Is Consumer Satisfaction Getting out of Reach? /Dissertation/ Chapter Two – Determinants of Consumer Satisfaction
Determinants of Consumer Satisfaction
The second chapter explores the relation between determinants and expectations of purchasing and how it influences consumer satisfaction. To best describe the changes occurring in recent years, it draws a parallel between past and present shopping habits, analysing more specifically three particular components – the shop as an ever evolving purchasing centre point, observed by Jon Stobart in his book Spend, Spend, Spend: A History of Shopping (2008), opposed to online shopping discussed by Debra Ferreday and Kristin Hadland. Additionally, it is evaluating the importance and development of relationships between producer and consumer, and observing products as personal identifiers, relying mainly on a research, conducted by Miller, Jackson, Thrift, Holbrook and Rowlands in their work Shopping, place and identity (1998).
The continuous process of consumption can be defined as an expression of one’s evolving persona and interests and a manifest of social distinction. One is creating an autonomous universe, built using consumerist objects, in that sense, consumption is both means to and a result of one’s desire for personal display. In his work The Sociology of Consumption, Peter Corrigan describes it as ‘the effort to indicate social distinction through the uses of goods’ (Corrigan 1997: 17) and adds that there is not a more convenient way of display of one’s character and strength to ‘those who know nothing of one apart from what they see’. Looking at other aspects of consumption, such as its role in the development of economy, it has a key role in the formation of new experiences and objects. In that respect, Jean Baudrillard observes it as equal to the process of production ‘in the expanded reproduction of the productive forces and their control… ’ (Baudrillard in Corrigan 1997: 21). Consumption is, therefore, a highly social form of self-indulgence, through which the economic system is being nurtured and which serves for the development of the image of self.
Looking into purchase determinants, it is important to first note that the idea of acquiring goods has always been, at least to an extent, closely bonded with the perspective of a good time and, most importantly, being part of a certain group or community, using goods for different purposes and as various symbols. Customers expect from both products and experiences to be in context with their ideals, aesthetic preferences and group beliefs, which challenges contemporary products and their role as signifiers for collective ideals. As Jonathan Chapman suggests in his book Emotionally Durable Design (2005), we are ‘consumers of meaning not matter’ and through the objects we acquire, we ‘view and experience our dreams and desires in real time’ (Chapman 2005:36) and it is the qualities of a particular lifestyle, brand, or product that we desire, not the physical object itself (Chapman 2005:40). In the acquisition of these goods, one is relying on the approval of preferred social groups, regardless whether one has any personal interaction with the others or not. As shown by a survey conducted by Vespoli and Forbes (2013), ‘Internet users purchase a product recommended by someone even if they do not know those people on review boards and social networking sites personally’ (Choi and Cheng 2015:52). Shopping for goods can also be observed as an act of care for others around consumer festivals such as Mother’s Day, Christmas, birthdays, etc., in which case ‘buying of goods becomes a kind of emotional cargo cult’, which demands ‘constant and considerable consumer expenditure’ (Miller, Jackson, Thrift, Holbrook and Rowlands 2000:17). Most frequently, however, consumption is ‘founded on a lack’, as sociologist Robert Bockock claims (Chapman 2005:38), and holds out deceptive hopes that an ‘internal lack can be fixed by an external means’, trying to medicate any concerns and issues by simply encouraging more purchases (James in Porritt 2007:62-63). This signifies a change in the shopping determinants, meaning that one now expects a more profound meaning from the goods one acquires, leaving shopping insufficient to fill in the social gap created in recent years.
As an incredibly important factor for the formation of these expectations, the levels of satisfaction and the development of purchasing habits in general, appear shopping areas. With their interiors, entertainment possibilities and facilities available, they define the target customers, the amount of time consumers spend in the shops, and consequently the money they are ready to leave on the tills. Shops such as Selfridge’s (Figure 5.) in the twentieth century were considered as ‘happy’ places, and the shopping experience there – ‘A Pleasure – A Pastime – A Recreation’ (Stobart 2008:183). Entertainment areas, within the shopping space included a ‘rooftop tea garden, restaurant and smoker’s room; so-called ‘patriotic rooms’; reading, writing and silence rooms; a first-aid room; a bureau de change, ticket office and post office, and a soda fountain’, whereas Harrods ‘boasted its own orchestra, tourist office and cold-storage for furs or tapestries’ (Stobart, 2008:180). Overall, shops from that era were most frequently described to have a general ‘feeling of grandeur and luxury’ (Stobart, 2008:60). As opposed to these fascinating facilities, modern shopping areas, deriving
Figure 5. Selfridge’s early 20th century. Confectionery Section at Selfridge’s, London, Mary Evans, Grenville Collins Postcard Collection.
from self-service stores and superstores, have turned into ‘big boxes’, where ‘landscaping is minimal and there is little encouragement to wander from one part of the park to another’ making shopping quick and merely ‘for business rather than pleasure’ (Stobart 2008:225). The Guardian columnist Suzanne Moore describes shopping malls as stuffed ‘full of bored security guards, surveillance cameras, slow fast-food…’ (Miller, Jackson, Thrift, Holbrook and Rowlands 74). In general, they are widely considered as alienating and lonely, and although all kinds of comfort facilities, such as toilets, lifts and escalators, are still provided, one can observe ‘a striking contrast between descriptions of shopping before and after the supermarket.’ (Stobart 2008:214). With this immense change in the architecture, interior and facilities of shopping areas, customers lose one of the key points in their overall shopping experience, which unavoidably leads to reduction in the overall satisfaction from shopping.
As relatively recent phenomenon that has had a massive impact on the concept of purchasing goods appears online shopping. It represents a different consumer reality, in which the idea of the physical shop as a centre point of the shopping activity has disappeared, replaced by the comfort of one’s own home. Initially aimed at utilitarian shoppers (Zappala and Gray, 2006:226), shopping websites establish the completely private realm of one’s home as a ‘privileged space […] comfortable and safe’ (Ferreday 2009:126), where one could completely individualize the shopping experience. With its tremendous integration in millennials’ lives, however, online shopping requires less and less interaction from the buyer. As exemplified by Barclays Bank’s 2002 online banking commercial starring Robbie Coltrane (see Figure 6.), utilising ‘the image of shopping in one’s pyjamas’ (Ferreday 2009:162), this process turns into a kind of a guilty pleasure, compared to other wholly private activities, such as sex, or food consumption, referred
Figure 6. Hegarty 2000. Robbie Coltrane in a Barclays Online Banking Commercial.
to by Ferreday as a ‘midnight feast’ (Ferreday 2009:166). Online shopping has consequently started taking the shape of a shameful pleasure, hidden from the others, completely performed in private, and although undoubtedly making utilitarian shopping a lot easier, it has also reduced the sensory experience of shopping in general, through which it has taken away the delights of hedonistic shopping and replaced them with a feeling of shame and insufficiency.
An important aspect of this buying practice that contemporary shopping completely disregards is the so important establishment of relationships with producers and merchandisers, which in the past added up to a fully social experience and catered for the building of trust between customers and sellers. This observation of shopping as a highly collective practice, constructed on trust has assisted in making goods acquisition less of a duty that needs to be attended and enhanced the awareness of being part of a community. In the past, when acquaintances between merchandisers and consumers were common place (Miller, Jackson, Thrift, Holbrook and Rowlands 110), it was a preference and standard shopping practice to ‘deal directly with the producer: a farmer, weaver or shoemaker […] a goldsmith or brazier’ (Stobart, 2008:21). Currently, however, there is a constant state of misunderstanding, caused by the failed relationships with makers, resulting in failed relationships with products. As the values have switched from living up to some sort of social standards to just securing the initial sale, the producers one no longer knows, supply shops with ‘inanimate objects, mainly providing a means for delivering on commercial goals’ and sacrificing the ‘poetic meaning’ and aesthetic qualities of a garment in favour of production profits and efficiency (Fletcher and Grose, 2012:85). Therefore, this seemingly infinite choice, restlessly advertised to consumers, results in the ridiculous idea of products being ‘somehow ‘born’ in the shop’, quickly produced, quickly consumed and just as quickly discarded (Black, 2008:58). This failure in recent years to establish a connection between makers, buyers and products has left consumers with little choice and information, and most importantly, it has deprived them from the joy of personal communication, a trademark of the shopping ritual in the past.
Yet, consumption is a highly social experience not only in terms of the buying process itself, but also in terms of the goods acquired and the way they serve as a means for social orchestration. Consumer objects are far from the commonly accepted perception of being just neutral participants in the process, but are rather used to mirror the tastes, preferences and character of the consumer and are therefore considered ‘key elements of the construction of a whole range of selves and identities’ (Wilson, Reekie, Jackson and Swanson, in Miller, Jackson, Thrift, Holbrook and Rowlands 1998:2). In fact, Jonathan Chapman observes products as ‘signifiers of status’, giving one the opportunity to play different socially advantageous roles through material possessions (Chapman 2005:12), which process eventually ends with personal destruction (Chapman 2005:30). This is due to the limited flexibility of the matter we utilize to depict consumer beliefs, roles, and values, compared to the constant variability of ‘the complex assemblage of values and beliefs that collectively distinguish us as individuals’ (Chapman 2005: 42). As a result it becomes harder for producers to deliver a consumer object, embodying the meaning, beliefs and empathy users are constantly looking for in the goods they purchase. Using objects for social orchestration in an ever-changing society, therefore, inevitably ends in losing the all-important connection between object and user, leading eventually to its disposal, and, most importantly, to inconsistency in purchasing behaviour and dissatisfaction with the products constantly consumed and replaced.
The development of hedonistic shopping in recent years has had a reverse effect, caused mainly by the constant pressure of the industry, creating amongst buyers some sort of a perpetual aspirational state, in which the satisfaction is replaced by unfulfillable desire for more. The expectations one has from the huge range of products on offer can never be met simply because of the statistically minimal chance of finding the right product among so many others, hence the constant feeling of missing out. As economist Manfred Max-Nerf explains the role of desires and consumption in society’s well-being, in order to bring out a ‘satisfier’, the welfare of the whole has to be considered, rather than just a particular non-substantial need. Material overconsumption, therefore, comes as rather a ‘destroyer’, as it only addresses one unimportant need of acquiring an object, while inhibiting several others and bringing ‘poverty to the whole’ (Fletcher and Grose, 2012:132). In that sense, it could be claimed that important human values and beliefs are being depleted, in order to sustain the aspirational pursuit of economic expansion, resulting in destruction of shopping as a recreation. As writer John Tackara describes the current economic state: ‘Industry suffers from a kind of global autism.’ (Thackara 2001:46-52), which inhibits society’s needs of genuine sensory and aesthetic experiences and leads to ‘contemporary detachment from reality toward a fabricated, and deeply abstracted, culture of signs’(Baudrillard in Chapman 2005: 41). Yet, consumption of empathy through consumer objects does not bring satisfaction because of the narrow range of emotions offered by designers of products (Dunne and Raby 2001:45). Therefore, well-being of society does not profit from consumerism, in fact, the lack of meaning and empathy are digging deeper into society’s problems, defining shopping as a drug to assist in maintaining a constant change to keep one busy.
The notion and core of consumption have been completely replaced by the contemporary view of shopping as a quick ‘dose’ of personal and social fulfillment. Yet, as collective norms and beliefs are constantly changing, causing instability in purchase habits, the high of this quick contentment ends in a constant hangover of low satisfaction.