national or ethnic origin. In some respects 'Peter’s’ comments have more in common with the experiences of 'Amy’ from Nigeria and 'Mark’ from Spain in that he found the British to be more polite and mannered, although he differs in terms of experiencing this as positive rather than negative behaviour. In contrast 'Dave’, who shares a similar ethnic and national background to 'Peter’, says he finds the British to be more outspoken and friendly although this does not seem to facilitate feelings of security or comfortableness.

These excerpts show how the meaning and experience of certain aspects of the cross cultural experience is expressed principally through the construction of difference and comparison. The oppositions generated and used as the basis for interpreting differences are themselves created by visitors as a reaction to cultural disorientation rather than necessarily representing actual cultural disparities. Experiences of UK society form a kind of 'cultural mirror’ in which visitors reflect upon themselves and their own cultural expectations. As suggested by some of the acculturation models (e.g. Furnham and Bochner, 1986; Berry, 1997), some visitors articulate experiences of crossing cultural boundaries in terms of a multi stage process, involving excitement, followed by feelings of disorientation and so on. There is also a sense in which resolving aspects of cultural disorientation is enabled by establishing viable differential structures:

"How did you feel when you first got here? Very Excited. Coming to England opened up my eyes to a different way of thinking. At first, I didn=t know how to act around peopleBit was very unsettling. Here there is different interaction: there are tight groups of people. Coming to England I didn=t have much in common, and I didn=t like doing the same things...However, our sense of humours were very much in common. The Spanish tend to be dry, while the British are very much sarcastic." ('Frank’, male aged 21)

This excerpt, taken from an interview transcript with 'Frank’ from Spain, shows that although he felt that he had very little in common with people and found gaining access to existing social groups to be relatively difficult at first, a feeling of a common sense of humour provided some basis for integration.

The data lends itself to a semiotic reading, whereby opposites can be identified as constructing the basis for meaningful experience. In order to make sense of a new cultural environment, visitors need to first establish discriminatory differences manifest in binary oppositions (for example, Hot-Cold; Reserved-Open; Formality-Informality etc.). Having established what are understood to be credible and justifiable differences, visitors are able to then use this as the basis for constructing value judgments that form the basis for personal opinion, e.g. "The British are more outspoken and friendly (than people at home)", "English atmosphere is more formal (than the atmosphere at home)". The following excerpt, taken from an interview with 'Rosie’, a French visitor (female, aged 23), provides a clear illustration of the structural, oppositional and comparative basis for cross-cultural experiences.

"English people are unsociable, very individualistic. I have never seen that before. They drink a lot and go out very often. It’s as if they were going out just for drink. Girls are very smart sometimes, but they can be also kind of like 'sluts’. There are some crazy things like driving on the right, and the toaster is the contrary to French ones. There is another thing: everything is closed early: shops at 5.30, clubs at 1.30, pubs, at 11.30! This is crazy! In France, you don’t come back home before 4 am, and you have plenty of time to have fun! And the cinema is very expensive, and the weather is rubbish."

Here, the frustrating experience of cultural disorientation can be interpreted through a series of explicit binary oppositions that have a clear discriminatory basis: sociabilityB(unsociability); individualisticB(communal); drink a lotB(drink moderately); Go out oftenB(go out infrequently); smart dressB(causal dress), and so on. This process of constructing and maintaining meaning, what we might call a process of 'sense making’ or 'cultural orientation’, involves continual comparative assessments between 'home’ and 'away’. As the following section of the analysis shows, this comparative behaviour is transferred into aspects of consumer behaviour.


As with other parts of the findings from this study, nationality does not provide a useful method of categorising individual differences in shopping behaviours and attitudes towards consumption. The two excerpts below are from interviews and accompanied shopping trips with 'Frank’ (male, aged 21) and 'Susie’ (female, aged 21), both Spanish:

"The layout of many shops is very similar [between the UK and Spain]. The food shops, on the other hand, are very different. There is more of a market culture there rather than supermarkets. Food is fresher. There are supermarket chains, like Intermarche in France, but they are just not as important." ('Frank’)

"Susie commented on the length of time it takes her to locate products in the supermarkets. She finds them badly laid out. Another area she made reference to is the bread counter. She found it amusing how many different types of bread are on display over here. Clothes shopping for Susie is a different experience altogether in Britain. She describes the shops as disorganised and says the experience can be frustrating whilst at home it is therapeutic." ('Susie’)

It is clear that developing a theory of cross cultural consumer behaviour on the basis of nationality differences would be an over simplification at best, and a misrepresentation at worst. As with the comments shown previously, the manner in which visitors express their experiences of a new consumption environment is founded on a basis of comparative assessment in which experiences of both 'home’ and 'host’ culture are brought together for the purpose of structuring and representing meaning. 'Frank’s’ attempt to make sense and acclimatise to the particular characteristics of consumption spaces is facilitated by the construction of both oppositions and similaritiesBbetween freshness and preserved, and market culture versus supermarket culture (which he associates and compares to retail in France with which he is already familiar). Both excerpts, and 'Susie’s’ comments in particular allude to the frustration and vulnerability that results from participation in UK consumption environments, which may in turn reflect other aspects of cultural disorientation. Although consumption, like many aspects of British culture, are unfamiliar to the visitors on arrival, some indicated that getting used to shopping in the UK was fairly straightforward and easy to do:

"At first I had some difficulties because I could not find the brands I am used to from back home, but I soon figured out which to bu. I can find pretty much everything I want here in the shops, except for oriental food and spices. At home we eat Vietnamese food and I miss that here. I think the British food is very bland. I was lucky because some Asian students who are living on my floor in the student accommodation gave me some Oriental spices and told me where to get some more. Another thing I miss is beef, because over here it doesn=t taste that good as it does at home." ('Kyle’ from Canada, male, aged 21)

"My shopping is not that different. I can find pretty much everything I want here in the shops. I miss the big grocery markets we have in Germany, but I guess there must be some here as well...I usually only buy the groceries I know I like, the only "experiment" I did here was when I bought ciderBI liked it. I find the offers 2 for 1 and the like very interesting: it can save you a lot of money. You cannot find offers like that in Germany...I have no difficulty finding the products I want. I just noticed that Tofu is very expensive hereBI am not eating any meat here in England, so I wanted to buy some Tofu, but it was so expensive." ('Lucy’ from Germany, female, aged 21)

These two excerpts are interesting because they illustrate the role that consumption and market related behaviour plays in the process of orientating to a new cultural environment. Although both visitors report that they are unable to get some types of products they are used to eating at home, and comment on the relative or comparative differences between the different shopping environments, they both indicate that shopping was either easy to get used to or was in the main consistent with prior consumer behaviour norms that they were used to back home. Some of the visitors identified that whilst procedural aspects of shopping were reasonably easy to get used to, other more culturally specific aspects, such as judgments of quality, took more time to perfect and tune. The following excerpt is taken from field diaries recorded shortly after a discussion with 'Charlie’ a visitor from the USA (female, aged 20):

"She told me that in the U.S.A. there is much more variety. At home you do a large shop to last maybe 1 month, rather than return to the supermarket on a regular basis like people here in the UK. You cannot buy alcohol at the supermarket in America, you have to go to a liquor store. Also in America a lot more stores are open 24hrs. Quality was difficult for 'Charlie’ to discern when she first arrived. For example she associates Wal Mart with bad quality in America but in England she was not sure. She was weary of shopping at the wrong stores. She asked me if Argos was considered to be low quality in this country."

The consumption environment, unlike many other aspects of new cultural environments, is also perceived by some visitors to be relatively 'open’ and negotiable. Visitors can continue to follow the consumption routines, consumer expectations and consumer behaviours typically followed at home although in a consumption environment which has an alternative cultural context. By merging ones existing consumer expectations with those observed in the host culture, individuals are also using their consumer behaviour as a mechanism to feel relaxed and reassured. Whilst many aspects of everyday life may be disorientating, market environments offer some degree of freedom to behave in accordance with existing habits and norms, as well as offering an exciting and fun space in which new products, sales mechanisms (e.g. sales promotions) and shopping environments can be experienced. The following excerpt is taken from field notes from an accompanied shopping trip with 'Mary’, a visitor from Romania (female aged 22):

"I met 'Mary’ again...she was going I went along. We went to Tesco’s, Sainsbury’s, to a greengrocer’s on the High Street and finally to Poundland. She bought different things in each of these shops. General food n the supermarkets, some tomatoes from the greengrocer and toothpaste from Poundland. She said it reminded her Romania, where one goes to the market, shops around for the best deals and nicest tomatoes on offer... 'Mary’ said she would not expect to find any market abroad at all."

Some respondents undertook comparisons and identified differences between shopping in the UK and at home using otherwise sophisticated market referents and cues, such as quality assessments, and price and cost comparisons. Food safety was also a major issue for many of the visitors, indicating that details about various food scares in the UK (such as BSE and Foot and Mouth) were not only reported abroad, but that they continued to retain salience in the minds of visiting consumers despite measures taken domestically to reassure the consuming public. This excerpt is from an interview with 'Laurie’ from France, (female, aged 21):

"I don’t eat meat because it looks awful and I am scared of the mad cow disease. Moreover, it’s very expensive. Yoghurts and cheese are also very expensive if we compare to France. Vegetables are OK for the price. I eat the same things that I was eating in France. I am eating typical English food like donuts and cookies. I am not used to them in France that’s why I am happy with that here."

The relative nature of cross-cultural assessments is further evidenced in these comments, showing that the cultural specificity of judgment also extends into the market place and consumer behaviour. Assessment of what constitutes 'typical English food’ in 'Laurie’s’ quote is quite different to the types of assessments one would expect from a visitor from the US for example. Furthermore, consumption opportunities enable this visitor to follow what Berry (1997) discusses as a 'separation’ strategy, in which visitors seek out means to reaffirm and consolidate familiar host cultural norms in alien cultural environments.


The comments from the visitors given above show that shopping in general, and food consumption in particular, play an important part in the representation of cultural differences. One of the most interesting contrasts that emerged from the ethnographic work was between attitudes and experiences of food consumption, and attitudes about consumer behaviours relating to brands, fashion and clothes shopping. Few of the visitors found fashion codes or shopping for clothing to be difficult to get used to. The standardisation and proliferation of international and global fashion brands such as GAP, H&M and designer labels offers visitors a familiar and 'readable’ set of symbols and values that are almost immediately recognisable in any cultural context.

"I went shopping for clothes, but I think you can find the same things here as you do in SpainBit’s the same fashion." ('Roger’ from Spain, aged 21)

"I have not yet bought any clothes here, because I do not need anything, but from what I have seen so far, you can find pretty much the same things as you do in Germany. You can find the same shops in both in Germany and England: H&M, Oasis etc." (Lucy’ from Germany, female, aged 21)

"As for the clothes, I do not find it that different: you can find the same brands over here as back home." ('Kyle’ from Canada, male, aged 21)

One visitor uses her observations of clothing choices and fashions in the UK as the basis to develop a fairly sophisticated cultural critique of UK society and lifestyle. Not only do her comments illustrate the role of consumer goods in maintaining and making stable categories of 'home’ and 'away’ (Dougla and Isherwood 1978), but they also show how brand values that are perceived to transcend cultural specificity offer useful sources of reliability, risk reduction and trust:

"Fashion is different from France: young people [in the UK] dress very badly, and are quite dirty, with very long pants which fall on the ground. We find shops here that we also find in France, like Etam and H&M. I trust them. I will go there first because I am used to them. I like doing shopping. Thankfully there is a H&M and an Etam, and prices are more moderate for clothes"( Laurie’ from France, female, aged 21)

Confidence in the codes of high street fashion also allows some visitors to 'play’ and have 'fun’ with cross-cultural experiences. As well as being disorientating and frustrating, crossing cultures is also potentially exciting. Consumer behaviour and the market offer an important source of enchantment (Ritzer, 1999) for cross cultural visitors, as indicated from the following comment recorded in field notes from a discussion with 'Emily’ from France (Female, aged 22):

"She said that when she goes shopping for fun, she goes to 'English’ stores if something in the window catches her eye. She feels that she does not need to go in the stores that she has back home."

The ethnographic research indicates that consumption is very important for cross-cultural visitors. The market place is used as a crucial acculturation device to orientate, differentiate and contrast. It also provides a reasonably open and accessible point into a new cultural environment that can be used to access other, perhaps more 'closed’ aspects of social life.


As Geertz (1973) comments, "Culture is not a power, something to which social events, behaviours, institutions or processes can be causally attributed; it is a context". The consumer behaviour of international visitors is highly implicated in various contexts of culture, each of which is determined and constructed in part by individual consumers themselves. This research has shown that a generic or universal approach to assessing cultural dimensions of consumer behaviour is likely to force commonalities as the expense of identifying discrete differences. International consumers use culture experiences as a mirror in which differences and tensions can be reflected and used to make sense of disorientation.

Researching international consumer behaviour in domestic contexts offers a number of opportunities. It illustrates aspects of UK markets from an outsider’s point of view, many of which are difficult to identify among consumers who are naturalised into UK consumer culture. It also shows that perceived levels of cultural disparity in the market place are not generic but vary according to product categories and buying contexts. Some product categories, such as food, are used as primary markers of cultural differentiation for many visitors to the UK, whereas clothing brands and fashion are used to a lesser extent.

Perhaps most importantly, the ethnoconsumerist approach shows that consumer behaviour is not only something that has to be learnt, but rather it is an important mechanism that visitors use to learn about, and orientate to UK society more generally. Markets have in this respect become a central acculturation device for international visitors, and international consumer behaviour is the means by which visitors begin to understand and participate in cultural life more generally.


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Andrea Davies, University of Exeter, UK
James Fitchett, University of Nottingham, UK
Avi Shankar, University of Exeter, UK


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003

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