Advancing the Study of Family Purchase Decision Making

ABSTRACT - The paper summarizes the state of research on family purchase decision making with regard to: theoretical underpinnings, testable hypotheses, study contexts, methodological considerations, and concern for differences. It continues to propose the use of ongoing interaction as a study setting for the process as it varies by decision level; across purchase dynamics, and specific to family interaction or authority to make decisions.


Alvin C. Burns and Donald H. Granbois (1980) ,"Advancing the Study of Family Purchase Decision Making", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07, eds. Jerry C. Olson, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 221-226.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 7, 1980     Pages 221-226


Alvin C. Burns, Louisiana State University

Donald H. Granbois, Indiana University


The paper summarizes the state of research on family purchase decision making with regard to: theoretical underpinnings, testable hypotheses, study contexts, methodological considerations, and concern for differences. It continues to propose the use of ongoing interaction as a study setting for the process as it varies by decision level; across purchase dynamics, and specific to family interaction or authority to make decisions.


Science progresses in orderly fashion, or at least, that is the normative model of science and the advancement of knowledge. In the classical mode, the scientist begins with observation of phenomena and attempts to systematize conceptually various attributes and recognizable behaviors. This activity leads to hypotheses and predictions which, in turn, provide for focused experiments. With the accumulation of experimental evidence and subsequent refinements of the hypotheses, the body of knowledge gradually evolves into an integrated and substantiated theory. At various points along the way, however, the scientist must step back and critically examine his progress and methods. We believe such an examination is advantageous at this point. To be more specific, we submit that the several writings and research results in family purchase decision making be considered a set of observations, from which it is possible to glean commonalties which indicate the quality of our knowledge. Thus, there are two main purposes to our paper: first, to review and report the state of the research in family purchase decision making, and second, to suggest an orientation which should result in faster advancement of the area.

The State Of Research On Family Purchase Decision Making

Our set of observations in this endeavor is admittedly constrained, but with good reason. That is, the review was confined to the "marketing literature" as defined by articles and papers in the Journal of Marketing, Journal of Marketing Research, Journal of Consumer Research, Proceedings of the AMA, and Proceedings of the ACR. Also, our attention was concentrated on publications in the last ten years with the supposition that the more recent works represent refinements and extensions of earlier works. Our focus on the academic writings is appropriate given our concern with the development of theory, and our concentration on the marketing literature seems appropriate as we are concerned with the advancement of consumer behavior theory.

The review method entailed identification of common bases of comparison across studies with judgement as to how each study treated each factor. It became evident early in the review that methodological factors are intimately intertwined, and, indeed, even more pervasive than conceptual/theoretical factors. Consequently, there emerged five dimensions for comparison: theoretical underpinnings; statements of testable hypotheses; study contexts (family set used, products studied, decisions studied); methodological considerations (method used, sample selection, measurement scales, reliability and validity), and concern for differences (perceptual and individual). Space restrictions have rendered our references exemplary.

Preliminary Observations

Two striking observations are immediately apparent: family purchase decision making studies are relatively scarce in the marketing literature: and they are highly concentrated in specific sources. Thirty-eight works were found with seventeen (45%) of them found in the ACR Proceedings. Ten (26%) were found in the Journal of Marketing Research, five in the Journal of Consumer Research, three in the recent AMA Proceedings, and only two in the Journal of Marketing (1969 on). A third observation is the preponderance of empirical studies and the paucity of recent theoretical or conceptual publications. From these thirty-eight studies, we propose to formulate general statements of the state of the research across each of the various bases for comparison.

Theoretical Underpinnings

About one-half of the empirical studies are predicated on some theoretical foundation. The degree of use of theory and the rigor of the theory developed varies considerably, however. For example, Moschis and Moore (1978) do a commendable job of reporting a family communication typology; Ferber and Lee (1974) introduce the concept of the Family Financial Officer, and Cox (1975) provides logical argument for an adjustment factor over the length of marriage. With notable exceptions, the theoretical underpinnings of the research studies are generated from subjective observation and a considerable amount of intuitive reasoning. Inductive logic and low levels of abstraction prevail.

At the other extreme, there are a number of admittedly empiricist papers wherein the authors refrain from developing a theoretical framework for their research. Burns and Ortinau (1978), for instance, freely admit that they expected to find patterns, but do not go beyond referencing some previous findings. Munsinger, Weber, and Hansen (1975) simply reference previous research, and Ward and Wackman (1972) refrain from formulating a conceptual background. Empiricism clearly has a place in research, and it is not our intent to debate its relative merits. Instead, we simply point out that from one-third to one-half of the relevant literature is seemingly more suited to systematizing observation and revealing relationships than it is to testing theory.

Statements of Testable Hypotheses

Inasmuch as hypotheses are generated from theoretical frameworks, it is not surprising that less than one-third of the papers have stated hypotheses. Similarly, the specificity of these hypotheses ranges greatly. Woodside (1975), for example, hypothesizes that "some basis of developing family types does exist through. . . prior decision-making and demographic-psychographic data." Suptrine and Samuelson (1976) hypothesize that they will find less role dominance than did Davis (1970) as a result of changes in husbands and wives' roles during the interim between the two studies. Jenkins (1978) hypothesizes in null form the influence of children in family vacation decisions. Typically, sufficient, precision is lacking in the hypotheses stated.

Study Contexts

1. Family set used. About three-quarters of all studies reviewed restrict their attention to husband and wife role structure. Of the eight studies which explicitly treat family purchase decision making interaction, three (Ward and Wackman, 1972, Atkin, 1978, and Berey and Pollay, 1968) focus on parent-child interaction. The inherent dangers of isolating attention on the husband-wife dyad when the products being discussed are collectively consumed by all or most household members have been voiced by Ferber (1975, and Davis (1976) and more recently by Granbois (1978); consequently, no further comment will be made other than to point out that an embryonic trend toward the family set context is evident in the very recent works of Jenkins (1978, 1978) and Moschis and Moore (1978).

2. Products Studied. A majority of the studies concentrate on large durable goods. Burns and Granbois (1977) and Cox (1975), in fact, investigate only family automobile purchasing while Hempel (1974, 1975) isolates on decisions within the purchase of a home. Davis (1970) and Suptrine and Samuelson (1976) treat furniture purchases as well as automobiles. Other studies such as Davis and Rigaux (1974) or Green and Cunningham (1975) include a mixture of durable and convenience goods. The clear picture, however, is that our present knowledge of the family purchase decision making process is almost entirely tied to the process as it pertains to large, resource-binding, and infrequent purchase experiences.

3. Decisions Studied. As one might expect given the impact of Davis (1970, 1971) and other subsequent studies revealing the decision-specific nature of role assumption, the majority of family purchase decision making studies treat subdecisions within each generic-product under investigation. The variant selection and tactical subdecisions of when, where, how much, what style, what brand, etc. are commonly used. (See, for example, Burns, 1976) It is contrary to expectations, though, that less than one-quarter of the studies address variation across stages in the decision making process. There are, of course, some mixtures of both subdecisions and stages; nonetheless, it does not appear that researchers have moved wholeheartedly into the family purchase decision making process nor have they focused on information processing.

4. Dependent Variables. Most studies attempt to measure "influence" usually on the basis of recall from the last purchase. Burns (1977), Szybillo and Sesanine (1977), Woodside (1975), and Nelson (1978) exemplify this approach. Conspicuously absent are observational or longitudinal studies. Arndt and Crane (1977) observed spouses discussing the use of a monetary windfall, and Webb (1978) offers an imaginative method utilizing naturalistic observation. Davis (1971) uses a one-year time lapse study for his methodological paper, and Ferber and Lee (1974) report changes over time. These examples are exceptions, however, and one must conclude that our findings pertain largely to perceptions of how spousal influence was distributed at a specific point in time or within a specific prepurchase time interval.

Methodological Considerations

1. Data Collection Method Used. The great majority of studies use cross sectional surveys. The appropriateness of this data collection method is apparent and has been discussed by Dunsing and Hafstrom (1975). No experimental designs are evident, and only two studies (Arndt and Crane, 1977 and Atkins, 1978) utilize observation, either contrived or natural. Reasons for the use of cross sectional surveys are obvious, as are their inherent dangers.

2. Sample Selection. Practically all researchers have drawn small, special samples. Convenience appears to dominate the sampling process in most cross-sectional studies; all studies suffer from geographic convenience, respondent willingness, and/or convenience imposed by meager funding or perhaps inspired by special interest such as a survey client or sponsor. The ability to compare findings across studies is severely hampered by the use of nonprobabilistic sampling methods; and the generalizability of findings is greatly limited.

3. Measurement Scales. The three-point scale of influence (e.g., "mostly husband"; "joint"; "mostly wife" is used in approximately one-third of the studies while the five-point scale is popular with another one-third. The remaining studies make use of a variety of custom- or otherwise special purpose scales. A recent paper by Jenkins (1978) criticizes the use of these scales and provides support for a 100 percent sum scale in the specification of shared purchasing influence by family members. While ease of response and statistical analyses are enhanced by the sum of 3- or 5- point scales of influence, Jenkins offers ample reason for experimentation perhaps of the sort conducted by Davis (1971) to determine equivalence between scales. Sufficient evidence exists to question the efficacy and worth of the 3- and 5- point scales used by the majority of family purchase decision making researchers. On the other hand, a clear need exists to design instruments for the categorization of observations of family purchase decision making (Webb, 1978).

4. Reliability and Validity. Family purchase decision making studies pay scant attention to reliability and validity. Only three studies report reliability statistics: Moschis and Moore (1978) report coefficient alpha values while Burns and Granbois (1977) and Davis (1971) report test-retest correlations. Validity measures are hardly more prevalent and appear to differ by researcher: for example Davis (1971) and Wilkes (1975) utilize the multitrait-multimethod approach while Burns and Granbois (1977) contend face validity of their questions, and split samples is used by Cox (1975). In general, the reliability of our scales and the validity of the information obtained in our studies are both largely unknown and subject to question.

Concern for Differences

The investigation of perceptual and otherwise individual differences between couples or spouses is pursued in about one-half of the studies reviewed. In fact, Burns (1977) offers a classification typology in this regard. The most common comparison is made between spouses, and differences are almost always found (Davis, 1976). Somewhat less prevalent is the pursuit of individual differences within samples, but significant differences are typically found. However, the differences revealed often are closely associated with socio-demographic or life cycle correlates (See Burns and Ortinau, 1978, or Cox, 1975, for example); thus variability is more a function of the diversity of the sample than the presence of true individual differences.

Conclusions About the State of the Research

The conclusions from this review of the research on family purchase decision making are as follows. The body of research exists as a small host of mainly empirical studies, most of which do not have a rigorous theoretical foundation nor precise statements of testable hypotheses. Our knowledge is highly specific to the perceived influence shared by husbands and wives in their recollections of a small set of tactical decisions encountered in the purchase of large durable goods. The knowledge is further restricted by wide reliance on cross sectional data secured from convenience samples and measured on scales which are simplistic in design and of questionable reliability and unknown validity. We are reasonably certain that variability exists between products, between decisions, and between families.


A major task of the family role researcher is to establish explanations for the variability that is inevitably found in role studies. Davis (1976) has shown that great variability in family member roles is to be found both across product categories and within decisions, by phase or level. He concludes, however, "with few exceptions, researchers have not explored why some product categories or subdecisions within product category are dominated by husbands and others by wives." (Davis, 1976, pp. 244-5). Most theorizing has concentrated on variability across families, where social class, life cycle stage, relative resource contributions and other personal and family characteristics have been found to be related to family role structure types. To encourage research on product and decision level, a framework for research and brief discussion of ideas suggested by the framework are offered here.

Theoretical explanations sometimes emerge from the research process itself, as researchers struggle to suggest plausible interpretations of unexpected findings. Alternatively, hypotheses may be derived from related research topics. The framework developed here is of the latter type, with ideas drawn from information search, information-processing and consumer economics.

Some Underlying Concepts

Decision Level.  Although consumer studies in the marketing literature heavily emphasize brand choice, the several levels of behavior that precede final selection of brand are probably both more important and more complex in terms of family roles. These levels include establishing family policies for saving and spending, allocating funds to general spending categories, deciding on major purchases that have strategic importance in establishing a lifestyle and setting requirements for related expenditures, and deciding between substitute generic products and services. These topics all receive attention in consumer economics and home management literature, although most effort in those fields is given to devising normative models and rules. Despite the prominence of these levels in three important models of the elements of family decisions for consumption (Gredal, 1966; Ferber, 1973; Arndt, 1976), none has received much systematic attention in family role structure research. These levels of decisions provide the backbone of our framework.

Statics vs. Dynamics.  Perhaps understandably, consumer researchers have concentrated on cross-sectional research because of the time-consuming and difficult nature of longitudinal research. What little attention has been given to dynamics has been inferential, based on cross-sectional studies where differences among families representing various life cycle stages are interpreted as "developmental" changes, presumably experienced by all families who survive intact. This approach runs the risk of confounding "generational" differences (patterns unique to a single generation) with true developmental patterns. Two other relevant kinds of changes over time are those resulting from experience as behavior is repeated and those which go beyond individual generations and represent role structure changes reflecting basic social and cultural trends. While our discussion here cannot touch on all of these types of change, our framework identifies each of them as an important direction for empirical study.

Interaction and Authority.  Virtually all role studies recognize that decisions may involve either a single family member acting alone or two or more acting jointly, following the original model of Herbst (1952). However, few studies reflect Herbst's original distinction between action and authority, which, when combined with the notion of joint vs. individual involvement, resulted in a typology of eight role patterns. Most role studies at least implicitly have sought explanations for role variability growing out of the relative authority of family members. Since it seems likely that the level of interaction and the authority patterns results from somewhat different sets of determinants and influences, our discussion gives primary emphasis to determinants of interaction. Here, a striking parallel with search theory becomes apparent, since many of the determinants of degree of information search also appear to be plausible determinants of interaction.

A Matrix Framework

Cells in the dummy matrix shown in Figure 1 represent three decision levels (collapsed from the several discussed above) and decision and family types over which family roles are expected to vary. Additional cells identify developmental and trend patterns representing modifications to the decision and family types that may appear over time. Each of the eighteen cells deserves systematic study, although most research has sought family types in "specific variant" decisions. Our discussion of the matrix is necessarily limited to a few interesting variables and research ideas relevant to selected cells. We will concentrate on decision (not family) type and on interaction (rather than authority), and we will offer specific hypotheses when possible.



Budget Allocation

Allocations to various categories of spending and saving can be placed on a continuum ranging from major commitments that bind the family to regular payments over an extended future period to expenditures for products and services that are quickly used up. Categories representing long-term substantial commitments might include rent and mortgage payments, utility payments, insurance premiums, tuition and lessons, contribution pledges, and debt repayments. Because such commitments account for substantial outlays over time and reduce flexibility in changing lifestyles in the short run, we predict:

Degree of family interaction in budget allocation decisions will vary directly with the length of commitment period and amount of resources involved over the commitment period.

Once established, commitments are often reduced to routine payment procedures; little or no interaction would be expected until such commitments end or are terminated.

Categories of expenditure also vary in the amount of discretion associated with them. Each family tends to pattern its lifestyle after norms seen as appropriate for its own life cycle stage, social position, and income level. With such internal determinants as the age and sex composition of the family, these norms limit flexibility in allocating income to such categories as food, shelter, and clothing. Since the family has little control over low-discretion allocations, we predict:

Degree of family interaction in the budget allocation process will vary directly with the perceived degree of discretion associated with the spending category.

Research testing these predicted relationships should probably anticipate individual variations in both degree of commitment and degree of discretion associated with a given spending category and should include questions scaling respondents' perceptions of these levels.

Over time, as the family develops experience with budget allocation, more expenditure categories can be expected to exhibit the characteristics of commitments, and, hence, reduced need for interaction. Predicting patterns of change in the effects of degree of discretion is difficult, since much depends on the clarity of norms imposed on the family by external influences and on the family's tendency to conform to these norms. No predictions are possible, but these change patterns appear to identify interesting areas for investigation.


Whether products are collectively or individually consumed would appear to be an important determinant of interaction. However, surprisingly little is known about actual consumption patterns within the household, and few if any role structure studies have asked about use or consumption patterns for the products under investigation. Both Gredal (1966) and Sheth (1974) predicted that interaction will be more likely for collectively consumed products. However, because family members often attempt to influence the individual consumption patterns of others in the family, the generalization needs to be modified. For example, parents expect to influence, if not control, food, clothing, cosmetic, cigarette and other consumption patterns of their teenage children. Husbands and wives frequently interact over individual consumption patterns--smoking is an excellent example. One depth study found intervention to reduce one spouse's smoking was common among couples where both smoked as well as in one-smoker couples, with significant conflict common in the latter case. (Meyer et al., 1973) Product visibility, the presence of health consequences, strong social meaning or symbolism and perhaps other product attributes thus may modify the prediction of low interaction over individually consumed products.

Although the purchase of collectively consumed durable goods may be most likely to elicit interaction, as Gredal predicted, modification of the prediction may be needed even here, since families sometimes acquire second and even third cars, television sets, stereos and other products to facilitate individual rather than collective consumption.

Another approach parallels the information search literature, where extent of search is hypothesized to vary with a number of consumer, decision environment and product characteristics. If we assume interaction and search vary with the same set of determinants, we can hypothesize that:

Degree of interaction in generic product purchase decisions will vary directly with:

Number of salient attributes used

Product importance

Interpurchase interval

Availability of information

Degree of differentiation among alternative products Price

Size of physical bulk

Length of product life

Social conspicuousness

Complexity (Granbois, 1977, pp. 261-2)

Change in interaction as families gain experience with generic products again may parallel that expected for search, the general expectation being that satisfactory experience will reduce the likelihood of interaction as the purchase is repeated. We expect, therefore:

Degree of interaction in generic product purchase decisions will be less for replacement purchases than for first-time acquisitions except when experience with the first-time acquisition is judged unsatisfactory.

The innovative new product just introduced to the market is a special case of the family's first-time acquisition. Although the mix of information sources used in adopting an innovation has been found to change over the course of the diffusion process, it is not clear whether total information search activity changes between earlier and later adoption. However, it seems plausible to speculate that less interaction will occur among later adopters than among earlier adopters. This finding is likely because later adopters face stronger social pressure to comply with behavior that is increasingly perceived as appropriate; adoption becomes less and less discretionary. Therefore, we predict:

Degree of interaction in adoption processes for new generic products will be less in families adopting late in the diffusion process than in families adopting early.

Specific Variant Selection

Purchase decisions usually require one or more subdecisions before the specific variant is selected. Brand, package type and size, flavor, etc. are typical examples for nondurables. Purchases of durables such as autos and appliances may include decisions about make or brand, color, accessories and various optional features. Applications in consumer information-processing research and the development and testing of multi-attribute attitude models have been largely limited to these subdecisions. In fact, most studies have considered only brand, despite the obvious potential application to all decision levels. Of greatest importance here is the surprising fact that both information-processing and attitude research have been almost entirely oriented to individual decision making. We feel that a highly significant contribution to research in these phenomena can be made by family role structure researchers as they adapt and apply the abundant concepts, models and hypotheses in these areas to the context of family roles.

A review of the attitude and information-processing literature is clearly not possible here. We suggest, however, that family members interacting over a hypothetical decision task are far more suitable subjects for the testing of attitude models and hypotheses about information-processing rules than are individual consumers for every decision for which interaction between two or more family members is expected in "real life". The interaction process evoked, if sound- or video-tape recorded, is analogous to protocols gathered in single-subject research where subjects "think aloud" while engaged in actual shopping or while making hypothetical decisions presented by information boards or other display devices.

A major problem in protocol research, as Bettman has concluded, is "validity of protocol data given the highly obtrusive nature of the data collection process itself and questions about the ability of subjects, even if willing, to verbalize internal thought processes." (Bettman, 1977, p. 343) Two or more family members communicating with each other will reveal stored beliefs, preferences and evaluation processes far more naturally and unself-consciously than does an individual asked to articulate what otherwise would be a silent internal process. Furthermore, since in real life these elements are often shaped and influenced through interaction with other family members, more realistic and valid data may result. Finally, the opportunity to observe and classify group processes of accommodation and conflict resolution adds an important dimension unavailable through conventional protocol analysis.

One of the writers is presently developing and testing a family interaction process coding scheme based on Peter Wright's classification of individual alternative-evaluation processing, which distinguishes between choices based on simple affect referral and those where characteristics of two or more alternatives are reviewed. (Wright, 1976) The scheme classifies all evaluative statements identified in typescripts taken from tape-recorded family interactions during hypothetical purchase decision tasks. Statements that simply evaluate one or more alternatives without any attribute reference ("This alternative is good"; "I like this alternative"; etc.) are classified as affect referral statements. Evaluative statements that mention or imply one or more attributes of an alternative are classified depending upon whether an attribute of one alternative is compared with an ideal point or a maximum or minimum acceptable level, or some other attribute-based evaluation occurs. Twenty types of evaluation categories are included. Each statement can be classified into one of the twenty categories and is further identified with the family member making the statement, the subdecision involved and the specific attribute mentioned (if any). The proportion of affect referral, lexicographic, conjunctive, compensatory, etc. processing that occurs during the course of the interaction process as a whole can be identified, and individual family members' contributions can be similarly categorized.


In our opinion, the need for the study of ongoing purchase decision making interaction exhibited by family members across decision levels and taking into account experiences and other factors identified in the second half of this paper is readily apparent. Such an approach has potential of overcoming many of the shortcomings and difficulties noted in the review of research. This approach is not a panacea, but it clearly merits greater attention than it has been afforded to date. It is our intent to report the results of this approach to ACR audiences in the future, and, hopefully, to share our experiences with others who utilize this method in their research efforts.


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Alvin C. Burns, Louisiana State University
Donald H. Granbois, Indiana University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 07 | 1980

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