Comprehensive Identification of Consumers' Marketplace Problems and What They Do About Them

ABSTRACT - A representative sample of households in a medium-sized southeastern city were surveyed by personal interviews concerning the last product of any type that the respondent could remember having any type of problem. In contrast to other studies reporting one-fourth to one-third of the respondents having a problem, this survey found 76.3% of the respondents experiencing some recent problem of any type and this percentage increased to 83% when those who said they didn't have any problems were asked a "how sure" question. Significant comparisons of those who had problems/no problems, made a complaint/no complaint, and were successful/unsuccessful complainers are also provided.


F. Kelly Shuptrine and Gerhard Wenglorz (1981) ,"Comprehensive Identification of Consumers' Marketplace Problems and What They Do About Them", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08, eds. Kent B. Monroe, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 687-692.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 8, 1981      Pages 687-692


F. Kelly Shuptrine, University of South Carolina

Gerhard Wenglorz, University of South Carolina


A representative sample of households in a medium-sized southeastern city were surveyed by personal interviews concerning the last product of any type that the respondent could remember having any type of problem. In contrast to other studies reporting one-fourth to one-third of the respondents having a problem, this survey found 76.3% of the respondents experiencing some recent problem of any type and this percentage increased to 83% when those who said they didn't have any problems were asked a "how sure" question. Significant comparisons of those who had problems/no problems, made a complaint/no complaint, and were successful/unsuccessful complainers are also provided.


Numerous studies about consumers and their complaints emerged with the rise of the "consumerism movement" during the last two decades. Such attention helped to result in such acts as the Consumer Credit Protection Act (1968), Poison Prevention Packaging Act (1970), and the Consumer Product Safety Act (1972). Consumer Protection Agencies, Consumer Affairs Offices, Consumer Organizations, and related consumer associations have evolved in this period.

However, our knowledge in the area of consumer problems in the marketplace and their resolution are fragmented. Some studies have dealt with consumer's attitudes and opinions toward the marketplace and others have recorded behavioral information.

Reviewing some recent studies, Barksdale and Darden (1972) note that younger, more liberal subjects were more critical of marketing practices and more impressed with the accomplishments of the consumer movement. In a summary of 912 women consumers (Hustad and Pessemier 1973), it was found that those who felt negative toward business tended to be younger women who are intellectually, socially, and economically upscale.

In their study of consumer dissatisfaction with household appliances Mason and Himes (1974) found 44% of this sample to have experienced dissatisfaction severe enough to register a complaint. The initial retailer was the most effective at satisfying the consumer's discontent resolving 551 of the problems with repair centers following behind at 16%. As many as 18% of the problems reported were still unresolved at the time of the study,

Using Lundstrom's (1976) Consumer Discontent Index, Lundstrom and Kerin (1976) attempted to identify psychological and demographic correlates of consumer discontent. They reported consumer discontent to be statistically related in a positive direction to alienation, especially the powerlessness and social isolation components, anomic, being male, age, income level and occupation level. Consumer discontent existed predominantly in older males from the middle to upper middle class and not in the lower socioeconomic groups.

A study on elderly reactions to unsatisfactory purchases indicates that propensity-to-complain declines with age (Zaltman, Srivastava, Deshpande 1978). Kraft (1978) in a paper on characteristics of consumer complainers notes that more complaints are made on large-ticket items, by whites than blacks, and by younger than older respondents.

Fornell and Westbrook (1979) report that those who are more assertive and aggressive are more likely to exhibit complaining behavior. A comprehensive study (Shuptrine, Thomas, Sharma 1979) on the consumer complaint process involving durables found that of those who complained and reported successful resolution, no significant demographic differences between successful/unsuccessful complainers were found. A study by Day and Landon (1976) suggests a more comprehensive model of complaining behavior is needed and provided major input with a national study for the FTC on a large number of product categories cross-classified by specific consumer complaints or complaint categories.

Another group of studies has investigated who complains about the marketplace and the products and services they complain about. In these studies the dependent variable is behavioral, action or inaction, whereas in the first series of studies the dependent variable was an attitude. In another part of their study on a sample of female's dissatisfaction with appliances Mason and Himes (1973) found those who took action tended to be from larger households, had higher incomes, were primarily middle aged and tended to own their own home. Miller (1974) reports that the number of complaints or suggestions for improvements a customer expresses for a store tends to come from younger, more mobile and better educated women. Lielfield, et al., (1975) found that Canadian consumers who had written complaint letters were middle aged, better educated, earned higher incomes, and had professional heads of household. According to Hair, et al., (1976) chronic complainers have negative attitudes toward business and marketing practices, They attend church less frequently, belong to fewer organizations, younger, less educated and have lower incomes. [Many additional studies concerning consumer complaints are available from the four annual conferences on consumer satisfaction, dissatisfaction, and complaining behavior (Day and Hunt 1976-1979), Other research concerning complaining theories, models and correlates are available in previous ACR proceedings. Much of the research findings available are quite similar to the research reviewed in this paper.]

By including both an attitudinal and behavioral dimension in their study Warland, et al., (1975) found that two types of dissatisfied consumers emerge--dissatisfied consumer activists (Upset-Action Group) and dissatisfied passive consumers (Upset-No Action Group). The Upset-Action both reads and participates in consumer and political activities. They are younger, have higher social status, income and education. The Upset-No Action Group have lower incomes, are less educated and do not engage in consumer and political actions. They exhibit low social involvement and are the most politically alienated. The authors feel that the Upset-No Action Group have potential to become an important force in the consumer movement if given leadership, direction and education. They are not a segment business can afford to ignore, Wall, Dickey, Talarzyk (1977) also found that complainers are more up-scale in socioeconomic status.

On a more comprehensive study of consumer complaints (Andreasen, Best 1977), it vas found that one in five purchases of products and services resulted in consumers' dissatisfaction with something other than price, less than half of these problems resulted in a consumer complaint, and about two out of three complainers ended up with a satisfactory resolution of their problem. A study by Shuptrine, Thomas, and Sharma (1979) reported earlier on durables found about 70% of those complaining receiving satisfaction.

In another study (Advertising Age, June 21, 1976) consumer organizations report that one-fourth of all households have some sort of marketplace problem and of these only one in three are actually reported. Where complaints are registered, however, the study finds about 56% of the consumers get satisfaction. Low-income consumers are least likely to complain, while the likelihood that the consumer will complain increases if it is an expensive item, if the problem is clear-cut rather than a matter of judgement, and if it is a big-tag credit transaction.

And finally, a study by the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs reported in the Marketing News (February 22, 1980, p. 8) on a nationwide sample of 2500 households says:

Most private industries and government agencies are inept when it comes to handling consumer complaints and do an inadequate job of informing the public on how to file and follow through on their protests.

The study found that about one-third of the sample had one or more consumer problems in the last year and about 75% of all complaints were about the poor quality of products and services. Most complaints, consistent with previous research, were directed at the auto industry followed by appliances. A majority of the consumers said their first contact with reporting their complaint was with the retailer. About 75% of the consumers will complain if the value of the product is between $6 and $10; whereas, 95% will complain about a product costing $500 to $1000.

This brief review of the literature indicates that there are many inconsistencies when comparing studies. Some research only looks at those who complain (who are often different from those who don't), others examine attitudes and behavior of those with problems (though not much persistence is seen in determining whether people have had any type of problem), and others have examined briefly the consumer complaint process and comparisons of successful and unsuccessful complainers. However, when summarizing, inconsistent profiles develop; with some studies saying discontent and complaining are related to high income and education and others report they are related to low income and education and so on.

Because of the fragmented approaches that have been largely used so far, the intent of this study was to provide a more systematic approach to the area of consumer marketplace experiences. Specifically, the study is designed to:

-- Probe strongly to identify any type of problem(s) consumers have had in the marketplace.

-- See if they had a problem, whether they would attempt complaint resolution.

-- Examine the process complainers would go through in attempting resolution.

-- Compare profiles of successful and unsuccessful complainers.

-- To obtain opinions of non-complainers as to why they didn't attempt resolution.

The results of the study will help to serve as one of the building blocks needed for a comprehensive theory of complaint behavior.


A questionnaire was designed along similar lines as a previous questionnaire used in a consumer durable complaint study. It was pretested and revised twice on small samples (25) of households reflective of the population of interest. Major emphasis was placed on the first question as to whether the respondent had a recent problem (of any size) with products or marketplace activities. To really be confident, a later question for those who said no was a how sure are you question to see if the first question was supported.

A random sample of 275 households was selected from a cross-section of census tracts in a middle-sized southeastern city. A criss-cross telephone directory was utilized to randomly select residential addresses (business addresses were not included). There were 224 usable questionnaires from the sample of 275 (81.5%) which were obtained from a personal interview with an adult household member at the chosen address.



Summary responses of the total sample (224 respondents) on some questions and demographics are presented in the Appendix. The most common problems respondents had (consistent with prior research) were automotive related (25.7%) and appliances -- small (10.5%) and large (17.5%). The main types of problems consumers had were: product not functioning as claimed (25.4%), was poorly constructed (39.1%), some problem with the actual functioning of the product (33.7%) and problems with repairs/service (19.5%). The product was under warranty 37.7% of the time when problems arose and 32.9% of the products were never covered with warranties. The dollar value of the products that people had problems with ranged from less than $5 (17.7%) to over $500 (28%).

The demographic composition of the sample was widely dispersed by age, profession, education, and income. Twenty-one percent were single and 67.4% were married. There were 37.4% males and 62.2% females and 22.5% blacks and 77.5% whites. From prior research in this metropolitan area, the demographic profile was fairly representative of the entire population.

Complaint Resolution Efforts

Table 1 presents efforts by those who had a problem and complained. This effort could be classified as a first stage consumer complaint process. Most complaints were made to the retailer selling the product (82.2%) and was made by a personal visit (62.8%) or telephone call (38.9%). Most complaints were answered (86.7%) either immediately or within 1-7 days (28.1%). There were 68.4% of the complaints adjusted to the complainant's satisfaction--refund (11.4%), exchange (30%), and repaired with charge (48.6%). A summary of resolution for this first stage complaining was success for 61% of the complainers, complaint not answered for 13.6%, and complaint was answered but not resolved for 25.4%.





Consumers That Have Problems

Several previous studies cited have stated that 1/4 to 1/3 of the sampled populations had a problem. This questionnaire was set up to really check these earlier findings and thus a major emphasis was put on seeing how many of our sample have had any type of problem in the recent past. There were 171 out of 224 or 76.3% who stated they had a problem of some type. With a follow-up question, another 15 or an additional 6.7% admitted to some problem. So, in total, our study identified 83% of the respondents having experienced a recent problem (of any magnitude) in the marketplace.

A comparison was made of those who had problems and those who didn't by respondent's demographic characteristics. The significant findings are presented in Table 2. Younger respondents were more likely to express having problems than older ones. The self-employed (93%), white (88%) and blue collar (91%), students (100%), and housewives (98%) were more likely to have problems than the retired (71%) and the unemployed (50%). The higher one's educational background, the more likely they were to have had problems (college graduates 93%); whereas those with less education were less likely to have problems. Whites (85%) were significantly more likely to have problems than Blacks (70%).

Consumers That Complain

Comparisons were made between those who have a problem and complain and those who don't on product characteristics and respondent demographics. The significant findings are presented in Table 3. According to product group, clothes and miscellaneous items (small ticket items) were less likely to be complained about, 44% and 50% respectively. Automotive related (82%), furnishings (83%), and house related problems (83%) were product groups most likely to have a complaint made. In line with other studies, the more expensive the product the more likely one was to make a complaint. By profession, the self-employed (77%), white collar employees (77%), and housewives (772) were more likely to complain. Blue collar workers (37%) and the retired (53%) were much less likely to make a complaint.

Successful Complainers

Significant comparisons between successful and unsuccessful complainers are presented in Table 4. Only two factors were found to be significantly related-profession and educational level of the respondent. The self-employed (80%) and the retired (78%) were more likely to be successful. Blue collar workers were least likely to achieve resolution(only 14%). Those with some college (68%) and college graduates (76%) were most likely to be successful. Those with some high school training and high school graduates were less successful, 50% and 50% respectively.







Followup on Noncomplainers

An additional question was asked of those who had a problem but didn't complain (see Table 5). About 86% of the non-complainers gave reasons for not complaining of: too much trouble (21%), price too low, not worth the time (30%), won't do any good (26%), and waste of time (9%). All of these seem to indicate a feeling of separation from the seller and the buyer's feelings that they will not get any satisfaction if they complain. When we contrast this view with the results in Table 1 where 61% of the complainers got satisfaction on their first complaint, we feel that the consumer may be giving up too quickly. The business firms may be much more responsive than what many people perceive them to be.


A representative sample of households is a medium-sized southeastern city was contacted and answered a detailed questionnaire concerning any problems they have had in the marketplace and whet they did or did not do about them.

The study was systematic in that comparisons were made of those who had problems/no problems, complainers/noncomplainers, and successful complainers/unsuccessful. The complaint process was also examined for those who made a complaint.

Though one cannot generalize these findings to the entire U. S. population, the results are representative of the southeastern area from which they were taken and provide useful points of comparison with other related studies. It is unique in that it is much more comprehensive in that it doesn't examine only those people who complain, or those who are successful complainers, or those with problems, but includes all of these groups.

A major result of this study was the identification of such a large number of people who have had problems in the marketplace. Previous research (Warland, et al. 1975, Advertising Age 1976, Andreasen, Best 1977, Marketing News 19803 have noted between 20 to 352 of their samples with some consumer problem within the last year or less. Our survey found 76.3% of our respondents experiencing some recent problem of any type and this increased to 831 when those who said they didn't have any problems were asked a "how sure" question. These included very large items such as houses and automobiles down to smal1 items such as cottage cheese, records and bread. Now it is debatable as to whether all studies are comparable, especially when some look only at certain marketplace problems, or ask if you were good and mad, and so on, but it appears to us that there are many more problems than most studies lead us to believe. (For corrective or educational actions, reports that are broken down into more detailed problem/service categories such as Andreasen and Best (1977) would likely be more useful for private or public change agents).

The nationwide study done for the U. S. Office of Consumer Affairs (Marketing News, February 22, 1980) only found about one-third of those questioned to have had one or more consumer problems within the last year. We feel that our sample is definitely not that much different from the U. S. populace. In fact, it is in a rather conservative, pro-business area and one would expect even fewer consumer problems with goods and services.

In examining the complaint resolution process, it was noted that most complaints were directed to the retailer, communicated by personal visit or phone, responded to immediately or within less than 7 days, was answered, and when adjusted to the customer's satisfaction, was with a refund, exchange, or repaired with charges. Most notable was the fact that 61% of those making an attempt to resolve a problem obtained satisfaction. We did not follow-up to see if those who were rebuffed on their first attempt persisted and obtained satisfaction. So, the final group receiving satisfaction is undoubtedly greater than 61%.

The following statements are descriptive of comparisons of those who had problems/no problems, made a complaint/no complaint, and were successful/unsuccessful complainers.


-- Those with problems tend to be younger while older respondents have fewer problems.

-- The retired and unemployed tend to report fewer problems than other professions.

-- College graduates are much more likely to report consumer problems than high school graduates.

-- Whites report a greater number of problems than blacks.


-- Those with automotive related, house related, and house furnishings problems are more likely to complain. Those with clothing problems and small miscellaneous problems are much less likely to complain.

-- The more expensive the item in question, the more likely one is to complain.

-- The self-employed, white collar workers, and housewives are more likely to be complainers. Blue collar workers and the retired are more likely to be non-complainers.


-- The self-employed and retired are more likely to report satisfaction. Blue collar workers are more likely to be unsuccessful.

-- Those with some college and college graduates are more likely to be successful. Those with some high school and high school graduates tend to be more unsuccessful.

These findings are similar to other studies and are more systematic in that all of these issues are examined in the same study. They do point out areas where substantive educational efforts could be beneficial in improving the consumer's welfare.

And finally, of those who had a problem but did not complain, we note from Table 5 that about 86% of the reasons given for not complaining relate to their perceptions that it was too much trouble, price too low, not worth the time, won't do any good, and waste of time. Now, it very well may not be in the consumer's most economic use of time and travel to worry about a small ticket item. But, for other items that these people feel they won't get any satisfaction on, it appears from this study and other reported studies that they would likely experience a 60-70% chance of satisfaction if they would attempt to resolve their problem.

In conclusion, there appears that a serious review is needed of the existing attitude among many businesses that a relatively small number of complaints received is a measure of general consumer satisfaction. Our findings show that a very large number of problems are encountered in the marketplace by consumers with many unwilling to make a complaint about their problems. Obviously, one way of improving the situation is to better educate consumers and have them become more responsible. Profiles developed in this and previous studies will be useful inputs for designing educational programs. Another way is to use government or consumer organizations is intervenors. A better way might be for business firms to recognize the extended product concept which implies satisfaction after purchase. So, instead of leaving the burden of the complaint process entirely with the consumer the business firm needs to enter the picture and provide adequate mechanisms for communicating and resolving problems.




Andreasen, Alan R. and Best, Arthur (1977), "Consumers Complain--Does Business Respond?" Harvard Business Review, 4, 55, 93-101.

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Zaltman, C., Srivastava, R. K., and Deshpande, R. C. (1978) "Perceptions of Unfair Marketing Practices: Consumerism Implications," in Advances in Consumer Research, Vol. 5, H. Keith Hunt, ed., Chicago: Association for Consumer Research, 247-253.



F. Kelly Shuptrine, University of South Carolina
Gerhard Wenglorz, University of South Carolina


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 08 | 1981

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