Buyer Behavior Under Conditions of Crowding: an Initial Framework

ABSTRACT - Environmental conditions, specifically physical density and crowding, may affect several key dimensions of retail shopping behavior. Exploratory research indicates that these forces are a salient force in the retail setting.


Gilbert D. Harrell and Michael D. Hurt (1976) ,"Buyer Behavior Under Conditions of Crowding: an Initial Framework", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03, eds. Beverlee B. Anderson, Cincinnati, OH : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 36-39.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 3, 1976      Pages 36-39


Gilbert D. Harrell, Michigan State University

Michael D. Hurt, University of Vermont


Environmental conditions, specifically physical density and crowding, may affect several key dimensions of retail shopping behavior. Exploratory research indicates that these forces are a salient force in the retail setting.

An emerging interdisciplinary field of inquiry, environmental psychology, has evolved which focuses on the relationship between the physical environment and human behavior. While in an early stage of development, the presence and importance of influences emanating from the environment of human behavior have been established in a number of diverse empirical studies. Clearly, environmental influences are worthy of more thorough investigation in the study of buyer behavior. The central purpose of this paper is to outline a paradigm of buyer behavior and one environmental condition, crowding.

Kotler makes an important contribution in introducing Atmospherics as a Marketing Tool (Kotler, 1974). He contends that in some cases "the place, more specifically the atmosphere of the place, is more influential than the product itself in the purchase decision" (Kotler, p. 48). Atmospherics is defined as "the conscious designing of space to create certain effects in buyers" (Kotler, p. 50). This conceptualization can be extended to include not only the created physical structure but also the atmosphere created by individuals shopping in the store. Thus, the atmosphere of the store can take on a dynamic quality, and conditions of crowding can alter the psychological atmosphere of a store to evoke different patterns of shopping behavior.

While the effects of crowding have been empirically examined by a number of researchers, exploration of the concept in the marketing setting is absent from the literature. Important trends in marketing point up the need for inquiry into the area. First, scrambled merchandising, regional shopping centers and, more recently, the super store, all require heavy concentrations of shoppers. Second, because of the growing number of working wives, available shopping hours have been cut, thus placing a heavier burden on peak shopping times, e.g., Saturdays.

When is a store "crowded"? A manager and a consumer may respond differently to this query. Stokols (1972) identifes two components of crowding: (1) a physical condition, and (2) an experiential state. The physical condition, density, involves the restriction of movement imposed by limited space, while the experiential state, crowding, encompasses the individual's perception of the restrictive aspects of limited space. The challenge for the manager is to increase density without triggering the experiential state of crowding among shoppers.

The purpose of this paper is to explore the potential relationship between crowding and buyer behavior. Our approach is to first address the theory on crowding from several disciplines and research tracks. Secondly, a paradigm of buyer behavior under conditions of crowding is proposed. Three goals are sought: (1) to stimulate thinking about crowding and other environmental influences, (2) to provide a preliminary sketch of the possible influences of crowding on shopping behavior, and (3) to generate hypotheses for future research. The paradigm is grounded in the literature and was reinforced by the use of group depth interviews of shoppers.


Psychological or perceived crowding is a function of several environmental and individual variables in addition to the apparent lack of space. The more salient research findings suggest that crowding is a function of the situation including the difficulty of the task (Stokols, 1972); the amount of interpersonal stimulation and interaction (Desor, 1970) (Zlutnick and Altman, 1972); the individual's personal characteristics such as aggressiveness (Stokols, et al., 1973); and the individual's previous experience and expectations in the situation (Zlutnick and Altman, 1972). Moreover, the presence of these conditions results in information overload, confusion, and frustrated goal seeking (Proshansky, et al., 1972). In turn, coping or adaptation strategies are evoked and behavior is altered.

Situational Determinants of Crowding

The obvious situational determinant of crowding is the presence of a high density of people per unit of space. Animal studies confirmed the deleterious effects of high density on behavioral patterns and population growth. For example, Calhoun (1962) reported abnormal social patterns and drastically reduced birth rates with rats confined in high density experiments. Christian, Flyger, and Davis (1960) studied deer on a naturally confined island and reported similar findings. Generally, human studies have shown that density alone may not produce aberrant human behavior in the experimental setting. Freedman, et al. (1971), found few experimental effects on task behavior by variations in experimental room size.

Since man is a cognizing and goal-directed organism dependent on interactions and exchanges in his environment, crowding occurs only when space restrictions confine goal directed behavior (Proshansky, et al., 1972). For example, high density may actually facilitate goal achievement at a social function. The "richness of environmental resources" (Zlutnick and Altman, 1972, p. 51) is definitely a factor. However, in a supermarket, high density may impede mobility and decrease shopping efficiency. The degree to which time effectiveness is altered becomes important to the shopper.

Interpersonal Stimulation and Interaction

Desor (1972, p. 79) has stressed the interpersonal de-determinants of crowding by defining "being crowded" as "receiving excessive stimulation from social sources." Obviously, the amount of total stimulation from both the physical and the social environment affect the individual's perception of a situation. For example, the Zlutnick and Altman (1972, p. 52) add another important social determinant of crowding. They point out that a feeling of crowding relates to "people's ability and inability to control their interaction with others." Crowding becomes most pronounced when interference occurs. Restricted or redirected movement due to the presence of other individuals would enhance a crowded feeling. At the same time, high density situations which allow maximum freedom of movement produce less psychological crowding. Conditions of control and movement have not been empirically studied in enough detail to specify the exact relationship to crowding.

Individual Characteristics

Research indicates that individual characteristics have an effect on the degree to which a particular environment is perceived as being crowded. Stokols, et al. (1973) found that aggressiveness and anxiety influenced crowding when subjects were engaged in a competitive game. Few additional probes have been made into the significance of personality traits to psychological crowding. Clearly, further research is needed.

Individual's Previous Experience

The psychological makeup of any individual is largely determined by previous learning. Crowding is a relative concept--environments are more or less crowded and the anchors for judgment can be somewhat elusive. The Japanese, who are accustomed to extremely high population density, perceive crowding differently than the rural American. In buying behavior it is important to determine the circumstances under which crowding is experienced by the shopper. The environment most certainly has a normative property, although no particular measure for it exists. When the norm is violated, adaptation or coping strategies become operative. By developing an understanding of these strategies the marketer could become more responsive to the needs of the consumer. The obvious alternative to crowding for the consumer is to leave the crowded store and never return. However, there are tradeoffs. To illustrate, convenience of location, price considerations, and merchandising variety may more than compensate for the crowded condition. In fact, the manager attempts to obtain high density by offering a large number of buyers a package of rewards which exceed the costs of the shopping task.


Stanley Milgram (1970) used the concept of overload from systems theory to explain the problem of excessive social stimulation in city environments. When overload occurs, adaptations follow. While his conclusions refer to the total city environment, they offer significant insights pertinent to buyer behavior by enumerating in a generic sense several categories of responses to overload. First, less time is allocated to each stimulus input; for example, perhaps less time is allocated to comparative shopping. Second, low priority items are disregarded; thus, low priority goods may not be purchased or specials might be selectively screened out. Third, boundaries in the social system are altered so that the burden can be shifted to others in the exchange process. To illustrate, the use of credit cards alleviates the need to carry cash or write checks. Fourth, reception is blocked off by not entering the system. How many buyers avoid crowded shopping malls? Fifth, social inputs may be limited to relatively superficial forms of involvement with others. An analog to retail shopping might be the consumer's attempt to minimize contact with clerks and other shoppers. Sixth, specialized institutions are developed to absorb inputs that might otherwise swamp the individual; for example, the yellow pages alleviate the need for some shopping trips.


Human research on crowding has employed several methodologies. The most important include: (1) aggregate level correlational studies--for example, the relationship of crime and city density (Schmid, 1960); mental illness and city density (Earls and Dunham, 1965) and city density and selected social interactions (Smith, et al., 1954); (2) experimental laboratory studies--for example, on room size and configuration and crowding (Valins and Baum, 1973), and density and crowding in task environments (Stokols, et al., 1973) (Freedman, et al., 1971); and (3) speculation and informal observation--for example, a number of informal untested hypotheses can be found (Esser, 1972), (Dubos, 1968).

Conspicuously absent from this list of methodologies is the study of individuals either in a depth interview setting or in a field environment. Insights derived both from the literature and group depth interviews of housewives were used to develop the framework of buying behavior under conditions of crowding proposed in this paper. Prior to discussing crowding in the buying context, the exploratory research methodology is described.


Because of the speculative nature of the research in the area and the paucity of literature on crowding and buying behavior, initial contacts with consumers were of an exploratory nature. Four group depth interviews were conducted with 46 homemakers in total. Each 90-minute interview involved 11 or 12 women who are the major food shoppers in their respective families. A trained moderator presided. The moderator functioned in a non-directive manner to facilitate group interaction and exploration. Each interview was tape recorded, transcribed, and content analyzed. The nature of the group depth approach does not allow for a highly precise quantification of results. However, four important objectives were achieved. First, the interviews allowed an in-depth probe of attitudes toward the retail shopping experience. Second, crowding emerged as a relevant dimension of buyer behavior worthy of further consideration. Third, the salient individual and social dimensions of crowding were explored. Fourth, several adaptation strategies used by shoppers in crowded store environments were isolated. Most of the discussion was anchored to the topic of food shopping, although discussion of other types of shopping often arose during the interviews. The group depth interview as a research technique is reviewed by Goldman (1962).


Valuable insights into buyer behavior may be secured by examining crowding in a retail setting. As indicated, considerable research in crowding has been conducted in a number of disciplines and important groundwork has been established. Clearly, there is a need for an integration of relevant knowledge into a structure that may aid our understanding of retail shopping behavior. Until empirically verified, the propositions flowing from the model should be termed tentative.

A model of supermarket shopping behavior under conditions of crowding is presented in Figure 1. The three central components of the model will be discussed in sequence. First, the factors that impinge on crowding are delineated. Second, coping or adaptation strategies initiated by shoppers in a crowded environment are explored. Third, possible behavioral and attitudinal outcomes stemming from a crowded environment are discussed.



Dimensions of Crowding

Crowding consists of two fundamental components: (1) physical density, and (2) perceived crowding. The physical density component involves the spatial limitations imposed on the buyer by the presence of other shoppers and the physical structure and resources of the store. Possible measures of physical density include sales/time, transactions/time, and involuntary time delays both within the store shopping area and at the checkout

Psychological crowding can be operationally defined as the shopper's perceptions of the restrictive aspects of limited space. Possible measures include the dimensions of spacious-confined, restricted-free to move, and crowded-uncrowded.

Personal Factors

Psychological crowding encompasses more than high density. Several personal factors may moderate the degree to which crowding is perceived. The most important factors appear to be (1) past experience, (2) time awareness, and (3) personality characteristics such as impatience and aggressiveness. These elements were repeatedly brought out in the depth interviews. A consumer that lacks prior experience in shopping in a crowded environment or alternatively is under time pressure may be more sensitive to crowding. Likewise, character traits such as impatience and aggressiveness can render a shopper more susceptible to perceived crowding. Several buyers attributed their feelings of crowdedness to one or several personality traits that magnified the problem for them. Thus, physical density along with selected character traits and situational variables combine to determine the shopper's perception of the environment. "I feel my personal space is violated.'' "Confusing," "frustrating," "confining," "restricted.'' These comments surfaced during the group depth interviews.

Adaptation Strategies

How does a shopper cope with a crowded environment? Several alterations may be made in the shopping plan of the consumer. First, the shopper may attempt to reduce shopping time. The prevailing concern with time leads to a greater reliance on a shopping list and to a tendency to delay unnecessary purchases. (A typical comment from a respondent: "Your instincts are to get out of there as quickly as you can.") Interestingly, some shoppers appear to assign priorities to items, thus leaving some purchases for future shopping trips.

Another shopping adaptation strategy, consistent with the work of Milgram (1970), is to devote less time to each purchase decision. Obviously, a crowded store does not provide an atmosphere conducive to a careful evaluation of alternatives. Thus, a buyer relies on familiar brands and engages in minimal exploratory shopping. Similarly, the confusion and haste infused into the shopping trip by crowding may serve to reduce the amount of specific information processed by the consumer. The consumer's willingness and/or ability to examine unit price information, ingredient listings, nutritional data, and in-store advertising may be constrained by environmental conditions.

Crowding may likewise influence patterns of interpersonal communication within the store. Fewer special requests (e.g., meat cuts) may be made by shoppers. Shoppers engage in weaker forms of involvement with familiar persons, strangers, and store employees. The tempo and pace within the shopping environment may be a contributing factor to this reduced level of communicative involvement. Traffic patterns within a crowded store are analogous to those of a congested city. Established routes, directions, and speeds demand conformity.

Outcomes of Crowding

What are the outcomes of shopping in a crowded environment? These comments from respondents offer some initial insights:

"Sometimes I'm confused by the purchases that I made ... Why did I buy margarine when butter was on sale."

"It takes a long time after the shopping trip to come out of the irritable feeling."

Several behavioral and attitudinal propositions that appear to be worthy of further exploration are presented in Figure 1. First, crowding influences the confidence of the shopper.' In evaluating a shopping trip, the buyer may lack confidence that all necessary items were purchased and that the best values were secured. After shopping in a crowded store, consumers felt that they deviated from their shopping plan. Thus, the degree of satisfaction derived from the purchase selections may be affected by the conditions under which the shopper made those decisions. These conditions may likewise influence the shopper's image of the store.

Substantial research has been invested in studies of the factors that influence store image (Stephenson, 1969) (Berry, 1969). Environmental conditions, specifically physical density and crowding, may affect several dimensions of store image. A heavy concentration of shoppers may communicate a low price image more effectively than advertising. Additionally, the environmental condition encountered in the store may influence the shopper's perception of the store's personality (e.g., friendly-unfriendly) as well as several salient components of the product mix (e.g., assortment, quality, freshness).

How important are these considerations to initial store selection decisions? Clearly, a definitive answer cannot be derived from this preliminary analysis. A number of factors such as convenience, past experience, and shopping objectives, influence store selection decisions. However, a buyer particularly sensitive to the experiential state of crowding may engage in more extensive pre-planning in selecting a day and a time to shop at particular retail establishments.


Crowding in retail shopping is an important environmental condition with implications for both the manager and the researcher. Interestingly, it presents a paradoxical problem for the manager. On the one hand, high density is required to maintain profitability; on the other hand, perceived crowding may have adverse effects on the shopper's attitudes and buying behavior. Under what conditions can density be at a maximum and perceived crowding at a minimum? Additionally, how can the retailer respond to shopper's adaptation strategies in mutually beneficial ways? Research into crowding will provide the knowledge to answer these important questions.


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Gilbert D. Harrell, Michigan State University
Michael D. Hurt, University of Vermont


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 03 | 1976

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