Low-Income Shoppers in Small Towns: an Exploratory Study of Subcultural Differences in Two Small Towns


Frederick D. Sturdivant (1971) ,"Low-Income Shoppers in Small Towns: an Exploratory Study of Subcultural Differences in Two Small Towns", in SV - Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, eds. David M. Gardner, College Park, MD : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 15-55.

Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research, 1971     Pages 15-55


Frederick D. Sturdivant, Harvard University

[The following people contributed significantly to various phases of this long-range research project: A. Benton Cocanougher, Assistant Professor of Marketing, University of Southern California; Waylon D. Griffin, Doctoral Candidate in Marketing, The University of Texas; Leland W. Robinson, Doctoral Fellow in Sociology, Northwestern University; John Williams, Instructor, Texas Southern University; and Richard M. Reese, Doctoral Candidate in Marketing, The University of Texas. Funds for the field research were made available by the College of Business Administration at the University of Texas at Austin. Supplemental support by the Division of Research at the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration facilitated its completion.]

[Frederick D. Sturdivant is an Associate Professor of Business Administration at the Graduate School of Business Administration, Harvard University.]

In the 1960's a number of studies of retailing in ghetto areas and the attitudes and behavior of low-income consumers were undertaken. In general, the research revealed the presence of a marketplace which differed significantly from the market system serving the dominant society. Ghetto retailing systems were found to be more fragmented, less efficient, faced with serious cost problems, and too often characterized by questionable or illegal merchandising practices. Consumers, in addition to being poor, were often minority group members, relatively immobile shoppers (for physical and/or psychological reasons), heavily dependent on credit, ill-informed about their legal rights, and vulnerable to merchandising practices. In sum, the ghetto marketplace was found to be a milieu in which its participants, both merchants and consumers, were often victimized by the interactive forces of economic deprivation and racism. [See, for example, David Caplovitz, The Poor Pay More (New York: The Free Press, 1967), Frederick D. Sturdivant (ed.), The Ghetto Marketplace (New York: The Free Press, 1969), and Federal Trade Commission, Economic RePort on Installment Credit and Retail Sales Practices of District of Columbia Retailers (Washington, D.C.: Superintendent of Documents. 1968).]

In spite of the thoroughness of a number of these studies, several questions remained unanswered, First, because of their urban focus these researchers could only speculate about the practices and behavior of the poor residing outside of the nation's large cities. For example, David Caplovitz, in the preface to the 1967 edition of The Poor Pay More wrote that "From conversations with home economists in the Agricultural Extension Service in diverse parts of the country, I have learned that the poor in small towns and rural areas are also plagued by installment credit problems." [Caplovitz p xix.] Poverty in small rural towns is widespread and yet it has been largely overlooked in spite of its relationship to urban problems. [The President's National Advisory Commission on Rural Poverty, The People Left Behind (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1967).] There is a need, therefore, to develop a better understanding of the low-income resident of small towns in rural areas.

A second area of inquiry rekindled by these studies was the issue of subcultural influences on consumer behavior. To what extent were the consumer practices of the poor a function of their racial or ethnic backgrounds? In addition, what was the extent of regional influences in the sense that conditions and behavior differed from the East to the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest? While some of the earlier studies included more than one racial or ethnic subgroup, explicit comparative analysis of consumer behavior was not treated in detail and in most instances the subjects were residents of the same geographical area.


An exploratory research project was initiated in the spring of 1968, therefore, which had as its objective the preliminary analysis of these questions. The research was designed to explore the following issues relative to low-income consumers in small rural towns:

1. What are the characteristics of market systems which serve these consumers?

2. What are the characteristics, attitudes, and practices of this group of consumers?

3. Does their consumer behavior differ significantly from the middle-income residents of those towns? [The Fisher exact statistical test (two-tailed) was used in analyzing all the data.]

4. Within the low-income group, are significant difference in consumer behavior observable when they are analyzed comparatively on the basis of racial or ethnic background?

5. If consumer behavior differs significantly on the basis of subcultural classification, do these differences hold true in other small communities located in other geographical areas?

Two small rural towns were selected as sites for the study. The criteria used in selecting each community were (1) the town had to have a substantial number of low-income residents; (2) the total population of the town had to be between 5,000 and 10,000; (3) measurable numbers of Negroes, Mexican-Americans, and Anglo-whites had to be represented among the town's low-income population; (4) the town could not be located in the same state as the comparison community selected; and (5) the town was to be far enough away from any large metropolitan areas as to minimize the reliance of its residents on other than local shopping facilities.

The last three criteria severely limited the list of prospective towns. The need for Mexican-Americans in the sample, for instance, largely restricted the study to the Southwestern states plus Colorado and California. The towns selected from the 1960 census were Gonzales, Texas and Paso Robles, California. A brief profile of the towns may be useful in establishing the setting for the study


Gonzales, Texas is a quiet, aging town built around the traditional square. It is located 89 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico some 136 miles west of Houston, 63 miles east of San Antonio, and 64 miles southeast of the state capital, Austin. Its 1960 population was 5,829 and was estimated to be 6,000 in 1966. The relatively stable population belies the fact that the county in which it is located, as well as eight contiguous counties, has experienced a steady population for over forty years. The towns economy is largely based on agriculture and poultry processing.

Paso Robles, California is also heavily dependent on agriculture although tourism has long contributed to the economy and in recent years a small manufacturing activity has expanded. The town is almost midway between San Francisco (205 miles to the north) and Los Angeles (220 miles south) on U.S. 101, some 17 miles inland from the Pacific. Along with most towns in California, Paso Robles has experienced a steady population increase. Between 1950 and 1960 the town grew from 4,835 to 6,677.

The data on the families included in the study, which were drawn by stratified random sampling techniques, reflect other characteristics of the two towns. In responding to a modified version of the data collection instrument used by Caplovitz in New York, the families provided extensive economic and social data. (Tables 1-8 have been selected from the data to provide an overview of the characteristics of the 195 families.)


The characteristics of families sampled in the two towns indicate that both the middle-income and poor families in Paso Robles enjoyed a higher income level (Table 1). The mean annual income for the poor in Paso Robles was $3,780 vs. $2,740 in Gonzales. For the middle-income the figures were $11,030 and $9,470 respectively. The poor in the California town were much more dependent upon welfare than their counterparts in Gonzales (Table 2), with 40 percent receiving the bulk of the family income from welfare as opposed to 9 percent in the Texas community. In Gonzales the Blacks and Chicanos are younger and have larger families than the generally elderly, low-income Anglo respondents (Tables 3 and 4). Blacks and Chicanos in both towns tended to have larger families than the low-income Anglos. The poor in Gonzales generally were employed in less skilled jobs (Table 5), but enjoyed greater job stability (Table 6).

Place of birth and home ownership characteristics (Tables 7 and 8) represent what are perhaps the sharpest distinctions between the residents of the two towns. Very few of the adult members of the low or middle-income families in Paso Robles had been born in San Luis Obispo County. Indeed, over 90 percent of the blacks had been born in another state. By contrast, 84 percent of the wives and 87 percent of the husbands in black families in Gonzales had been born in that county. In addition, 85 percent of the middle-income and 52 percent of the low-income families in Gonzales were either home owners or buying homes. Comparable figures for Paso Robles were 64 percent and 33 percent respectively.

Having sketched the families in Gonzales and Paso Robles an effort will be made to relate some excerpts from the findings to certain of the questions posed at the outset of this paper.


While the questionnaire covered a wide range of products and services, this paper will review briefly only the findings related to the consumption of clothing, television sets, washing machines, and credit practices. Both of the towns will be treated separately and then a brief comparative analysis will be presented.

Clothing the Family

Gonzales has a number of retail institutions offering family clothing. A large majority of the low-income residents utilize these local stores (Table 9). Among low-income consumers a small, older J.C. Penney store was clearly the most popular of these stores, drawing more than half of the black and Anglo-white shoppers and 30 percent of the Mexican-Americans. Only two other stores were named by a substantial number of low-income respondents, both of which were independents similar to Penney's in appearance and merchandise.

The single distinct difference noted among the low-income subgroups' clothing purchases was in their reliance upon credit (Table 10). A very small percentage of the black and Anglo families reported having one or more clothing charge accounts, but one-half of the Mexican-Americans had such accounts. [Use of credit in clothing purchases: Mexican-American vs. Negro, p = .006 Mexican-American vs. Anglo-white, p = .008] In addition, it was clear that the low-income families having accounts make use of them, for over 75 percent of those families reported having current credit balances resulting from clothing purchases.

The middle-income families in Gonzales displayed clothing shopping habits somewhat different than many of the low-income consumers. First of all, 50 percent of the middle-income respondents stated that they made the majority of their clothing purchases outside the local area. [Locale of clothing purchaser (Non-local vs. Gonzales): Middle-income vs. low-income, p = .016; Middle-income vs. Negro, p = .028; Middle-income vs. Anglo-white, p = .022.] Secondly, they expressed a greater concern for quality and selection than did the low income shoppers (Table 11). Finally, they made greater usage of credit than did either the Negro or Anglo shoppers--a trait they have in common with the Gonzales Mexican-Americans. [Percentage of families having clothing store charge accounts: Middle-income vs. Negro, p = .001 Middle-income vs. Anglo-white, p = .002]

There were no significant subgroup differences observed regarding other aspects of clothing shopping habits. All four groups sampled reported making some mail-order clothing purchases, with Anglos showing the least activity in this area and middle-income families the most (22 percent and 45 percent of families, respectively). Few of the respondent families reported receiving substantial amounts of clothing from friends and relatives, with only approximately 20 percent of the low-income and 10 percent of the middle-income families reporting any such gifts. Home-made clothing was also apparently not a significant source of family apparel, although 50 percent of the Anglo and middle-income, 25 percent of the Mexican-American, and 18 percent of the black respondents did report making at least some of their own family clothing.

Shopping for Major Durables

Caplovitz, in his 1961 study, found that the great majority of his New York City low-income respondents were consumers of major durables. Although these findings were undoubtedly surprising to many at the time of their publication, the results of the Gonzales interviews suggest that similar ownership patterns exist among small town, low-income consumers. The poor of Gonzales were, indeed, active consumers of major durables (Table 12).

Among the residents of Gonzales, including the poor, the television set ranks as an important possession. Of the 95 families interviewed in Gonzales, only nine did not own a television set. Furthermore, of those owning television sets, two-thirds of the low-income families and all of the middle-income families purchased their sets new (Table 13).

Over three-fourths of these television sets, both new and used, were purchased in the local community (Table 14). Among the poor families the local Goodyear store was clearly the most important source of television sets; and Wiley's, a local independent, the most mentioned store among middle-income buyers. One rather curious aspect of the popularity of the Goodyear store with the low-income shoppers was the fact that not one of the middle-income respondents reported purchasing his set there. However, a review of the credit usage patterns (Table 15), helps to explain this phenomenon; for approximately 80 percent of the low-income families used credit in their purchases, and Goodyear in Gonzales had a reputation for having a very liberal credit policy. In contrast, only one-third of the middle-income television set buyers used credit, and those that did apparently preferred to secure credit at stores other than Goodyear. All three low-income groups reported significantly greater utilization of credit than middle-income respondents in the purchase of television sets. [Utilization of credit in purchase of television sets: Negro vs. middle-income, p = .004; Mexican-American vs. middle-income, p = .001; Anglo-white vs. middle-income p = .028]

Although washing machines were not as widely owned as television sets, approximately 60 percent of all families interviewed in Gonzales did own such an appliance; and, just as was the case with television set ownership, there were no significant differences in washing machine ownership based on economic factors (Table 13). In fact, the only statistically significant difference noted in ownership patterns was between two low-income groups; the Chicanos who had the highest ownership rate (80 percent) and blacks who had the lowest (48 percent). [Ownership of washing machines: Mexican-American vs. Negro, p = .036] The great majority of both income groups purchased their washing machines locally.

One-half or more of the families in each group used credit in their washing machine purchases (Table 15). While no statistically significant differences were found with regard to credit usage, it should be noted that, once again, the Mexican-Americans had the highest percentage of credit-assisted purchases, and this was despite the fact that Mexican-Americans purchased the highest proportion of used, and presumably less expensive, washing machines.

Credit Practices

One way of providing an overview of these excerpts from the Gonzales findings is to summarize the credit practices and attitudes toward credit of the Texas respondents. Louise Richards, in her analysis of low-income consumer practices in the United States, concluded that more than half of the poor families in this country use consumer credit of some kind and, that in 1962, over 25 percent of the families below the poverty line had installment credit balances. [Louise G. Richards, "Consumer Practices of the Poor," in Lola M. Irelan (ed.), Low-Income Life Styles (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Publication No. 14), pp. 67-86.] There was certainly no evidence uncovered in the analysis of purchasing habits in Gonzales to suggest that these estimates of credit usage were overstated, for the poor of Gonzales relied heavily on credit for many purchases (Table 16).

A review of the credit data reveals two fundamental findings: (1) relatively high usage of credit by Mexican-Americans among the low-income families and (2) generally greater reliance upon credit by the low-income families as compared with the middle-income families. In every consumer product category examined, except automobiles, Mexican-Americans had the highest percentage of families using credit. As the low-income group with the highest average income, the Chicanos either enjoyed greater access to credit or simply were willing to assume debt in order to enjoy more goods and services.

Comparing the total low-income sample with the middle-income respondents indicated that the poor of Gonzales generally found credit a more desirable, and undoubtedly more necessary, service in the marketplace. Only in the case of clothing purchases did the middle-income consumers use a higher percentage of credit; and, as previously noted, most of the middle-income clothing purchasers that used credit stated it was for convenience rather than economic necessity.

A review of current debt balances outstanding adds considerable support to the two findings identified above (Table 17). Significant differences in indebtedness parallel the credit data. Among the low-income groups, 65 percent of the Mexican-Americans had total current debts in excess of $500, while only 22 percent of the Negro and 16 percent of the Anglo families had outstanding debts of that magnitude. [Family indebtedness (excess of $500): Mexican-American vs. Negro, p = .006; Mexican-American vs. Anglo-white, p = .004] In contrast, 75 percent of the middle-income respondents had no current debts, while only 23 percent of the low-income families were in a debt-free condition. [Family indebtedness (no debt): Middle-income vs. low-income. p = .050]

Attitudes regarding the use of installment credit in product purchase tended to conform to credit-usage practices. Eighty percent of the Mexican-American shoppers had generally favorable attitudes toward credit-assisted purchasing, but less than one-third of the black, Anglo, and middle-income families shared the Chicanos' favorable attitudes. [Favorable attitude toward installment credit:Mexican-American vs. Negro, p - .001; Mexican-American vs. Anglo-white, p - .001; Mexican-American vs. middle-income. p = .004] In fact, well over one-half of all non-Mexican-American respondents expressed the viewpoint that credit purchasing is an undesirable practice (Table 18).

One factor directly affecting the potential economic necessity for credit in the marketplace is, of course, the amount of family savings available. Not surprisingly, the more affluent middle-income families reported significantly greater savings than did the low-income families, for while some 65 percent of the middle-income families had savings in excess of $500, over 80 percent of the low-income respondents reported family savings of less that $100 [Number of families with savings in excess of $500: Middle-income vs. low-income, p - .002] (Table 19). Clearly, the typical low-income family in Gonzales enjoys very little of the financial flexibility that comes with even a small cash reserve.


Having highlighted the shopping practices of the low- and middle-income respondents in Gonzales the same topics will be treated for Paso Robles.

Clothing Purchases

The Paso Robles retail community provided the clothing shopper with a relatively limited source of supply. Two moderately small department stores, Penney's and Mercantile, offered clothing lines for the entire family and Squires and Mode-O-Day offered specialty lines for men and women, respectively. In addition, family clothing could be ordered from either the Sears or Montgomery Ward catalog stores.

Approximately 80 percent of the low-income respondents utilized these local stores for making their clothing purchases. However, only 56 percent of the Paso Robles middle-income shoppers reported buying the majority of their clothing locally (Table 20). Thus, almost half of the more affluent shoppers in Paso Robles chose to go outside the local community to make their purchases, but less than 20 percent of the low-income respondents indicated that they followed similar shopping patterns. While this finding parallels the results in Gonzales, it should be noted that within the low-income families there were differences. Whereas, in Gonzales, a statistically significant difference was found between middle-income and Negroes and Anglos; in Paso Robles, only the Mexican-American group's practices were significantly different from those of the middle-income. [Locale of clothing purchases (Non-local vs. Paso Robles): Middle-income vs. low-income, p - .02; Middle-income vs. Mexican-American, p = .018]

As was the case in Gonzales, a majority of middle-income families reported having charge accounts at clothing stores. In fact, the rate was nearly twice that of low-income families, 56 versus 29 percent (Table 21). [Percentage of families having clothing store charge accounts: Middle-income vs. low-income, p = .024; Middle-income vs. Anglo-white, p = .006]

Shopping for Major Durables

A survey of ownership of items such as television sets, washing machines, and automobiles reveals that these products are generally rather widely owned by both the poor and middle-income in Paso Robles.

Again, television proved to be the most commonly owned product in this category with both low- and middle-income groups reporting 90 percent ownership. However, despite this seemingly high incidence of ownership among low-income families, there was a significantly greater percentage of middle-income families who owned sets; and most of this difference was due to the fact that almost one-quarter of the low-income Anglo respondents owned no television set (Table 22). [Ownership of television set: Middle-income vs. low-income, p = .096; Middle-income vs. Anglo-white, p = .018]

Perhaps of more importance in identifying differences between the groups is the fact that 40 percent of the low-income families bought or received as gifts used sets, as compared with only one middle-income family that purchased a used set. [Purchase of television set (new vs. used): Middle-income vs. low-income, p - .010; Middle-income vs. Negro, p = .050; Middle-income vs. Mexican-American, p - .001; Middle-income vs. Anglo-white, p - .010] This variation in purchase patterns probably accounts for a substantial part of the differences in locale of purchase, since many of the used sets were undoubtedly obtained from private parties (Table 23). [Locale of television purchase (non-local vs. Paso Robles): Middle-income vs. low-income, p = .002; Middle-income vs. Mexican-American, p = .012; Middle-income vs. Anglo-white, p = .002]

Among Paso Robles television set purchasers, the black families were clearly the most reliant upon credit, for nearly 90 percent of them utilized credit, whereas only 50 percent of the Chicano, 36 percent of the Anglo, and 52 percent of the middle-income families stated that their sets were obtained on credit. [Use of credit in purchase of television set: Negro vs. Mexican-American, p = .012; Negro vs. Anglo-white, p = .002; Negro vs. middle-income, p = .016] Thus, it is clear that the typical Paso Robles Negro television set buyer relies upon credit, regardless of whether or not the set he is purchasing is new or used (Table 24).

Just as with television sets, the black families in Paso Robles appear to be the low-income group most insistent upon owning a washing machine. Ninety percent of the Negro respondents reported having a washing machine, while only 69 percent of the Mexican-Americans and 62 percent of the Anglos were owners. Among middle-income families, only one family did not own a washing machine, creating a percentage of ownership significantly greater than that for either the Anglo or Mexican-American low-income families. [Ownership of washing machine: Negro vs. Anglo-white, p = .05; Middle-income vs. low-income, p = .014; Middle-income vs. Mexican-American, p = .026; Middle-income vs. Anglo-white, p = .006]

Once again, following a pattern similar to that noted for television set purchases, over one-third of the low-income families bought or received as gifts used washing machines. In contrast, 23 of the 24 middle-income families that owned a washing machine purchased it new. [Purchase of washing machine (new vs. used): Middle-income vs. low-income, p = .002; Middle-income vs. Negro, p = .005; Middle-income vs. Mexican-American, p = .001; Middle-income vs. Anglo-white, p = .001] However, there were no significant differences among the groups either in locale of purchases or use of credit (Tables 23 and 24).

Credit Practices

A review of the complete credit data from Paso Robles clearly indicates a relatively greater reliance upon credit by the low-income Negro shopper (Table 25). In every product category except clothing, the black consumers made the greatest use of credit in their purchases, while there was no significant difference in credit usage among the other two low-income groups and the middle-income families. Thus, particularly in the case of groceries, television sets and automobiles, the Negro families displayed a greater reliance upon credit than did any of the other groups.

This pattern of credit usage by blacks is further reinforced by the family debt information obtained (Table 26). Over two-thirds of the Negro families reported outstanding current debt in excess of $500, as compared with 37 percent of the Mexican-American, 35 percent of the Anglo, and 58 percent of the middle-income families. [Family indebtedness (excess of $500): Negro vs. Mexican-American, p = .068; Negro vs. Anglo-white, p = .038; Middle-income vs. Anglo-white, p = .10] Thus, in Paso Robles the typical Negro family was more like the typical middle-income family in its apparent willingness to utilize large amounts of installment credit in order to participate more actively in the marketplace.

Attitudes regarding the advisability of utilizing installment credit might, of course, be expected to parallel closely the patterns regarding actual purchase practices; but, the relatively low credit-using Paso Robles Mexican-Americans displayed the most favorable attitudes toward credit (Table 275. It should also be noted that while some 67 percent of the Negro families and 58 percent of the middle-income had current installment debts in excess of $500, only 65 percent and 40 percent of the families in those respective groups had favorable attitudes toward debt-purchasing. Therefore, it would appear that many black and middle-income families which have used debt in their purchases were "uncomfortable" with their indebtedness.

As was the case in Gonzales, current family savings offered few surprises, for the middle-income families were clearly in a relatively more secure financial position. Eighty percent of the middle-income families had savings in excess of $500, as compared with 15 percent of the black: 11 percent of the Chicano, and 3 percent of the Anglo families (Table 28). [Family savings (excess of $500): Middle-income vs. low-income, p = .001; Middle-income vs. Negro, p = .001; Middle-income vs. Mexican-American, p = .001; Middle-income vs. Anglo-white, p = .001] Based on this information and the credit usage patterns previously discussed, one must wonder about the plight of the low-income Anglos in the Paso Robles marketplace, for they have less savings and use less credit than any other test group. Clearly, they are the least able to participate actively in the marketplace-as reflected by the fact that they showed the lowest rate of ownership for such products as television sets, washing machines and automobiles.


On the basis of the findings in the two towns, an attempt was made to determine the extent to which there were consistencies in behavior within subgroups between the two towns. In short, did the blacks in Gonzales behave very much like their counterparts in Paso Robles or were there significant differences in their consumption practices and attitudes? Each of the ethnic or racial groups was analyzed for degree of uniformity on the following factors: television ownership, use of credit in television purchase, washing machine ownership, use of credit in washing machine purchase, use of credit in clothing purchase, attitudes toward the use of credit, degree of family indebtedness, and amount of current family savings (Table 295.

Blacks in the Small Town Marketplace

There was only a limited amount of uniform behavior by blacks in Gonzales and Paso Robles. There were no significant differences with respect to television ownership, the use of credit in buying those T.V. sets, and the use of credit in purchasing washing machines. The importance of the consistency in television ownership can be largely discounted since the same pattern appeared among all groups and apparently is simply a confirmation of the pervasiveness of the "tube" in American society. Blacks in both towns were heavy users of credit in the purchase of television sets and washing machines. As noted earlier, the Negro families in Paso Robles relied greatly on credit in most of their purchases. It is possible that the Gonzales blacks used credit for these two product categories because of the liberal credit policy of the local Goodyear store where most of then purchased their appliances. In the other five of the eight categories analyzed, there were significant differences in the marketplace behavior of the two black groups.

Mexican-Americans in the Marketplace

In contrast with the blacks, there were no significant differences for the Chicanos in six of the eight categories. Only with respect to the use of credit in purchasing television sets and the amount of current family indebtedness were there significant differences. In both cases it was the heavy credit using Gonzales Mexican-Americans that were on the high side with respect to credit and debt. In spite of these differences, it is notable that the Chicanos of Paso Robles shared the favorable attitudes of their counterparts in Gonzales toward credit. The uniformity of the two groups may reflect a more deeply rooted common cultural heritage. However, it should be noted that these two groups of Mexican-Americans were more similar with respect to mean annual income, age composition of families, and educational background than either of the other low-income groups.

Anglo-whites in the MarketPlace

The group which revealed the greatest uniformity was the Anglo-white families, who, in spite of considerable differences in age, income, and other demographic variables, were statistically different in only one of the eight categories. That category was in the use of credit when purchasing a television set. Again, the explanation for this variation may be traced to the credit policies of the Goodyear store in Gonzales as the Anglo families in the Texas town were significantly greater users of credit in such purchases. Given the rather dramatic differences in the characteristics of the two Anglo-white low-income groups (see Tables 1-8), the similarity of their practice in the marketplace is remarkable.

Middle-Income Shoppers

The middle-income groups, both of which consisted solelY of Anglo-whites were also quite similar in their marketplace conduct, except with respect to washing machine ownership and current indebtedness. The significant difference in washing machine ownership may be explained by the abundance of inexpensive domestics in Gonzales who "take in" washing and ironing. The difference in indebtedness is accounted for by the very low debt status of the generally older middle-income respondents in Gonzales.


These research findings suggest that to a great extent low-income and middle-income residents in small, rural towns participate in the same marketplace. To the extent that this is true the small town poor enjoy an "umbrella" effect largely unknown to the city poor whose shopping is largely restricted to a separate market system. While it is impossible to say that the small town poor are not the victims of discriminatory merchandising practices, it can be said that they are less likely to happen in the same stores where the town's middle-income residents shop---especially in this time of stores with "marked" or "ticketed" prices.

The findings also indicate that there are a number of significant differences in marketplace behavior and attitudes between the middle and low-income shoppers. For example, middle-income respondents were significantly greater users of credit in the purchase of clothing and yet their overall attitude toward the use of credit is significantly less favorable than the low-income respondents. [Differences in middle and low-income consumers (Gonzales and Paso Robles combined): Washing machine ownership, p = .080; Use of credit in washing machine purchase, p = .094; Use of credit in clothing purchases, p = .001; Attitudes toward the use of credit, p = .056]

In both of the towns there were also significant differences in the behavior of the low-income groups. In Gonzales the Mexican-American families, for example, used credit extensively, had a significantly higher rate of washing machine ownership than blacks, and so forth. Other contrasts appeared in Paso Robles where the blacks were the heavy users of credit, but the Chicanos were significantly more favorably disposed toward credit usage.

A more important issue, however, was the extent to which the uniqueness of these groups would also be found in their numbers some 1500 miles away. The findings suggest that within the categories analyzed behavior was least consistent among blacks with very little uniformity between the Gonzales and Paso Robles groups. Chicanos were different at a level of statistical significance in only two of the eight categories and Anglo-whites in only one of the eight. The middle-income groups, which, it should be noted again, were comprised entirely of Anglo-whites, behaved as homogeneously as the Mexican-Americans. Thus, with the exception of the Negro families there was considerable similarity in marketplace behavior within the racial-ethnic subgroups.

However, the findings of an exploratory study would be a shaky foundation on which to build any sweeping generalizations. There were important differences in the economic and social conditions of the two towns used in this study. Also, local business practices and customs introduced other variations which doubtless restrict the application of these findings. For example, "burial money" life insurance is aggressively sold in the rural south and southwest with salesmen stopping by monthly to collect 50 cent premiums. Thus, all three low-income groups in Gonzales reported significantly higher proportions of life insurance coverage than their counterparts in Paso Robles. [Life insurance coverage (Gonzales vs. Paso Robles): Negro vs. Negro, p = .038; Mexican-American vs. Mexican-American, p = .002; Anglo-white vs. Anglo-white, p = .038; (No significant difference among middle-income groups).] An effective analysis of the influence of such factors would probably require a comparative ethnographic study of the two towns.

Nonetheless, the study has added the issue of the low-income consumer in small towns to the expanding inquiry of the effectiveness of our market system in serving the poor. In addition, it is hoped that the comparative analysis of cultural subgroups within and between two towns has added a new dimension to research in consumer behavior. The data generated in this study has created the basis for new hypotheses which will be tested in future studies.





























































Frederick D. Sturdivant, Harvard University


SV - Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference of the Association for Consumer Research | 1971

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