Defending Against Consumerism: an Emergent Typology of Purchase Restraint Strategies

ABSTRACT - The lack of consumption restraint, indicative of consumerism, is causing concern among media members, policy makers and academics alike. Past research, however, has looked at consumer self-control only in cases of compulsive consumption and impulse driven purchases. The present study looks at strategies used by consumers who actively contemplate their buying decision in non-impulse situations and yet restrain from purchasing. Based on a content analysis of qualitative responses, an emergent typology of purchase restraint strategies is presented.


Omar Shehryar, Timothy D. Landry, and Todd J. Arnold (2001) ,"Defending Against Consumerism: an Emergent Typology of Purchase Restraint Strategies", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 420-424.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 420-424


Omar Shehryar, University of Missouri-Columbia

Timothy D. Landry, University of Missouri-Columbia

Todd J. Arnold, University of Missouri-Columbia


The lack of consumption restraint, indicative of consumerism, is causing concern among media members, policy makers and academics alike. Past research, however, has looked at consumer self-control only in cases of compulsive consumption and impulse driven purchases. The present study looks at strategies used by consumers who actively contemplate their buying decision in non-impulse situations and yet restrain from purchasing. Based on a content analysis of qualitative responses, an emergent typology of purchase restraint strategies is presented.

"The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!"

    -William Wordsworth, The World is Too Much With Us


The causes and effects of consumerismCa preoccupation with the purchase of consumer goodsCcontinue to receive substantial attention in both the mass media and in the academic press (e.g., Dollars and Sense 1999; Grossman, Cogan and Lui 2000; Rindfleisch, Burroughs and Denton 1997). At the consumer level, the lack of consumption restraint, indicative of consumerism, may result in feelings of guilt, anxiety, frustration and loss of control, financial hardships, and domestic dissension (O’Guinn and Faber 1989; Rook 1987). The broader socio-economic consequences associated with unrestrained consumption, it has been argued, include massive consumer debt, global resource depletion, and increasing environmental problems (Business Week 1999; World Futures 1999). Consumer researchers are not alone in viewing consumerism as the economically and morally debilitating pervasiveness of consumption. Other social scientists have defined consumerism in the same light in their critiques of consumption (Borgmann 2000; Schor 1998; Wuthnow 1996). Some even frame Western culture’s obsession with "getting and spending" as religion; consumption is argued to be central in directing human lives through dictating daily activities and long term life goalsCthough often to the detriment of the individual and society (cf. Barber 1995).

Thus, understanding how individual consumers restrain their consumption activities is warranted. Past research on purchase restraint, however, has only looked at cases of compulsive consumption and impulse driven purchases. This research adds to that literature by exploring how consumers exhibit purchase restraint in situations involving substantial cognition about the purchase decision. While understanding this phenomenon is important in its own right, this research should provide guidance for counseling consumers on developing specific strategies to defend against their own consumerism.


While some have associated cultural shifts over the last quarter century with deleterious changes in consumer buying behavior (Meninger 1973; Wood 1998), others contend that the "excessiveness of the eighties" is being followed by a societal sensitivity toward consumerism’s negative consequences (Tapscott 1998). Certainly, society is increasingly exposed to arguments against consumerism (Grossman et al. 2000). To illustrate, the 1992 United Nations "Earth Summit" in Rio de Janeiro was widely publicized in its attempt to make the world more aware of the problems and potential solutions related to consumerism. Society’s focus on consumerism, however, is largely unparalleled in the consumer behavior literature. Despite calls for better understanding of the means for moderating consumption (e.g., Borgmann 2000), few frameworks have been developed to address consumerism.

ypology of consumers’ self-control strategies), qualitative data was collected from consumers to understand how they overcome purchase desires. The results of our study show that consumers employ several strategies to delay purchases. Many of these help clarify the self-control categories conjectured in related streams of research (i.e., impulse purchases; Hoch and Loewenstein 1991) and several are unique to more cognitive purchases. Again, these results not only provide a first step in achieving a better understanding of consumer self-control strategies but may also be useful in helping consumers avoid the negative consequences of consumerism.




Purchase restraint was investigated through an open-ended questionnaire. This method of investigation is justified for the following reasons. First, as a social psychological phenomenon, delay of gratification, from which much of the extant theory on restraint is drawn, is a self-attributed need that derives from deep-seated personal and cultural values (McClelland 1989). That is, purchase restraint is reflective of an individual’s conscious determination of product need influenced by societal values. Because purchase restraint is determined at a conscious level, the examination of personal accounts and behaviors through self-report is an appropriate means of investigating the phenomenon (Geen 1995). Second, the use of open-ended questions allows for content analysis of the data (Strauss and Corbin 1990). Content analysis allows for data to be broken down into discrete parts, examined closely, and compared for similarities and differences. Thus, comparisons across similar phenomena are less biased than would be the case if an extant framework were applied to the new phenomenon. It is through this process that Strauss and Corbin (1990, p. 62) note, "one’s own and others’ assumptions about phenomena are questioned or explored, leading to new discoveries". Thus, the use of open-ended questions allows for the development of purchase restraint categories that have not surfaced in previous research and affords systematic comparison of purchase restraint strategies across studies of similar phenomena (e.g., impulsive purchasing; Hoch and Loewenstein 1991).

Instrument and Sample

The data reported here were collected using a questionnaire that asked respondents open-ended questions about their purchase restraint behaviors. The first question asked the consumer to identify the thought process that allowed them to delay the purchase of a specific product they had previously identified as something they 1) actively contemplated purchasing, 2) could afford, and 3) wanted but did not consider a necessity. The specific recall technique used in this study has been used in other qualitative studies to elicit more accurate responses of the recalled event (e.g., "critical incidents"; Bitner, Booms and Mohr 1994). Next, consumers were asked about what other "tactics" or "strategies" they had employed to delay the purchase of a product. Approximately one-quarter of a page was allocated as response space for each question. Respondents were encouraged to provide complete and detailed answers to the questions using the full space provided.

The questionnaires were completed using a self-report approach. Usable responses were collected from all subjects in a sample of 56 undergraduate and graduate respondents (21 males and 35 females). The sample’s social status was generally representative of the lower middle to upper middle class groups in a mid-Western college town.

Data Analysis

Respondents' written responses were analyzed using content analytic procedures. This is an appropriate method for categorizing qualitative responses to open-ended questions (Kassarjian 1977; Strauss and Corbin 1990). Initially, a detailed analysis of each sentence included in a respondent's answer was conducted to determine the central idea brought out by the sentence. Each sentence was then labeled to represent a general action or thought. These labels were then grouped based upon the similarity of actions or thoughts to arrive at overarching categories that explained the same or similar purchase restraint techniques.

Category Reliability

Based upon the above procedure, six coding categories were defined for third party analysis of respondent's descriptions of their purchase restraint behaviors (Kassarjian 1977). Explicit written definitions of each category were provided to trained judges. The two judges (both doctoral students) conducted a content analysis, where consumer responses were coded based upon the described categories. Following this, some category definitions were revised. No coding categories had to be discarded due to the judges' inability to reach a reasonable level of reliability.

Interjudge Reliability

The content analysis involved a judgment of a total of 187 separate responses. There were 17 inter-judge disagreements. This resulted in an overall inter-judge reliability of 90.9 percent, which conforms to conventional acceptance criteria (Kassarjian 1977). Coding disagreements tended to cluster around the more abstract categories (i.e., "other"). All disagreements between judges were discussed and resolved by the authors, and the reported research results reflect a 100 percent resolution.


The above analysis revealed six distinct strategies that consumers employ to restrain from purchase. These strategies differ from those previously proposed in related research (i.e., impulse purchases; Hoch and Loewenstein 1991). This is not surprising in that Hoch and Loewenstein (1991, p. 493) focused upon time-inconsistent choice where, "... a purchase choice would not have been made if it had been contemplated from a removed, dispassionate perspective". In contrast, this study focuses specifically upon consumer purchases that are actively contemplated. Therefore, certain categories of purchase restraint unique to the impulsiveness phenomenon (e.g., not bringing a credit card to the store or avoiding shopping centers altogether) did not emerge from our data.

Respondents' anecdotes provide the clearest picture of typical non-impulse consumer restraint techniques. Therefore, each of the following emergent strategies will be illustrated through the use of specific responses. Before presenting the categories, it should be noted that not every respondent used all six strategies. Table 1 highlights, however, that each of the categories was adequately represented across the responses.


Need reassessment refers to the strategy where consumers' internal dialogue urged a reappraisal of the basic need. The reappraisal did not reflect negatively on the product to be purchased or any other marketplace factors such as price, quality or variety but was purely a self-instruction to review the necessity of the given purchase. The following examples illustrate this strategy:

$ I did not purchase the camera because I knew that I would not use it that often.

$ I'm not sure why I wanted the watch. I didn't purchase it because I certainly didn't need it.

$ I wanted to play hockey but I didn't have the skates. I asked myself, how important is playing hockey?


In contrast with need assessment, choice reassessment occurs when the decision not to purchase is deferred by either berating the available choice or by enhancing the value of a present possession for which the prospective choice will serve as a substitute. These two tactics were seen as complementary and responses often contained both elements when mentioning the use of this strategy. Examples of each include:

$ I didn't buy the new CD because I thought I might get sick of the song fast. My favorite song was already being played on the radio quite often and I wasn't sure I would enjoy the CD as a whole. (Berating Available Choice)

$ Is my old car really so bad that I need to get a new one? (Enhancing Value of Present Possession)

$ My old CD player worked fine, and the new one would probably not sound much different. (Both elements)


Instead of reassessing the basic need, consumers may defer a purchase decision regarding a particular product by lowering its priority in their "shopping list". Thus, consumers may restrain themselves from buying a product by reminding themselves of other things they can buy instead. Contrary to need re-assessment the basic need is not being questioned. It is only the urgency of the need that is being contemplated which leads to the deferral of the purchase. The reprioritization of needs does not reflect affordability concerns on the part of the consumers since respondents were told specifically that they should only consider forgone purchases situations where they had the money to buy a product, yet decided not-lo purchase. Examples of re-prioritization include:

$ I had a lot of other things I wanted to buy which made more sense than a new coat.

$ Before purchasing I think of something I might need even more.

$ I said to myself, there is something more practical I could use this money for.


A decision to delay choice has been conceptualized as postponement or time binding (Jones and Gerard 1967; Hoch and Loewenstein 1991). The distinction between the two, however, is unclear. Postponement has been defined as a delay tactic characterized by further information seeking, whereas time-binding has been defined as delay focusing on the positive benefits of the deferral (Jones and Gerard, 1967; Hoch and Lowenstein 1991). Although past research does not define these categories as mutually exclusive, through our data it became clear that there does exist a difference between two types of "postponement".

Thus, time binding is conceptualized here as a purchase postponement wherein purchase consideration is re-activated only by an external trigger. Three such triggers consistently emerged. First, consumers may wait for a sale even though they are able to buy a product at its current price. Secondly, consumers may defer purchase until more products are made available. Finally, consumers may wait for a technological advance that will make present choices obsolete. Examples for each include:


$ I waited to purchase the minidisk player because I knew the price would go down.

$ I'll wait to buy books because I know they will go on sale.

(More Products)

$ I didn't want to purchase the camera at the time because I was sure that other products would be introduced later.

$ I waited to buy the car because I know the more I save the better the car I can get.

(Technological Advances)

$ I'm hesitant to buy stereos because I know that certain features will soon be outdated by technological advances.

$ I waited to purchase a VCR because I knew the technology was getting better (DVD players).


It is suggested here that delay is a strategy that is not contingent on the occurrence of a future trigger. Rather delay is characterized by a postponement of purchase where reconsideration is dependent upon actions controllable by the consumer. For example, delay occurs when consumers feel that they need to continue searching for products. Similarly, delay occurs when consumers feel that they should seek out the expertise of a peer or family member before the purchase. The conceptual differences between delay and time binding are important as each may differentially impact the effectiveness of purchase restraint. Examples of delay include:


$ I waited to buy because I would like to see all the different products.

$ I didn't purchase the rock shocks (shock absorbers for mountain bike) because I really wanted to look at other brands.

(Seeking Expertise)

$ I didn't want to buy the outfit right away because I thought I should probably have someone come see it on me to make sure it looked good.

$ Before I buy I like to talk to people who already own the product or who have conducted a search.


Other strategies used by respondents did not appear consistently enough to warrant a separate category. However, each of these is conceptually important and thus needs to be discussed. These strategies were merged into the 'other' category. Responses depicting three distinct types of tactics were obtained.

The Slippery Slope:

This tactic was used by consumers to remind themselves that the purchase of a particular product would lead to further purchases and was tantamount to going down a slippery slope of unrestrained buying behavior. Examples of the slippery slope include:

$ I didn't buy the CD player for my car because I knew I would spend even more money on CD's.

$ I didn't buy the TV because such a purchase would require more purchases, like a VCR.

Anticipated Gifts:

Some respondents mentioned that they delay purchases by hoping that a family member might give them the same product as a gift on a special occasion. Such anticipations help consumers restrain purchase behavior. Examples of responses depicting this tactic are as follows:

$ I waited to see if my parents would give me the cell phone as a gift.

$ I didn't buy the running shoes because I was hoping my mom would buy them for me for my birthday.


Respondents mentioned that they felt guilty when committing excesses in purchasing. Other researchers have also associated psychic costs with excesses in purchases (O'Guinn and Faber 1989; Hoch and Loewenstein 1991). Our data supports the use of this tactic. The following responses provide examples of the use of this strategy by respondents.

$ I didn't buy the CD because I felt that I had already bought too many.

$ I could not justify having two leather jackets.


Past research suggests that impulse purchases arise from sudden and unexpected urges to buy (O'Guinn and Faber, 1989; Rook, 1987). While frameworks for restraint from those types of purchases have been offered, they are yet to be verified (e.g., Hoch and Loewenstein 1991). In the Hoch and Loewenstein (1991) conceptualization of restraint from impulsive purchases, restraint categories have been discussed as contributing to either increasing willpower or decreasing product desire. Our findings, however, are more generalizable to the many purchases that are not based on resisting a spontaneous urge but on rethinking if a purchase is necessary. Such deliberation does not readily fit into the willpower/ desire model. Thus, this research makes a contribution by identifying purchase restraint strategies that are associated with more traditional consumer behavior models of rational and reasoned action. Moreover, by collecting and analyzing qualitative data we point to possible shortcomings in the unverified related conceptualizations of consumption restraint.

Additionally, this study highlights an important difference in two types of purchase postponement tactics: delay and time binding. These tactics, now conceptually distinct, are important in that one type may be substantially more successful than the other. Empirical validation of this idea is warranted as it appears that postponement based on an external "trigger" (i.e., time binding) may allow the consumer to temporarily step out of the purchase process and better defend against the desire to purchase. Viewed in terms of purchase involvement, time binding may allow the consumer to become situationally un-involved (cf. Bloch and Richins 1983) until the external trigger is activated (e.g., a new, improved line of products becomes available).

A surprising finding was that people apparently engage in reprioritization of needs even for purchases that are affordable. The generality of this finding needs verification. It could be that our sample was susceptible to monetary considerations due to their demographic profile. Or, it may be that consumers do, in fact, reorder their purchases as a conscious attempt to distance them from a particular purchase that is viewed as a non-necessity.

Interestingly, anticipation of gifts as a purchase restraint behavior was mentioned in several responses. To the best of our knowledge, this strategy is unique to purchase restraint involving substantial cognition having never before appeared in the purchase restraint literature. It is fair to say that this finding is not particular to our set of respondents since gift giving is not restricted to parents and children but is also common between spouses, and friends among others.

Finally, unlike the restraint literature dealing with compulsive consumption or impulse buying, our typology reveals that consumers may engage in at least one of two distinct approaches to reevaluating need: reconsidering basic needs and reappraising the value of the particular purchase. Additionally, it was found that devaluing a given purchase is often accompanied by revaluing an existing product. Empirical work is needed to understand the impact that these strategies, either considered individually or in combination, have on actual purchase restraint.


While this study was not intended as a review of the delay of gratification research, that research stream points to other considerations that could be included in a purchase restraint study such as socio-economic status variables like education (Wood, 1998), as well as personality variables like aggressiveness, intelligence and ego-resilience (Funder and Block 1990; Funder, Block and Block 1980; Kruger et al. 1996). While such individual differences have been proposed as difficult for a consumer to overcome, other research supports the view that using cognitive restructuring techniques people can be taught to restrain from instant gratification (Nisan and Koriat 1984; Moore, Mischel and Zeiss 1977). Using the typology proposed here, similar contentions for purchase restraint could be explored empirically. Thus, validating the typology of strategies used by consumers to restrain from "cognitive" purchasing not only broadens the theoretical perspective on purchase restraint but also may help in developing consumer counseling about purchase restraint. To illustrate, credit counseling typically offers little psychological counseling but focuses heavily on debt consolidation (as such counseling is often provided by credit bureaus whose motives may be less than forthright). We hope this research serves as the basis for developing real strategies for consumption restraint.

Finally, other researchers have sought to explain consumers' increased interest in products in terms of a materialistic mindset (e.g., Belk, 1985; Richins and Dawson 1992; Rindfleisch, Burroughs and Denton 1997). The relation between consumerism and materialism, however, is complex and largely unexplored. Broadly, as society acknowledges that excesses are undesired (Tapscott 1998), consumers may choose to purchase products that are better aligned with needs and not with desires. In the strictest sense, these consumers remain materialistic as their possessions, albeit the bare necessities, define their success (Richins and Dawson 1992). In this case, however, "success" is redefined in terms of more restrained consumption. More philosophical and sociological inquiry is needed to better understand the complexities between materialism and consumerism.


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Omar Shehryar, University of Missouri-Columbia
Timothy D. Landry, University of Missouri-Columbia
Todd J. Arnold, University of Missouri-Columbia


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28 | 2001

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