The Functions of Luxury: a Situational Approach to Excursionism

ABSTRACT - A large number of persons ("Excursionists") access the luxury product domain only in certain situations. In this paper, we argue that such behavior can be analyzed in terms of the functions played by the products. Each luxury product can fulfill a certain set of functions. Each situation calls for certain functions to be fulfilled. Therefore each luxury product is more appropriate in certain situations than in others. Four situations are designed on the basis of two dichotomies (social vs individual, planned vs impulse). Respondents indicate their behavior in these situations for three products (scarfs, perfumes, diamond rings). A correspondence analysis assesses the strength of the adequacy of each product to each situation.


Bernard Dubois and Gilles Laurent (1996) ,"The Functions of Luxury: a Situational Approach to Excursionism", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, eds. Kim P. Corfman and John G. Lynch Jr., Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 470-477.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23, 1996      Pages 470-477


Bernard Dubois, Groupe HEC

Gilles Laurent, Groupe HEC


A large number of persons ("Excursionists") access the luxury product domain only in certain situations. In this paper, we argue that such behavior can be analyzed in terms of the functions played by the products. Each luxury product can fulfill a certain set of functions. Each situation calls for certain functions to be fulfilled. Therefore each luxury product is more appropriate in certain situations than in others. Four situations are designed on the basis of two dichotomies (social vs individual, planned vs impulse). Respondents indicate their behavior in these situations for three products (scarfs, perfumes, diamond rings). A correspondence analysis assesses the strength of the adequacy of each product to each situation.


For many years, consumers were relatively easy to segment in terms of their demand for luxury goods. Two broad clusters could be identified : (i) the Excluded, who had no access to this market but who, in most countries, included a vast majority of the population, and (ii) the "Affluent" (Stanley,1989) who, whether "Old money" (Aldrich; 1988, Hirschman, 1988) or "Nouveaux Riches" (LaBarbera, 1988) had both the desire and the financial ability to make luxury their "art de vivre."

Over the last ten or fifteen years, the market for luxury goods has changed considerably, however, under the influence of two major interrelated factors. On the one hand, many luxury goods companies such as Cartier or Cardin have started to diffuse and "accessorize" their brands, making them accessible to a much wider public than their traditional "Tlite" clientele. In most cases, the growth achieved by these companies has been spectacular. While, in 1977, the Louis Vuitton company was still a family business with sales under $20 million, its turnover now exceeds $ 1 billion. On the other hand, many consumers who were traditionally excluded from this market expressed a growing desire to acquire luxury items. The idea that everyone had a "right" to access this market got momentum. In their French sample, Dubois and Laurent (1994) found for example that almost 75 % of those who voiced an opinion agreed with the statement: "Today, everyone should have access to luxury goods."

We argue that, under this double influence of supply-led and demand-led factors, a third type of luxury consumers has emerged. We call them "Excursionists" (Dubois et al., 1994) because, in contrast to the Excluded, who have basically no access to luxury goods, and to the Affluent, whose access is more or less permanent, often driven by a quest for secular immortality (Hirschman, 1990), their acquisition and consumption of luxury items is occasional. Excursionists buy and consume luxury goods only in specific circumstances. For them, buying and consuming a luxury item is not an expression of their "art de vivre" but rather an exceptional moment, sharply contrasting with their daily life style.

Even though difficult to estimate, the number of Excursionists seems to have increased in such proportions recently that they would now represent a sizable proportion of the population in industrialized countries. In 1993, Dubois and Duquesne for example reported that, over the last two or three years (depending upon the product category), one European out of two had acquired at least one luxury product, out of a list of fifteen items, but that only one out of twenty consumers had bought five or more of those. Similarly, Dubois and Laurent (1993) reported that, over the last two years, each European consumer had acquired on average products from two different brands, out of a list containing thirty internationally famous luxury brand names.

Such an evolution of the luxury demand structure probably implies a shift in methods of investigation. Consider the basic problem of customer identification. While Excluded and Affluent consumers can be reasonably well identified on the basis of their level of economic resources (Stanley, 1988) or of their conspicuous behavior (Mason, 1981), Excursionists, given the intermittent nature of their access to luxury goods, are much less easy to profile and to analyze. Since situational factors rather than personal characteristics mediate their journeys into the world of luxury, it would seem that the exploration of the typical circumstances surrounding their acquisition and consumption of luxury items should be given priority. Researching excursionist behavior in luxury requires an understanding of the conditions that make one person an excursionist.

At the same time, the number and diversity of situational factors present a major challenge for researchers who, beyond exploring the behavior of a particular individual vis-a-vis a particular product category (such as perfumes, fashion accessories or jewellery items), have a legitimate wish to analyze consumer behavior across a variety of people and luxury products. Those researchers need a taxonomical instrument, i.e. a measurement tool developed on the basis of a limited number of generic rather than ad hoc situations (Dickson, 1982).

If available, such an instrument could be used in at least two ways. First, one could use it to compare the situational determinants of the consumption of a variety of luxury products and, through an analysis of similarities and differences, have a better understanding of the world of luxury goods and of their functions, as far as consumers are concerned. Provided generic situations are well chosen, a "situational" profile could be developed for each product and used as a basis for comparison. But such an instrument could also be used to assess the propensity of a given person to buy (or to reject) a particular luxury product. Excursionism is not a matter of nature, but a matter of degree. A frequent excursionist is perhaps an individual who purchases or consumes a given product in a wider variety of situations, compared with other people. If, in addition, a given set of situations can be ordered in a sequence according to which fewer and fewer consumers would buy or consume a luxury product as one moves from one situation to the next one, a "situational" scale, i.e. a scale based on situations, can be developed.

The objective of this paper is to report on the development of such an instrument, and to use it in the first way, i.e. to compare the situational determinants of the consumption of several luxury products.


In developing our instrument, we faced two major issues. The first one had to do with the selection of specific luxury products, while the second concerned the identification of appropriate situations.

Ideally, in order to fully assess the applicability of our instrument to the world of luxury, we should have selected a rather large variety of luxury items. However, given the constraints on data collection and the pilot nature of this study, we decided, in this first investigation, to focus our attention on only three products: perfume, diamond rings, and designer scarfs. While obviously not completely representative of the world of luxury goods, these products, when considered together, constitute, we think, an interesting sample, at least for illustrative purposes. They were chosen for a variety of reasons. First, and in contrast to other products which could have been chosen (such as cars), all of them have no fundamental utilitarian value, a characteristic generally considered typical of luxury products. As such, in qualitative research, the three products are mentioned very often by consumers invited to provide spontaneous exemplars of the luxury category. Second, they belong to three domains (cosmetics, jewellery and fashion) which, considered jointly, represent (cars excepted) a dominant share of the luxury market (McKinsey, 1990). At the same time, the three products are rather different from each other, in terms of unit price, durability, and anticipated purchase and consumption situations. Diamond rings are generally rather expensive, last "for ever," and are typically bought as gifts, often connected with society rituals such as engagement ceremonies or marriage anniversaries (Rook, 1985). Scarfs are more visible, more sensitive to fashion, and heavily embedded with meanings (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton, 1981) but also less expensive. Finally, perfume is a more intimate product, less durable and it is typically bought more frequently than the other two. At the same time, one should not overemphasize the differences. Even diamond rings, which could be considered as somewhat different from the other two products as least in terms of purchase intentions and price, are not necessarily so. In many countries, jewellery retailers now offer rings with extremely small stones (a few points of a carat) which, while still promoted as "true diamonds", make them no more expensive than certain designer scarfs. At the same time, diamond advertising campaigns, such as those sponsored by De Beers, try to diversify purchase occasions (diamonds for men, marriage anniversaries as opposed to engagement ceremonies, etc.). Although different, diamond rings, perfume and designer scarfs are related (at least in Western cultures) in that they clearly belong to the luxury product domain.

The second problem, that of identifying the nature, number and variety of situations to be included in the instrument was no easy task. Ideally, when analyzing the situational determinants of the acquisition and consumption of luxury products, one would like to develop a list of generic situations which are (i) significantly contrasted from each other so that each additional situation brings a new dimension into the analysis and (ii) collectively representative, or at least illustrative, of the typical buying and/or consumption contexts, so that no essential situational factor is forgotten. Yet, as expressed by Frederiksen (1972) "No prescription can be given to the would-be developer of a taxonomy of attributes of situations with regard to how to proceed," even though this topic has generated considerable debate among situationists both in psychology and consumer research.

Several environmental as well as social psychologists have developed generic taxonomies of situations. For example, Bellows (1963) offered a list of 216 situations characterizing social interactions, while Sells (1963) suggested a detailed outline, containing more than 160 items, "as a preliminary step toward the development of taxonomic dimensions of the stimulus situation in behavior." Similarly, Sherif and Sherif (1956) have argued that it was possible to structure situations involving human beings around four basic dimensions: (i) factors linking the participating individuals (for example antecedent relationships), (ii) factors related to the task or problem to be solved (novelty, complexity), (iii) physical environment characteristics (space, locations), and (iv) factors connecting the three preceding elements (for example the participants' involvement level in the task). In his seminal article introducing the situational perspective into the consumer behavior literature, Belk (1975a) identified five sets of factors which could be used in categorizing consumer situations: (i) physical surroundings - decor, sounds, lights, (ii) social surroundings - presence or absence of significant others, (iii) temporal perspective - time of the day, time pressure, (iv) task definition - purpose of purchase and (v) antecedent states (mood, physical feelings). Finally, Mehrabian and Russell (1974) have argued that any given situation can be categorized according to its level on each of three dimensions, as perceived by the subject: Pleasure, Arousal, and Dominance.

At the same time, empirical attempts to identify taxonomies of situations that would apply over a variety of product categories have not been extremely successful in consumer research. When comparing, for the same individuals, the factorial structures underlying consumption situations for snacks and for meat products, Belk (1974), for example, found no overlap. The same researcher found only one common dimension when comparing his previous results to situational determinants of the choice of a restaurant (Belk, 1975b). Similarly, when applying to snack consumption three alternative typological schemes for classifiying situations, including the PAD framework, Kakkar and Lutz (1975) found none of them performed spectacularly, nor were any of them closely related to one another.

In this research project, we decided to consider four generic situations, built from a review of the above mentioned literature but also from an analysis of the key characteristics of luxury goods (Dubois and Laurent, 1994). They were contrasted in the following manner. Taking first into account the social environment and the task environment, two key dimensions always present in situational taxonomies, we decided to consider two situations where the consumer would be the only person concerned and therefore would buy for herself and two in which she would be concerned about "significant others." The first two situations were further contrasted in terms of the decision-making process. In the first case, the purchase would be planned, in connection with a personal or professional achievement to be celebrated (situation n¦ 2 in Table 1), while, in the second, the decision to buy would be made on an emotional, impulse basis (situation n¦ 4). The two "social" situations were constrated in terms of the nature of the antecedent relationship. In the first one (situation n¦ 1) and taking into account the fact that our sample only consisted of females, an explicit reference was be made to the "man in your life", while in the second (situation n¦ 3) explicit reference was made to a social meeting. It should noted that, in the case of diamond rings, the latter situation was described as an engagement ceremony concerning a family member. One could argue that this "social" situation is rather peculiar. The "engagement" situation (for diamond rings) is certainly not the same as the situation in which one has to attend an important meeting, and wishes to make a good impression (for scarfs and perfume). Accordingly, a researcher may be tempted to set aside this "engagement" situation. We would argue that this difference is precisely a good argument not to set it aside. There is a different situation for engagement rings, not because of an arbitrary choice by the authors, but because relevant situations have to be adapted to each product. One cannot offer a scarf or perfume as an engagement present. No one (at least extremely few people) would purchase a diamond ring to make a good impression in an important professional meeting. The situational analysis of a given product cannot be done using situations that are irrelevant to that product. And, conversely, a situation that is relevant for a product should not be omitted because it is relevant only for that product.



At the same time, this does not imply that there is no general structure in situations. As indicated earlier, we argue that situations can be structured in general terms for luxury products: buying for oneself vs buying for a significant other, planned vs impulse purchase, social relationships vs love relationships, etc. Now, the very nature of the correspondence between luxury products and these situational characteristics explains why all luxury products are not adequate to all situations. Each luxury product can provide a certain set of functions. Each situation requires certain functions. Therefore each luxury product is more appropriate in certain situations than in others. The world of luxury products is not homogeneous. It has a structure that derives from the relationships between situations, functions, and products (Figure 1).

For each situation, each respondent was invited to indicate whether she would have certainly, possibly, or certainly not opted for the luxury item. The sample and data collection procedure have already been described elsewere (Dubois and Laurent, 1994) and therefore will not be detailed here. Suffice it to say that, although not randomly drawn, the sample consisted of 330 French female consumers (110 for each product, so as to control for respondent idiosyncrasies) selected according to quota set in terms of age and geographical location. Given the nature of the topic under investigation, it was decided to underrepresent lower income categories. All interviews were conducted on a face-to-face basis and the fieldword was carried out by one of the major professional market research companies operating in France. Since, in this research, as in most published situational studies, respondents were invited to put themselves in hypothetical scenarios, situations were investigated as perceived by subjects (Lutz and Kakkar, 1975), rather than "objectively determined" (Belk, 1975b). It should be mentioned that, with the one exception mentioned above concerning diamond rings, all the wordings describing the situations were absolutely identical so that item variability would not contaminate variance observed in the results.


Table 1 presents the results obtained for each situation and each product. It comprises four rows, one for each situation: "Man in your life" ( "The man in your life wishes to offer you a gift and asks for your preferences"), "Self-gift" ("You want to celebrate a personal or professional achievement by buying yourself a gift"), "Impulse" ("You see a ... in a shop and you are strongly attracted by it"), and "Social meeting" ("You must attend a meeting in which you want to make a good impression" for perfume and scarfs, "You must buy an engagement ring for one of your children" for a diamond ring). There are nine columns, associated with possible choices in each situation. For each product (scarfs, diamond rings, perfume), interviewees were asked what they would do in each situation. They could provide a positive answer (would certainly buy, or would certainly suggest, denoted +), a moderate answer (would possibly buy, or would possibly suggest, denoted=), or a negative answer (would certainly not buy, or would certainly not suggest, denoted -). As indicated above, different although comparable samples (in terms of age, income, geographical location, etc.), of size 110 each, were interviewed about scarfs, about diamond rings, and about perfume.

Several comments can be made on the basis of such an table. First, and as expected, significant variability is observed in the results, both in terms of product as well as situations. For each product, the percentage of consumers buying it or suggesting it "certainly" varies, depending upon the situation. For scarfs, it increases from about 5 % to almost 30 %, while the corresponding percentages are 11% vs 26 % for diamond rings and 16 % vs 52% for perfume (respectively). These results demonstrate the danger of profiling the "typical" consumer of a given luxury product and confirm the situational and "excursionist" nature of consumer luxury purchases. While only 5 % of the respondents would suggest to the man in their life to buy them a scarf as a gift, 29% would buy such a product out of impulse (possibly for the same reasons), if confronted with the appropriate product. Similarly, 26 % of the respondents would buy a diamond ring for an engagement ceremony involving their children, but less than half of that number would buy it for themselves. Obviously, those two markets are highly dependent upon short excursions driven by circumstances. It should be noted however that, regardless of which situation is considered, perfume is more readily accepted than scarfs or diamond rings. Its average percentage of rejection is 28 %, to be compared with 53% for diamond rings and 50 % for scarfs. Excursionism in the world of perfume is thus made easier through a wider variety of situations in which this product is judged appropriate. No wonder that perfume is often selected as a prime candidate for brand extension programs implemented by luxury goods companies.

Similarly, it appears that certain products correspond more than others to certain specific situations. For example, diamonds and perfume fit well as gifts offered by the "man in your life," while scarfs seem especially appropriate for impulse purchases. Interestingly enough, the self-gift situation was found to be the least favorable one for all luxury products, a result perhaps reflecting the ambivalence and guilt feelings prevalent in such situations (Sherry et al., 1993).

If confirmed on larger samples, the preceding results would allow one to develop for each product a "situational profile." For example, diamond rings appear, relatively speaking, much more dependent upon social rituals (first choice) than scarfs or perfumes, which are more likely to be purchased without prior planning. At the same time, no product was totally rejected in any scenario. Differences among products about their "situational relevance" are therefore more a matter a degree than of nature. It would therefore appear natural to compute, for each product, a score that would reflect its adequacy to several situations.

In order to establish a global picture of the links between situations and products, and to assess the underlying structure of these links, we performed a correspondence analysis (Lebart, Morineau and Warwick, 1984). Correspondence analysis is an appropriate statistical technique here, as we analyze the relationship between two sets of qualitative variables: a set of situations and a set of choices. The data to be analyzed is given in Table 2. They are the raw data underlying Table 1.







The results of the correspondence analysis of this table are given on Figure 2, and in Tables 3 and 4. Two clearly distinct factors appear, with singular values .245 and .142. Together, they explain 96.3% of the variance contained in the respondents' choices. As usual in correspondence analysis, they should be analyzed in terms of both lines (situations) and columns (choices).

The first factor is strongly related to choices related to scarfs and perfume (Table 3). It offers a strong contrast between two situations: impulse buying and self-gifts.

This first dimension can be interpreted, very clearly, in terms of the adaptation of two products (scarfs and perfume) to impulse buying; and of the relative lack of fit between these two products and the situation of a gift you want to make to yourself to celebrate an achievement. Positive choices on scarfs and perfume, as well as impulse buying, are very strongly associated with the first dimension, and all obtain strongly positive scores. Negative scores on the dimension are associated with a planned self-gift, and with the rejection of scarfs and perfume as appropriate choices. We underline that this first dimension appears almost unrelated to the two other situations ("Man in your life" and "Social meeting"), and unrelated to answers related to diamonds. In other words, the rich and strong interpretation of the first dimension in terms of when scarfs and perfume should and should not be chosen brings no light on the proper use of diamond rings, nor on choices appropriate when others are involved, be it for a social meeting, or when the "other" is a significant one.

Answers to these questions, in fact, are provided by the second dimension (Table 4).

The second dimension is mainly associated with diamond rings. It brings little information on scarfs and perfume. Positive scores are strongly associated with positive answers on the appropriateness of a diamond ring, and on the two situations in which other persons are involved: the gift by "the man in your life," and the "engagement ring." In contrast, negative scores are associated to negative statements on the appropriateness of a diamond ring, and to situations involving the interviewer alone (impulse buying, and specially the case of a self-gift). Overall, this dimension shows clearly the correspondence of diamond rings with social situations, and its lack of adequation for a self-gift. The second dimension brings very little information related to the appropriate use of scarfs or perfume.



Therefore, this correspondence analysis produces rich, structural information on the appropriateness of different luxury products for different situations, and, therefore, on the functions fulfilled by each product. It is interesting to note, however, that the two dimensions bring separate informations on different sets of situations and products.

There is therefore a double structure underlying situational choices made in relation to luxury products: within products and between products.

The first structure is within products. It explains choices made in different situations for the same product. Here, our conclusion is that one may form a Guttman-like scale on the basis of the different situations. Some situations are more conducive than others to the use of the product. Now, certain persons may want to use the product in all situations, others in no situation. Combined answers to a set of situation-based questions therefore offer a basis for scaling individuals, from the most prone to use this luxury product to the least prone. This individual score may then be related to other individual variables, such as socio-demographics (income) or involvement in the product. In similar research centered on upscale products, we found that such situation-based scales offered more predictive power than income (Dubois and Laurent, 1995).

The second structure is between products. As stated above, each situation requires certain functions related to its characteristics: buying for oneself vs buying for a significant other, planned vs impulse purchase, social relationships vs love relationships, etc. Each luxury product can provide a certain set of functions. Therefore each luxury product is more appropriate for certain situations than for others.


The exploratory nature of our study, the first one, to the best of our knowledge, to investigate the situational determinants of luxury good purchases, prevents us from developing too definitive conclusions from our results.

As indicated above, we carefully chose our set of three luxury products (designer scarfs, diamond rings, perfume) so that they would constitute a reasonably illustrative sample of luxury products of interest to women. And similarly for the selection of the four situations. Equally, we used a sample of "real" consumers. Our results should therefore have some external validity. At the same time, we have obviously not performed a final or complete analysis, on a large sample, of all possible luxury products and luxury-related situations. We think therefore that the analysis reported in this paper should be extended in order to obtain a more complete understanding of the adequation of luxury products to specific situations and, therefore, to specific functions. We advocate surveys dealing with more products (10 or 15, e.g.), and more situations per product (10, e.g.). The domain of content, so to speak, should be more fully sampled in order to obtain a complete analysis of all the functions that can be fulfilled by luxury products. Besides, we suggest that our current analysis may be incomplete, in the sense that it only considers broadly-defined "products," such as "perfume" or "scarfs." It should be interesting to explore these "products" in more detail, either by examining sub-categories (e. g. "eau de toilette" vs "parfum," or different types of jewellery items: rings or bracelets vs earrings, etc.), or brands (an HermFs scarf vs a scarf of a little-known brand, e.g.). It could also be interesting to study luxury-like goods, i. e. products which bear a luxury brand name but do not necessarily command a financial sacrifice.



If confirmed by studies performed on other luxury products, the two-dimensional structure revealed in this research would offer a particularly vivid and yet parsimonious understanding of the dynamics of the luxury market. Since Veblen's first attempts to explain conspicuous consumption (Veblen, 1899), the primary motive ascribed to the acquisition and consumption of luxury goods has been the human desire to impress other people. Recent qualitative research (Cofremca, 1992) has shown, however, that, in line with the general decline of the "status-seeking" motive and the growing self-indulgence trend observed in Western societies, the major force underlying luxury purchases and consumption is shifting from an interpersonal to a personal nature. More and more consumers seem to buy luxury goods more to gratify themselves than to impress others. But all luxury items are not equally perceived as appropriate for that function. By systematically contrasting social and individual situations, our 4-item scale allows one to position products on that dimension. In our study, diamond rings were felt more appropriate "social gifts" than perfumes or scarfs. Of course, one can speculate about the attributes of a product that facilitate or hinder its appropriateness for a given situation. In the case of diamond rings, compared with scarfs and perfumes, price and cultural habits appear as plausible factors. While the price of a product can obviously limit its potential as a self-gift, the marketing strategy used for the product also plays an important role. Diamond rings have for many years been associated by many people with engagement ceremonies and, as a result, at a time when such ceremonies tend to disappear, the diamond jewellery industry has to convince "career women" that diamond products are also appropriate as self-gifts. Equally revealing is the distinction between planned and unplanned purchases. In our study, perfume was not rejected as a planned self-gift while designer scarfs were. Both products, however, were considered as at least possible impulse purchases. Differences in basic product functions as well as dominant marketing practices could explain such results. Compared to perfume, scarfs are more "products for outside" and also more sensitive to fashion. The almost infinite variety of designs and colors makes it difficult for consumers to plan their purchases and to bypass the shopping stage, which is often conducive to impulse purchases. On the other hand, perfume is a more standardized, more intimate product, and is replaced more often. As a result, it is better suited as a planned self-gift. At the same time, marketing practices can influence the way in which both products are perceived. By increasing the rate of innovation, by relying more systematically on emotional appeals in advertisements, and by using more frequent in-store promotional tactics, perfume manufacturers can facilitate impulse buying. On the other hand, scarf manufacturers can facilitate planned self-purchase by establishing distinctive styles which, reinforced year after year (such as in the Gucci or HermFs collections), reduce the dependence upon fads in favor of enduring symbols of classicism. Through our two individual situations, our scale allows for a monitoring of the perceptions of luxury on that dimension.

There are of course many ways in which our exploratory study could be extended. An obvious first step would be to apply it to a much wider variety of luxury products, so as to better capture the richness of that universe. One could also explore additional situations. Although, at face value, the individual vs social and planned vs impulse dimensions seem the two major dimensions for structuring situations, others such as those linked to the time and physical surroundings dimensions could also be considered.

Finally, one could consider individual differences in associating products to situations, as well as their causes and consequences. While the limited size of our sample prevented us, in this research, from exploring that path, it could very well be the case that not all people equally perceive a given luxury product as adequate for a given type of situation. For example, depending upon consumers' level of financial resources, the luxury product that appears suitable for a social ceremony may vary. Similarly, one could constrast the perception of various socio-demographic segments defined, for example, on the basis of gender, age or cultural background. As suggested by Dickson (1982) such a triangular approach (products, situations and persons) could be very instrumental in better understanding a fascinating but underresearched market.


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Bernard Dubois, Groupe HEC
Gilles Laurent, Groupe HEC


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 23 | 1996

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