Retail Shopping Mall Semiotics and Hedonic Consumption


Frederick W. Langrehr (1991) ,"Retail Shopping Mall Semiotics and Hedonic Consumption", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, eds. Rebecca H. Holman and Michael R. Solomon, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 428-433.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, 1991      Pages 428-433


Frederick W. Langrehr, Valparaiso University

The purchase of goods may be incidental to the experience of shopping. People buy so they can shop, NOT shop so they can buy. Thus consumers shop not only for goods and services or specific information but for experiential and emotional reasons (Hirschman and Holbrook 1982).

Hirschman and Holbrook (1982:92) state, "Hedonic consumption designates those facets of consumer behavior that relate to the multi-sensory, fantasy and emotive aspects of one's experience with products." The activity of shopping is part of the experience of the product. But "retail mall" could replace "product" and hedonic consumption can be directly linked with the mall shopping experience in and of itself.

Mall environments are part of a shopper's hedonic consumption activity. Retailers appeal to the multiple senses of sight, sound, scent, tactile and in the case of food, taste. Fantasies can be played out in a mall as a shopper walks in the mall, sits in a mall atrium or is "waited on" by a responsive retail sales associate (Campbell 1987).

Some writers have made conceptual links between shopping malls, semiotic messages and consumer emotions, fantasy and acting (Kowinski 1985, Zepp 1986). Because the mall is enclosed it is protected from the outside world and controlled inside. The mall is thus a theater where consumers can create their own world and fantasize their parts in a play. Retailers provide the staging, props, lighting, and mannequins (Kowinski 1985).

Mall semiotics have also been conceptualized as creating sacred space again because the mall is separated from the outside world. A mall is safe, habitable, and serves as a substitute from the medieval church. Zepp (1986) continues this analogy when he suggests that the church floor plan in the shape of a cross is reflected in the mall's cross layout. The atmospherics of space, height, and light also play a role in continuing this comparison.

Surprisingly little research has been done on consumer reactions to retail environmental variables. There has been a little research on store atmospheres but no reported research in mall settings. The above mentioned observations of mall interiors are suppositions not supported by consumer research.

The purpose of this review is to answer four questions. First, are visual presentations of retail interiors important in forming retail image? Next, how do retail environments work to influence consumer affective evaluations and buying decisions? Then, how do specific environmental variables such as crowding, color, sounds, influence shopper images and behavior? Finally, because of the relative paucity of retail semiotic analysis, what research is needed in the fields of retail environment, semiotics and consumer response?


It appears that depictions of a retail interior have a greater impact on consumer perception than does written description. When respondents were shown combinations of favorable/unfavorable pictures (slides of restaurant interiors) along with favorable/unfavorable written descriptions, visuals had a more lasting impact. The favorable pictures/unfavorable written combination led to an improving retail image after the passage of time. By contrast, the image of the unfavorable pictures/favorable written description deteriorated over time (Gardner and Houston 1986).

The impact of visual description was also shown in a pricing study conducted by Buyukkurt (1986). Respondents were given two grocery store descriptions. One store, family owned, had service departments such as a deli and in-store bakery. It had few weekly specials, but customers rarely waited in line, and the store bagged and carried out the shoppers' purchases. The other supermarket was part of a large chain operation, had no service departments, and advertised weekly specials. Shoppers had to wait in line and bag their own groceries. The interior of the first store was described as elegant, the second as spartan. These two descriptions were part of a pricing experiment, and even when the researchers set the prices in the two stores equal, the respondents thought the first store still had the higher prices. The researcher concluded that the services offered and the store interiors- made a price statement; and even if the store's actual prices were the same, shoppers would still believe the store that portrayed a service image would have the higher prices.

But we must be careful in overplaying the impact of retail atmospherics. In a study conducted in England, Downs (1970) found store service features were more important that shopping center design factors in explaining the respondent's image of a shopping center. Specifically, he explained 38 percent of the variance in retail image was due to store factors such as service quality, price, shopping hours, selection, and quality. On the other hand, only 16 percent of the variance in the image of the shopping center was explained by its structural features such as design, internal pedestrian movement, visual appearance, and traffic conditions. However, Downs' main thrust was a measurement of shoppers' cognitive, not their affective or behavioral, responses.

Thus we know that depictions may influence retail image, but do the environments work to influence behavior?


The link between the semiotic variables and behavior may be the shopper's emotional reaction to retail environments. This emotional reaction may be influenced by the individual's personality, the amount of stimulus screening, and both shopper's mood and mood inducing capabilities of the shopping experience.

Belk (1975) suggested that situational variables were as important as individual consumer characteristics in explaining consumer behavior. He suggested that physical and social surroundings such as location, decor, noise, aromas, lighting intensity, physical layout, and other persons present may affect a consumer's purchasing behavior.

Kotler (1973), author of one of the first articles appearing in the retail literature on environmental impacts of store interiors, suggests that a store's atmosphere creates a retail image in the shopper's mind. If the image is positive, it will incline the consumer to shop in the store. He gave a number of anecdotal examples of the type of atmospheres specific types of retailers had created. A few years later, Markin et al. (1976) suggested in a general way how retail environments could influence shopper behaviors. Neither of these reports, however, related how various physical features could serve as effective stimuli for a shopper.

Russell and Mehrabian (1976) believe that emotional states resulting from exposure to retail atmospherics should be analyzed. Instead of only describing environmental factors, researchers should focus on the following emotional states of retail shoppers: pleasure-displeasure, degree of arousal (feelings of alertness and excitement), and dominance-submission. Specifically, environments that created heightened arousal and pleasure and stimulated mild feelings of dominance would lead to maximum buying (Mehrabian 1976).

When this theory was tested in a quasi-field setting, two of the three dimensions did have a positive effect on predispositions to buy. Store environments that induced pleasure or good feelings did lead to potentially greater impulsive shopping behavior. Also, increased levels of arousal, feelings of alertness and excitement, led to a greater desire to linger in a store and interact with store personnel. The dominance dimension did not have an impact on interest in the store or buying from that store (Donovan and Rossiter 1982). Other researchers found that actual shopping behavior was affected by mood. When using the PAD scale to measure mood Sherman and Smith (1986) found in a survey of shoppers that a more positive mood resulted in purchasing more items and spending more money in a store. However, the foregoing researchers did not enumerate the store characteristics that led to these positive emotional feelings. The possible negative behaviors that arise from this arousal also need to be considered. High arousal may lead to impulsive and excessive consumption (O'Guinn and Faber 1986, Rook 1987).

Personality, however, may be an intervening variable in the emotional response. High stimulus need, high sensation seekers are more environmentally sensitive than low sensation seekers. Shopping behavior, number of stores shopped, duration of shopping trip, and frequency of shopping trips are also related to these personality variables (Grossbart et al. 1975). The researchers point out that these findings were based on macro-environments--shopping centers; however, they believed they may also be relevant for micro-environments--stores as well.

Another personality variable may be the level of stimulus screening. The more people screen out the environment, the lower their environmental load and arousal level. People who do little screening out of stimuli will have longer lasting arousal reactions to unusual or different environments. People who are more active screeners will have lower arousal levels and shorter arousal periods. Because nonscreeners have such strong reactions to their environment, they are much more likely to seek pleasing high arousal environments and avoid displeasing surroundings. Screeners will be more ambivalent, since the stimuli have a lesser impact, and they can more easily screen out unpleasant stimuli (Mehrabian 1976).

Moods and emotional states also govern how consumers react to store environments. Gardner (1985) suggests that store-atmospherics and salespeople may affect consumers' moods, and the mood states may affect influence purchase behavior. However, she also believes that the interaction is two-way. Consumers' moods could also influence how they perceived a given environment. Thus the impact was not only environment --> mood, but also mood --> environment. Gardner (1985) further posits that shoppers probably select stores that induce positive moods and avoid those that create negative ones. She does not indicate the types of environments or the specific environmental features that lead to positive moods.

Thus we know that numerous authors believe that retail semiotics do lead to a response on the part of shoppers. Some focused on situational or physical variables, while others looked at the emotions stimulated by the physical setting. Personality and stimulus need will influence the type and intensity of emotional response. Finally, the environment induces an emotion or mood but a consumer's mood at the time of exposure to retail atmosphere will also influence how these messages are interpreted and what the resulting responses are. Therefore, shoppers' affective and connotative responses may vary in the same retail environment, depending on the consumer's mood upon entering the store.

We now need to look at how specific environmental features will influence shoppers' affective and behavioral responses.


How do specific interior features relate to consumer affective and behavioral responses? Unfortunately, little research has been conducted in retail settings on this question. Thus this section contains the findings of studies undertaken in both retail and nonretail settings. The physical features discussed are crowding, color, music and noise, temperature and miscellaneous factors.


Crowding- Retail Settings

A crowded, cluttered environment fosters a low price image. But crowding does have negative connotations. In crowded stores, respondents said they

- spent less time shopping in the store,

- did less impulsive shopping,

- purchased fewer items per trip (lower priority needs are deleted),

- were less likely to socialize or seek contact with store personnel,

- were less receptive to new store layouts (too hard to find things in the crowd or clutter),

- were more nervous, tense and confused and thus less confident about their purchases.

These findings were especially true for time-constrained shoppers (Harrell and Hunt 1976). Task-oriented shoppers, ones who make fewer unplanned purchases and spend less time per shopping trip, may also be more sensitive to crowded conditions (Eroglu and Harrell 1986).

Crowding - Other Environments

The impact of crowding on individuals was the most popular by far of all interior environmental topics. Indeed, an entire issue o f Environment Behavior (1975) was devoted to this topic. Crowding had universally negative impacts on individuals. In crowded conditions, people performed complex tasks more poorly and became more frustrated (Evans 1979). Crowded subjects experienced higher levels of hostility and increased anxiety (Zeedyk and Smith 1983). Finally, other researchers found greater levels of arousal (a negative reaction in this study) and greater levels of tension. Also, people did not become accustomed to crowded conditions (Epstein et al. 1981). But reactions to crowding are not the same for all people. They are partially influenced by national origin. Gillis et al. (1986) found that Asians were more tolerant of crowding than Southern Europeans and that the British were the least tolerant of all three groups.

Color - Retail Setting

Warm colors, red and yellow, will attract people to a store, while cool colors (blue and green) encourage more contemplation and less avoidance of the environment. Interestingly, the two types of colors were not related to price or quality perceptions of the store (Bellizzi et al. 1983).

Music - Retail Settings

People will spend more time and more money in a store if slow-tempo versus fast-tempo music is played in the store. Respondents did not notice a difference in the tempo of the music. In a similar study in a restaurant, the slow tempo manipulation also yielded higher total expenditures (Milliman 1986. 1982).

Noise - Other Settings

Noise, like crowding, is also detrimental to human performance, People who lived in a high aircraft noise environment reported more errors in daily tasks than those who did not live in these noisy conditions (Smith and Stansfeld 1986). Bronzaft and McCarthy (1975) also found that students in a room near elevated train tracks had a lower level of reading performance than students in rooms on the quiet side of the same building. Noise also had a negative impact on helping behavior, people being less helpful in noisy environments (Page 1977). For retail settings, the implication is that shoppers will avoid or quickly leave a noisy environment.

Temperature - Other Settings

Schneider and his- colleagues (1980) did not find any decrease in helping behavior as-the temperature changed. Subjects in hot or cold environments were likely to give assistance as subjects in a comfortable room. However, in an earlier study Griffith (1970) found that subjects who were hot reacted less positively to other people than subjects who were comfortable. The implication seems to be consumers would avoid shopping environments that had temperature outside of their comfort range. Of course this range might vary according to person, season, setting, and shopping purpose.

Signing - Retail Settings

The presence and type of sign may or may not influence the level of sales. Namely, a benefit sign (a sign that gave some information about the product) would lead to higher sales for both regularly and sale priced merchandise (McKinnon et al. 1981). The impact on the consumers' overall perception of the store was not measured. Perhaps as signs are added to the store environment, the store may look more cluttered and communicate a more "down" market image.

Other research on the use of signs found that nutritional signing in the produce department had little, if any, effect on produce sales. The researchers thought that their findings may have been an artifact of the size (too small) and placement (out of line of sight of the produce) of the signs (Achabal et al. 1987). But other research on nutritional signing is equivocal (Russo et al. 1986). Signs that presented positive benefits of certain nutrients did not have an effect on sales of more nutritional products. But in another experiment where negative nutritional information was emphasized (sugar content of cereals) there was a dramatic change in sales to lower sugar content cereals. But this change in sales was within the product category and did not lead to higher overall sales for the store. An important finding of both studies was that even if consumers did not change their purchasing patterns the signs still increased customer good will towards the supermarket (Achabal et al. 1987, Russo et al. 1986).

The format information presented in a store has an impact on sales (Russo 1977). Shoppers were much more likely to shift to cheaper store brands when unit prices in a product class were presented in a list versus only displayed on individual shelf tags. This could potentially result in a lower sales volume, albeit higher profit margin since store brands are cheaper to the consumer but have a higher profit margin for the retailer. But Russo thought that, over all, the retailer would lose money if the shopper switched to lower unit priced merchandise. He believed, however, that shoppers would have an improved image of the supermarket that provided the easiest to use unit price information. This possible change in image was not measured- in his study.

In summary, even if signs do not change purchase behavior, if the signs provide information consumers think is beneficial, shoppers will have an improved image of the store.

Other Factors

Smells may convey a certain image. Thus perfume or odors of prepared food may have an impact on shoppers. Tactile sensation of handling merchandise may also create an emotional response. Unfortunately, these two factors were only hypothesized on the basis of unstructured interviews; no testing of their relationships was undertaken (Tauber 1972).

The number of shelf facings may or may not influence the level of sales of a brand item; the results of two studies were mixed. One study found that in increasing the shelf facings of four products, only one product had an increase in sales (Cox 1964). Another study found a sales increase for three of four products (Kotzan and Evanson 1969). These authors did point out that this did not mean total store sales increased. Rather, sales may have simply shifted between brands in a category.


Little research has been done on retail semiotics. Retail management textbooks always discuss store interiors and atmospheres, but, except for the studies cited, the impact of various environmental features is based largely on anecdotal evidence (Berman and Evans, 1986, Mason and Mayer 1987). Trade literature is frequently cited as a source for information on store interiors. Unfortunately, this "research" is ofttimes based on observations outside a controlled experiment, where the effect of extraneous variables was not controlled.

A research program investigating the major components of mall and store design and their impact on shopper emotions, evaluations and behavior is required. (The conceptualization of this research design was partially based on Belk 1975a, 1975b, 1976; Eroglu and Harrell 1986, Frederiksen 1972.) However, this is more than simply a case of developing a taxonomy of retail symbols and investigating each element of retail semiotics. Rather one course of action is to develop a typology of retail environments. Then researchers need to focus on the total environment, the gestalt, of the retail mall or store. Next, how the individual elements of retail design work to form this total image should be studied. Finally, these studies need to focus on shopper segments.

We need to determine if there is a typology of retail environmental messages. Historically we have focused on developing a taxonomy of shoppers (Anderson 1971, Bellenger and Korgaonkar 1980, Darden and Ashton 1974-75, Darden and Reynolds 1971, Monroe and Guiltian 1975, Moschis 1975, Stephenson and Willet 1969, Stone 1954, Williams et al. 1978). But a typology of environments is also necessary.

Since shoppers differ (Gutnam and Mills 1982), all people will not react the same way to an environment. It is important to test the reaction of different groups of customers or a specific retailer's target group to--store atmospherics. Thus the research program needs to be market-segment and store-type specific (King and Ring 1980). The segmentation variables may include shopper demographics, psycographics, moods, and shopping involvement (Salma and Tashikian 1985). But other classification variables may be types of store (department store, supermarket, etc.), types of goods (convenience, shopping, specialty), and purpose of trip (entertainment, fact finding, purchase).

Two recent developments encourage experimentation. Larger chain organizations with increasing numbers of stores facilitate on-side versus laboratory experiments. Because these large chains have more locations in which to use the information, they can use three or four stores out of 1,000 or 2,000 units to serve as experimental sites to test color, sound, aisle width and configuration, or light intensity and type. Because of the large number of stores in the chain, researchers likely could find stores to serve as controls for the experimental stores. The second facilitation mechanism is point-of-sale systems than can capture unit sales volume. The best example of the systems is universal product code scanners in the supermarket and discount store industry. These point-of-sale systems will allow an accurate and timely recording of unit-sales volume as various aspects of a store's interiors are tested.


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Frederick W. Langrehr, Valparaiso University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18 | 1991

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