This essay is based on an analysis of research observations which took place at a Supermarket in Bradford. The aim of the exercise was to observe the behaviour of consumers while shopping in order to theorise and draw conclusions from our observations about consumer buying behaviour when shopping. As a means of interpreting and analysing the data we used the psychoanalytical perspective of Freud, pester power and independent and interdependent self concept. These concepts particularly lend themselves to the interpretation of the data. This essay begins by defining these key concepts before offering an analysis data the research data.
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Freudian personality theory is otherwise known as the psychoanalytic theory and it is often used by marketers to influence the purchasing decisions of customers in an unconscious way (Bettany, 2011 and Solomon, 2011). The theory is composed of three categories namely the id, the superego and the ego. The id according to Freud is part of our unconscious being as it functions with regards to the pleasure principle; the pleasure is applicable to the id as it seeks immediate gratification of needs (Bettany, 2011 and Solomon, 2011). Hoch and Loewestein (1991:498) claim that the id is the “primary process of thinking” that is impulsive, stingy and illogical whose aim is to seek pleasure only, avoid pain and not at all worried about the consequences of its actions (Solomon, 2011). Similarly, Hoch and Loewestein (1991:498) note that the ego is “secondary process thinking” that uses the reality principle and acts as a mediator between the id and the superego. Next is the ego which is aware of the consequences of an action and when it is unable to manage the action a conflict between the id and the superego results and the individual gets anxious (Bettany, 2011). The superego on the other hand is the internalised sense of justice, a person’s moral conscience and it is developed last (Solomon, 2011; Bettany, 2011). The superego is derived from the values and morals a child learnt from their interaction with society, family and friends.
Whereas as Freud psychoanalytical theory could be applied to both children and adults in terms of explaining consumer’s behaviours pester power on the other hand is primarily concerned with children’s behaviours. It can be defined “as a child’s attempts to exert influence over parental purchase in a repetitive and sometimes confrontational manner” Nicholls and Cullen (2004:77). Another definition of pester power is presented by Procter and Richards (2002:3) which suggests it is “the repeated delivery of unwanted requests”. What this means is that parents are bombarded with requests, gestures and pleas from their children to buy items such as foods, toys and clothes. Most often children who carry out this act get what they want (Nicholls and Cullens, 2004). Children might be influenced by either their peers at school (Smithers, 2010) or by advertisements seen on the television (Chandler and Heinzerling, 1998, Smithers, 2010). This framework was used because of our interest in how children influence the buying power of their parents. The final theoretical framework employed in this essay is the interdependent and independent self-concept. The interdependent self-concept has been defined in terms of seeing oneself as part of an encompassing relationship and recognizing that one’s behaviour is determined, contingent on and, to a large extent, organised by what the actor perceives to be the thoughts, feelings, and actions of others in the relationship (Markus and Kitayama, 1991, p. 227). Markus and Kitayama (1991, 1994) regard the independent self-concept as bounded, unitary, stable, autonomous, individualist, egocentric, self-contained, separate, and detached from the social context. This self-concept is perceived as a distinctive configuration of traits, thoughts and feelings that regulate individual behaviour and underlie individual strivings towards the fulfillment of personal goals such as “realising oneself” (Milland and Reynolds, 2011).
The id is manifested in a baby girl who would not stop crying despite the fact her mother rocked her while she was in the trolley, called out her name and spoke to her. Since her basic desire to maximise pleasure has not been met, she cried continuously. People around the family recognised the child was an infant in need of her mother’s attention; they did not mind and instead went about their business.
The eldest son aged between 3-5 years has matured from the id stage to the ego. This was seen by the actions he displayed when he listened intently to his mother’s instruction and returned the LEGO back to the shelf. He understood the reality of the situation and realised the consequence was not pleasant. The ego being the reality principle ensures the id’s needs are met in a realistic manner (Solomon, 2011). Although initially he insisted on having his way, that is to say, wanted his mother to buy the toy for his friend, realising she would not back down from her position, he relented and obeyed her instructions. In this event the mother prevailed.
The eldest son would have developed his superego and this act as a moral conscience in him with regards to dictating a sense of wrong and right (Solomon, 2011). The moral lesson taught by his mother manifested when he realised his mother would not buy the LEGO, he obeyed her and returned it. In relation to the accepted behaviour in the store, the mother did not seem to mind that her eldest son had left her side to pick up a LEGO in the toy aisle. This might indicate that the mother sees the child as independent to a certain degree. The child in demonstrating his independent to his mother by listens to her and responding appropriately seemed to give her a sense of pleasure.
The id also appeared to be apparent in a boy who was pushed around the supermarket by his aunt. The thrill of being pushed was heard in his shouts of excitement, laughing and shouting ‘again, again’ after his aunt stopped. The boy clearly relished this moment as he seeks pleasure. He operates according to the pleasure principle and was not concerned that his aunt was exhausted and needed a break.
Another example, of the manifestation of the id was a crying boy in his push chair, even though he was comforted by his mother, he kept on crying because his need for sleep was not met. Maslow’ hierarchy of need is also relevant in explaining this example. According to Maslow sleep is regarded as one of the most basic of needs but this mother also wanted to get on with her shopping because it gave her a sense of satisfaction even pleasure in seeking to satisfy two another basic psychological needs which are food and security (Blackwell et al 2006). Later on, one came across the same woman and her son who was fast asleep in his push chair while his mother continued with her shopping in peace.
Closely related to but different from the psychological theory of Freud is the concept of pester power. In this example, one came across a mother who has three children. The infant a baby girl and small son who were seated in the trolley; the mother was busy examining the supermarket shelf filled with gifts for new-born and the third child the eldest, was at the aisle for children toys. He brought her a football asking if he can get the ball for his friend ‘Barry’. His mother said no and he took the ball back to where he got if from. Next he came back with a LEGO and pleaded with his mother to buy him the toy. He rubbed his two hands together saying ‘mama please I want Lego’, she told him he could not have the Lego because he had more than enough toys. Nevertheless, the child persisted begging his mother but she did not change her mind and since she refused his requests to purchase the toy, he returned it back to the shelf. Following this incident the mother spent a considerable amount of time on the aisle; as she picked up different gifts, looked at the gifts before settling for a gift bag and money-box. She left the aisle and came back again looking at each gifts. The baby girl started crying and the mother called out her name to stop her crying but the baby persisted. The mother picked up a baby cushion, looked at the cushion, the price, placed the product in her trolley and left the aisle for another. Yet, the baby’s crying persisted.
Pester power is a consumer behaviour concept that has become a relevant issue in society because of children’s ability to influence their parents skilfully into getting them products has increased greatly (Oaff, 2001; Smithers, 2010). Nowadays, parents seem to be under a lot of pester pressure to provide their children’s wants and not needs; the pressure is more manifest during Christmas and birthdays (Smithers, 2010) and in some cases, parents have to forgo basic necessities in order to meet and fulfil their children’s wish. Some parents are even willing to go into debt due to pester power (Oaff, 2001 and Smithers, 2010). Now, one could argue that parents are at fault by spoiling their children with presents and granting their every wish. Yet, another perspective could be parents truly believe that by providing for their children, the child will not want for anything. This probably again is linked to Maslow’s hierarchy when parents gain a level of self-fulfilment by satisfying the needs of their children. Smithers (2010), argues that pester power is due to a commercialised society that has transformed festive periods into money-making machine pushed by adverts on children’s television and influenced by friends at schools. In the case of this ethnography study, the mother did prevail against pester power because the mother has “developed well-honed antennae” which detects her son’s attempts to influence her (Marshall et al., 2007). Yet, one wondered if the study had taken place in the holiday season, would the mother have relented and purchased the Lego for her son?
Mehrotra and Torges (1977) suggest that when shopping for food, parents often yield to their children’s influence and purchase what their children want. The reason for this is the fact that children have been exposed to adverts on television. This as a consequence enables them to impact their parent’s purchase behaviour (Chandler and Heinzerling, 1998). This might also be due to the fact that some of the children do not eat much at home and therefore, the parents are worried and have tried everything yet nothing seems to work. So, when shopping with their children, and they are presented with an opportunity to buy food their kids prefer to eat, the parents will not pass it up.
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With regards to toys, this is rather different and some parents do not yield to pester power. Nicholls and Cullen (2004:78) suggest that the parent-perceived child’s influence for food is greater than the parent-perceived child’s influence for toys revealing that the level of toys consumption is lower than the level of food consumption. As a result, when it comes to toys, the parents can afford to say no and refuse their children’s request. Exception is made during festive periods such as birthdays and Christmas (Smithers, 2010). Although Mehrotra and Torges (1977) argued that when parents refuse their children’s request, what follows is an explanation of why the product was not purchased. This was not seen in the ethnography study. After instructing her eldest son to return the LEGO, the mother continued her shopping.
Our observation would suggest that when people shop individually they tend to spend more on clothing. For Millan and Renolds (2011:6) suggested that “consumers who exhibit stronger independent tendencies may be heavier buyers of value-expressive goods than those who are more interdependent which is because, self-expression, self-reward, and hedonic gratification tend to be important motivational factors”. Individual that came alone seemed less discerning, and spent more time evaluating various brands across multiple price categories and more often bought clothes that were expensive. This appeared to be the case because consumer was shopping for personal use.
In cases where consumers are accompanied by one or more friends or family members, the presence of friends or family did seem to influence the purchase decision significantly. The buyers in these categories were more discerning, the purchase decision was made faster and the concern was largely in adhering to a particular price band rather than any particular quality of the product. For example, a gentle man wanted to buy an expensive jacket but his wife objected to the price of the item and so they settled for an item of lower value. It seemed to us that when people shopped in groups they spent more time discussing and less time shopping. This indicates that shopping in this context can be interpreted as a means of pleasure and it might be linked to the id from Freudian personality theory which is focused on the pleasure principle. This gives rise to the argument that clothing can be used to form independent self concept or a preference for self-expression and a means of hedonic consumption. Additionally, in groups consumers appeared more impulsive than planned, as most buyers appeared undecided about what brand or type of cloths to buy. Sometimes family accompanied buyers tried many products across multiple ranges, often posh, categories and settled on a cheaper product, like common labels. This leads one to infer that a lot of the purchases were impulsive.
Another example of the pleasure principle in shopping is concerned with children and parents enjoying their children play. There are toy cars in the supermarket close to the doors and children would get into these toys. Sometimes the children just played on their own while the parents talk either to other family members. In other case, the parents would put money into the toys and have fun with the children. In this regard, the parents seemed happy and laughed quite a lot. This would indicate that the parents were having as much fun as the children.
Another example of the pleasure principle effect from the observation is connected with the notion of self-concept and self-expression. Millan and Reynolds (2011:4) “propose that the stronger one’s independent self-concept, the more pronounced will be the consumer’s preference for self-expression and inner enjoyment through clothing”. Going back to the above example about shopping for clothes it is evident that this serves as a means of self-expression. Clothing usually serves a potent avenue for stimulating positive emotions during purchase and subsequent usage. It can be argued that independent consumers are introverts and lack emotional and relevant support networks such as the extended family and may be lonely. Consequently, expenditure on goods and services which are likely to arouse pleasant stimulus and emotional fulfilment will be alluring to consumers with a strong independent self-concept (Millan and Reynolds 2011). On the other hand, Bagozzi et al (2000) argues that the behaviour of consumers with a strong independent self-concept is basically guided by personal needs, attitudes, and perceived rights rather than social norms and filial obligations. While interdependent tendencies possessed by family accompanied shoppers is compatible with the theory of the interdependent self-concept, according to which modesty and judicious spending is an inherent trait of the interdependent self, underlying self-effacing presentations and behaviours in diverse social settings (Heine et al., 2000). Again this can be related to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and in particular the self-esteem or self realisation aspect.
This behaviour is influenced by a strong pressure to conform to family and people’s expectation, as well as a fear of being excluded from the group which is consistent with views expressed by Lee and Karen (2000) which reports a strong correlation between ones interdependent self concept and group relationship motives for purchasing goods. Which reiterates’ beliefs that spending so much money on status signifying clothes will be detrimental to groups goals and objectives which may include feeding and other general welfare necessary in a family setting. Strong evidence found by Millan and Renolds (2011) suggests that consumers possessing a high independent disposition were more inclined to shopping activities via regular visits to clothing shops, keeping up with latest trends and information obtainable in at shops thereby spending more money on clothing than interdependent consumers, the reason for this being that consumers with a strong independent self concept tend to satisfy a wide variety of symbolic and hedonic needs through this means of consumption.
In conclusion, we found that at times of recession supermarket need to place emphasis on satisfying consumer needs otherwise they could change suppliers. Therefore it is important to better understand consumer’s lifestyles, and choice criteria. This would include the selection of suitable media and designing suitable consumer messages. One area of further research could be to what extent consumers remain loyal to specific brands in time of economic recession. We believe that shopping could be more of a pleasure for children if playing facilities were provided. This might encourage parents to spend longer shopping and by implication buy more. One weakness of the observation in our view was the fact that we depended solely on the observation it would have been more useful to double-check our analysis with the consumers being observed.
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