Variety Seeking As an Explanation For Exploratory Purchase Behavior: a Theoretical Model

ABSTRACT - The area of variety seeking has recently generated considerable interest among consumer researchers. However, even though numerous studies exists (in both psychology and marketing), no unified framework which attempts to organize and integrate previous work has been attempted. The purpose of the present paper is to propose a more comprehensive (or preliminary) theoretical framework of variety seeking in the consumer choice context. First, alternative explanations for exploratory purchase behavior are discussed. Purchase exploration is then hypothesized to be an interaction between two major factors: individual-level characteristics (i.e., traits and motives) and product-level characteristics (both objective and perceived). Finally, unresolved issues and needed research in purchase exploration are outlined.


Wayne D. Hoyer and Nancy M. Ridgway (1984) ,"Variety Seeking As an Explanation For Exploratory Purchase Behavior: a Theoretical Model", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, eds. Thomas C. Kinnear, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 114-119.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11, 1984      Pages 114-119


Wayne D. Hoyer, University of Texas at Austin

Nancy M. Ridgway, Michigan State University


The area of variety seeking has recently generated considerable interest among consumer researchers. However, even though numerous studies exists (in both psychology and marketing), no unified framework which attempts to organize and integrate previous work has been attempted. The purpose of the present paper is to propose a more comprehensive (or preliminary) theoretical framework of variety seeking in the consumer choice context. First, alternative explanations for exploratory purchase behavior are discussed. Purchase exploration is then hypothesized to be an interaction between two major factors: individual-level characteristics (i.e., traits and motives) and product-level characteristics (both objective and perceived). Finally, unresolved issues and needed research in purchase exploration are outlined.


Variety seeking as a motive in consumer behavior has recently generated considerable interest. While variety seeking behavior is thought to have relevance for several areas of marketing, most work has been concentrated in the area of exploratory purchase behavior -- i.e., brand switching and innovating behavior. [Although the focus of this paper is purchase exploration, consumers may also express their drive for variety by engaging in 1) vicarious exploration (i.e. shopping for reading about or talking w/ others about new or unfamiliar products) or 2) use innovativeness (using products in new or different ways).] In spite of the increasing interest, however, most marketing studies have focused on single components of variety seeking. There are numerous factors, however, which must be considered simultaneously if research is to be extended. There is, therefore, a need for the existing knowledge to be organized into a more unified and comprehensive framework. The purpose of this paper is to develop a theoretical framework in which to study consumer variety seeking in the purchase environment. In addition, directions for future research in this important area are suggested.


The general area of variety seeking derives from a body of literature introduced in psychology by Leuba (1955) and Hebb (1955). Their theories suggested that the source of variety seeking behavior was the internal need for stimulation. Their idea of a preferred (or optimal) level of stimulation and individual differences in that preference spawned much research in psychology (see, for example, Dember and Earl 1957, Berlyne 1960, Fiske and Maddi 1961, Kish 1966). Although some differences between the various psychological theories exist, the common thesis is simply that as stimulation (complexity, arousal, etc). falls below the ideal level, an individual becomes bored and attempts to produce more stimulating input (through behaviors such as exploration and novelty seeking). As stimulation increases past the ideal level, an individual will attempt to reduce or simplify input. Although individuals are thought to differ in the amount of stimulation preferred, the optimal amount is thought to be at some intermediate level (Berlyne 1960). (For a detailed discussion of this literature, see also Venkatesan 1973).


Recently, consumer researchers have become interested in applying the concept of variety seeking to the consumer context. Specifically, studies have illustrated the connection between optimal stimulation level and: 1) acceptance of new products and retail stores (Haines 1966, Mazis and Sweeny 1972, Mittelstaedt et al. 1976, Grossbart, Mittelstaedt and DeVere 1976, RaJu 1980, 2) brand switching (Tucker 1964, McConnell 1968, Brickman and D'Amato 1975), 3) media attention and utilization (Kroeber-Riel 1979, Goodwin 1980, Hirschman and Wallendorf 1979 and 1980), and 4) creativity in the use of products (Price and Ridgeway 1982a and 1982b). The consensus conclusion of these researchers is that individuals with a high need for stimulation will be more likely to engage in consumer variety seeking than those with a low need for stimulation. Other consumer researchers have attempted to develop aggregate models of variety seeking (see, for example, Jeuland 1978, McAlister 1979 and 1982). These models are based on the idea that using one brand/product repeatedly decreases its utility, causing a "satiation" effect. Finally, several excellent review articles which illustrate various consumer behavior perspectives on exploratory behavior are available (Venkatesan 1973, Faison 1977, Raju and Venkatesan 1980, Hirschman 1980, McAlister and Pessemier 1982). Although each study has contributed to an increased understanding of consumer variety seeking, these efforts fall short of producing a comprehensive theoretical framework. There are several reasons for this. Primarily, most of the empirical research focuses on the variety seeking behavior itself and fails to consider that there are a number of motives that could produce "exploratory" behavior. For example, brand switching, which occurs because one is dissatisfied w/ the current brand, is not motivated by variety drive. Thus it is important not to consider the behavior in isolation but, rather, what motivates the behavior. Additionally, a large number of variables (such as other traits, motives and product characteristics) interact to determine how, when and with which products variety seeking will occur. Most variety seeking research has focused on only one variable and not on the interactions that exist. The remainder of this paper attempts to delineate a comprehensive framework of purchase exploration that takes these factors into account. In particular, the present paper will focus on the variety seeking drive as a determinant of one specific type of consumer exploratory -- purchase exploration through brand switching or innovating.


One important outcome of the variety seeking drive in the context of consumer choice would be the desire for new or novel products manifested by purchase exploration (i. e., switching/innovating. It is important to note, however, that not all purchase exploration is the result of the variety seeking drive. As shown in Figure 1, variety seeking is but one determinant of exploratory purchase behavior. This behavior can also result from such factors as: decision strategies, situational and normative variables, dissatisfaction with current brand/product and stochastic processes. Thus, in developing a more precise and testable theoretical framework of variety seeking as a major explanatory concept underlying consumer choice, the main question becomes: How can variety drive be distinguished from these other determinant factors? The answer to this question requires an examination of the antecedent motives which underlie each of these alternative explanations.

Decision Strategies: A process which may result in brand/ product switching involves the type of decision strategy employed in making the choice. Most particularly, consumers may base their decision on price-related factors such as buying the cheapest brand, buying a brand on sale, or buying a product for which one has a coupon. In this case, the end result may be brand/switching or innovating, but the underlying choice is based on a systematic economic motive. Switching due to decision strategies can thus be clearly distinguished from variety seeking behavior which involves the desire for new and novel brands/products.



Situational and Nonnative Factors: A second category of variables which may induce switching behavior consists of situational and normative factors (see, for example, Belk 1975, Lutz and Kakkar 1975). The basic notion is that even though an individual may intend to purchase a particular brand/product, other factors intervene to prevent the intention from being carried out. Situational variables include: preferred brand/product on sale, and special point-of-purchase display of another brand/product. Normative factors would involve the direct influence of a relevant other. For example, one ;night purchase a different brand of beer than would be consumed in private (e.g., Michelob rather than Miller) in order to impress a particular person. Also, a warning by the FDA about the unsafety of a particular brand/product could result in switching from Bayer aspirin to Tylenol. In these cases, the cause of switching is some factor which is posited to be based on internal psychological factors.

Dissatisfaction with Current Brand/Product: A third factor which might result in switching behavior is dissatisfaction with the brand/product the consumer is currently using. Thus, the choice of a different brand/product is not the result of the need for variety; rather, it is the result of an evaluation that the existing brand is not fulfilling one's needs.

Problem Solving Strategies: Finally, brand switching or innovating may be motivated by the desire to solve a problem. For example, an individual may buy a new product, such as a video cassette recorder, because s/he needs more control over television viewing. In this case, the individual needs the new product/brand to solve a current consumption problem, not to satisfy his/her desire for variety.

Summary: In summary, it is hypothesized that a major behavioral result of the variety seeking drive in a marketing context is brand/product switching. In order to clearly examine the relationship between switching behavior and variety seeking, however, it is very important to distinguish this factor from other possible determinants, because each serves as a plausible alternative hypothesis as to why switching occurred. Further, an empirical test of the proposed theoretical network must clearly isolate switching situations which are due to variety drive (i.e., optimal stimulation level) from those which are the result of other factors. An additional complication is that several of these motivations may work together to produce purchase exploration, making motive isolation a very difficult task.


As mentioned previously, variety seeking is the desire for a new and novel stimulus, which in the context of the present paper would be the selection of a new brand or a new product (i.e., an innovation). The key proposition of the proposed framework is that when and with which products purchase exploration occurs is a function of two major factors: (a) individual-difference characteristics and (b) product-level characteristics. That is, it is suggested that individuals possess a variable level of drive which reflects the overall need for variety, but that the product category chosen to express this drive is based on certain characteristics of the product. Put, another way, variety seeking is a general drive which is expressed in only a subset of product-specific situations (i.e., an individual X product interaction). With this in mind, attention is now turned to a discussion of the individual and product characteristics related to exploratory purchase behavior.

Individual-Difference Characteristics

In identifying the individual factors which theoretically are related to the variety seeking drive, the extensive psychology literature is quite useful. In general, two major types of factors can be identified: personality traits and motivational factors. [There is considerable disagreement about whether variety drive should be considered a drive, a motive or a personality disposition. Likewise, there is disagreement about the distinction between personality traits and motivational factors. The distinctions made in this paper are primarily for pedagogical purposes.]

Personality Traits: According to several researchers, personality is defined as the consistent response to environmental stimuli (Allport 1937, Hall and Lindzey 1957). Thus, the fact that a number of personality traits have exhibited a relationship to variety seeking suggests that some individuals are consistently more likely than others to engage in variety seeking behavior. Some of the major personality traits which have been found to be related to variety seeking behavior include: dogmatism -- Individuals who are more dogmatic (or closed-minded) are more likely to be rigid in their thinking and thus, are less likely to be venturesome in trying new brands/products (Kish and Donnewerth 1972, Mehrabian and Russell 1974); extroversion -- Extroverted individuals have been shown to exhibit a stronger tendency toward adopting new behavior patterns, and thus are expected to be more open to the adoption of alternative products (Farley and Farley 1967, Kish and Busse 1969, Bone and Montgomery 1970); authoritarianism -- Similar to the dogmatism trait, individuals with high authoritarian tendencies have been found to be more resistant to change and thus would be less likely to engage in product variety seeking (Kish and Donnewerth 1972); liberalness -- In general, the more liberal an individual, the more open s/he is to change. Thus, a liberal individual would be more likely to engage in variety seeking than someone of a more conservative nature (Stock and Looft 1969, Gorman 1970, Looft 1971); ability to teal with complex or ambiguous stimuli -- The consideration of new brands/products in a purchase situation likely results in a more complex and ambiguous information environment due to the additional amount of information which must be processed. in fact, it has been found that individuals with a higher need for variety exhibit a greater ability to deal with more complex or ambiguous stimuli than those who have a lower variety drive (Vitz 1966, Mehrabian and Russell 1974, Raju 1980); creativity - Research has indicated that individuals with a higher variety drive tend to be higher in creative ability than those with a lower variety drive (Houston and Mednick 1963, Pearson and Maddi 1966, Penny and Reinehr 1966). In summary, a variety of different personality traits may predispose an individual toward variety seeking and it is clear that in empirical work, a multi-dimensional personality instrument must be developed in order to identify those individuals who are more prone to purchase exploration.

Motivational Factors: A second set of individual-level characteristics are motivational in nature. A synthesis of previous research suggests that a number of specific (yet interrelated) motives may combine to produce a general variety drive. The most basic motive is the need for change (Leuba 1955). Researchers have attempted to operationalize the need for a change in various ways. These include: the need for new and unfamiliar stimuli (Penny and Reinehr 1966), the need for excitement and thrills (Zuckerman et al. 1964), the need for arousal (Mehrabian and Russell 1974) and a preference for irregularity (Garlington and Shimota 1964). It is suggested that each of these factors represent one aspect of the multi-dimensional motive of need for change and can be quite useful in developing a precise measure of this construct.

In addition to the need for change, several other important motives-may be useful in understanding the variety seeking drive. One such motive is the need for uniqueness -- According to Fromkin (see, for example, 1968 and 1973), individuals possess a need to feel different from others in a social environment. More importantly, individuals vary in terms of the intensity of this uniqueness need. Those that do possess a strong desire to be different will search for ways to express their uniqueness. One solution is to adopt new and different products (Fromkin 1971). Thus, the need for uniqueness may result in the adoption of different product alternatives due to an assertion of individuality. Another motive important to variety seeking behavior is the curiosity motive. Certain people are simply more curious of new stimuli than others. Additionally, curiosity is an integral part of the variety seeking drive (Dember and Earl 1957). It is logical, therefore, that those with a higher level of curiosity drive would be more likely to try out new brands/products in a choice context. A final motive is the need for risk, danger or thrills. Some individuals possess a basic desire to place themselves in risky or dangerous situations. Although this type of context would be uncharacteristic of most consumer purchase situations, the possibility exists that individuals who are higher in this need would also be more likely to take the minor risks associated with trying a new brand or product (Bone, Cowling and Choban 1974, Segal and Singer 1976, Zuckerman 1979).

In summary, given that several different motives may be present simultaneously, future research which attempts to understand the phenomenon of variety seeking in the purchase context must account for the variety of motives which are potential causal antecedents. A major challenge of this effort, therefore, is developing reliable, valid ways of measuring these motives.

Summary of Individual-Difference Characteristics: A number of personality and motivational factors are potentially related to variety seeking in purchase behavior. It is hypothesized that the personality factors are causal antecedents in explaining the level or degree of each of the motives. Specifically, in terms of personality traits, it is hypothesized that dogmatism and authoritarianism are negatively related to purchase exploration, while extroversion, liberalness, ability to deal with complex stimuli and creativity are positively related to purchase exploration. In terms of motivational factors, it is hypothesized that need for change, need for uniqueness, curiosity motive and need for risk, danger and thrill will be more likely to engage in purchase exploration. Thus, variety seeking is seen as a general drive which is the result of several interrelated underlying motives which are, in turn, a function of various personality characteristics.

Product Characteristics

Thus far the nature of a general variety drive has been discussed. It is obvious, however, that this need for variety will not be expressed in every behavioral context. As mentioned previously, it is suggested that variety seeking behavior is the function of an interaction between individual level factors and situation specific factors. It is therefore necessary to explicate the consumer choice situations where a variety drive is most likely to be expressed.

In identifying the product characteristics which mediate the expression of the variety drive, it is important to distinguish between two categories of factors: objective product characteristics and perceived (or subjective) product characteristics. The former involve concrete product characteristics which do not vary from individual to individual. Examples would include the number of available alternatives and interpurchase frequency. The latter category includes product characteristics which are defined by consumer perceptions. Examples would be degree of involvement with the b and/product, perceived risk of the product class, the perceived difference between brands (substitutability), brand loyalty and the importance of neural sensation, each with a different effect in mediating the variety drive. Objective characteristics would serve to affect the expression of the variety drive in a consistent manner across a majority of consumers (for example, all consumers must accept the fact that there may be only a few brands of photographic film). Subjective factors, on the other hand, permit a degree of heterogeneity in the expression of the variety drive across consumers within a particular product class. For example, within a product category, consumers may perceive different levels of risk. For consumers with a high level of perceived risk, variety seeking is unlikely to occur because of the dangers associated with the selection of an unsatisfactory alternative. Consumers with a low level of perceived risk, on the other hand, would likely be higher in variety seeking due to the absence of severe consequences in selecting an inadequate alternative.

In addition, two important points need mentioning. First, the presence of these factors does not automatically lead to exploratory purchase behavior. Rather, these factors are useful in identifying those product classes in which exploratory purchase behavior will be likely to occur. Second, the various factors may interact in very complex ways and thus, their relationship to exploratory purchase behavior may not necessarily be linear in nature.

Objective Product Characteristics: The opportunity to switch brands or products will always be dependent on the number or available alternatives. In product classes where there is a very restricted set of choice options (for example, canned vegetables, petroleum jelly, tonic water and typewriter correction fluid), it is obvious that it would be difficult to engage in brand/product switching. On the other hand, where there is a large number of choice alternatives (for example, in product classes such as breakfast cereal or soft drinks), there is a greater opportunity for purchase exploration.

A second objective product characteristic is interpurchase frequency. In situations where interpurchase time is relatively lengthy (for example, automobiles, typewriters, watches), each choice occasion takes on some degree of novelty due to the fact that specific characteristics of the previous choice situation may have been forgotten. On the other hand, frequently purchasing the same brand or product may result in boredom and thereby activate the variety drive.

Perceived (subjective) Product Characteristics: An Important perceived product characteristic would be the degree of involvement toward the product. It is hypothesized that variety seeking is more likely to occur with products where involvement is relatively low. It has been shown that low involvement products are not strongly linked to an individual's belief structure (Lastovicka and Gardner 1978, Ray et al. 1973) In other words, low involvement products are usually characterized by a low level of interest on the part of the consumer. These products are not important when compared to the full range of decisions which are made in every day life. Further, many low involvement products are purchased frequently. Both of these factors may lead to boredom...which in turn, could lead to purchase exploration

Highly related to involvement is the perceived risk associated with a product (e.g., financial, social, etc.). In product classes where perceived risk is high, consumers are less likely to engage in exploratory purchase behavior because of the severity of the consequences of choosing a product that does not fulfill one's needs. In cases of low risk, however, the selection of an inferior product is not a great loss and can be easily remedied by selecting a different brand/product on the next purchase occasion.

The perceived difference between brands (substitutability) is also a product characteristic that could affect purchase exploration. In making a product choice, consumers will implicitly make an estimate as to how well each of the available alternatives will fulfill his/her needs. In cases where one product (or product category) is clearly preferred, that product will be more like to be chosen consistently over time. In cases where two or more products will satisfactorily meet the consumer's needs, brand/product switching would be more likely to occur since it will not result in less need fulfillment.

Another perceived product characteristic is the degree of brand loyalty. It is only natural that consumers who possess a strong preference for one brand out of a set of brands would be less likely to engage in product/brand switching. In fact, the definition of brand loyalty necessitates the absence of switching behavior (Jacoby and Chestnut 1978).

Finally, it is suggested that product choices which are highly dependent on neural (or effective) sensations display a greater than average tendency to facilitate a variety drive. A common example is the sense of taste. We might choose a different restaurant or a different brand of soft drink because we are tired of the type of or taste of the same alternative. This behavior produces an optimal level of stimulation for our taste buds.

Summary of Product Characteristics: In summary, the variety drive will not be expressed in every product category. Rather, each of the foregoing product characteristics is posited to play an important role in determining whether brand/product switching will occur. Specifically, it is hypothesized that purchase exploration is more likely to occur when there are a large number of brand alternatives, interpurchase time is relatively short, involvement with the product or brand, perceived difference between brands, brand loyalty and dependence on neural sensation are relatively low. Thus, research on relating variety seeking to consumer behavior should be careful in selecting the product categories for examination in order to ensure that the drive is likely to be expressed for that product.


The purpose of the present paper has been to propose a theoretical framework which attempts to synthesize previous research and theory regarding the variety seeking drive with added insights based on a knowledge of consumer behavior. The basic proposition is that variety seeking is an important explanatory construct for brand/product switching behavior and, therefore, factors which l ad to the expression of a variety drive must be isolated and examined

In light of this framework, research is needed to examine not only the extent to which each of the specific individual and product characteristics account for variance in the variety seeking drive (i.e., the importance of each factor) and brand/product switching, but also the extent to which these factors interact.

It is important to note that many of the previously mentioned factors have been researched in areas which may not be directly generalizable to the choice of common consumer products (e.g., social psychology and personality). Thus, research is needed to determine which of these factors are important in explaining variety seeking in a product choice situation. Also, further research may uncover additional individual and product characteristics which may be relevant. Paramount to all of these efforts will be the development of reliable and valid measures for these constructs.

In addition to these specific research questions, other important issues must be addressed. Most importantly is an examination of the extent to which variety seeking is a more consistent and generally static predisposition versus a more situation specific and momentary occurrence. Thus, process motives must be more fully integrated into a consumer choice theory of variety seeking. This question is critical from a marketing strategy perspective because the answer can determine the extent to which attempts to induce brand/product switching should be based on segmentation (i.e., identify those consumers who are high in variety drive) or should attempt to construct choice situations which are conducive to variety seeking (and thus switching behavior).

At any rate, given that variety seeking may potentially account for variance in choice behavior which has yet to be explained, it appears that further research in this area is well warranted.


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Wayne D. Hoyer, University of Texas at Austin
Nancy M. Ridgway, Michigan State University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 11 | 1984

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