Consumer Behavior Research Paper Ideas For Teachers

,      Pages 208-212

, University of Maryland

[This research was funded in part by a grant from the General Research Board of the University of Maryland. The author would like to thank Philip G. Kuehl for his helpful suggestions.]

The recent upsurge of interest in consumer education can be expected to lead, in the long-run, to significant changes in consumer behavior. This paper contains a brief description of existing consumer education programs and a discussion of several hypotheses about how programs of this type could affect consumer behavior.

Interest in consumer education is growing rapidly. Within the last few months, a conference on consumer education has been held at the White House, an Office of Consumers' Education has been established within the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, and courses in consumer education have been made mandatory for all high school students in several states. This growth of interest in consumer education can he attributed to the recent depressed economic situation and, to soma extent, the disappointing results achieved by certain consumer information programs (see Day and Brandt, 1974; Jacoby, Speller, and Kohn, 1974; Isakson and Maurizi, 1973). Many individuals have come to believe that consumer education programs are needed to help consumers deal with inflation and energy shortages and to teach consumers how to use and benefit from "Truth in Packaging," "Truth in Lending," and "Unit Pricing" disclosures.

If interest in consumer education continues to grow, and if more and better consumer education programs follow, then significant long run changes can be expected to occur in the behavior of consumers. The consumers of tomorrow will have gone through a very different consumer socialization process than the consumers of today, and this could lead to vastly different consumer expectations, attitudes, preferences, and shopping habits. The purpose of this paper, therefore, is to provide an overview of the consumer education programs currently in operation in the United States and to present several hypotheses about how programs of this type could affect consumer behavior in the future. Before this material can be presented, however, it is necessary to clarify what interpretation is given in this paper to the terms "consumer education" and "consumer education program."

A DEFINITION OF CONSUMER EDUCATION

In this paper, consumer education is viewed as the process by which people learn the workings of the-marketplace so that they can improve their ability to act as purchasers or consumers of those products and services they deem most likely to enhance their well being (see Willett, 1974; Seitz, 1972, p. 199). Consumer education is therefore treated as being rather different than consumer information -- something with which it is often confused. Consumer education is considered to be a learning process which people go through which, of course, cannot be readily observed or heard. Consumer information, on the other hand, is clearly something which can be observed or heard.

A consumer education program is viewed in this paper as any organized activity which has as one of its major ultimate goals the advancement of the process of consumer education among some segment of consumers. This definition permits programs which certain people in the consumer education field might label as consumer information programs -- because no teaching in a formal educational environment is taking place -- to be viewed as consumer education programs. For example, a program which develops consumer information pieces such as buying guides or curriculum guides for use in high school consumer education courses is considered a consumer education program. Similarly, a program in which advertising messages are designed and distributed that instruct consumers in how to shop for certain categories of products is considered a consumer education program. Both of these programs are designed to help advance the process of consumer education. However, programs which provide only factual information about specific product offerings, from which consumers can learn little that can be used in a variety of buying situations (e.g., unit pricing or "Truth in Lending" programs), are considered merely consumer information programs.

CURRENT CONSUMER EDUCATION PROGRAMS

There are now a very large number of consumer education programs in operation in the United States. A major study conducted at Purdue University in 1969 (Uhl, 1970) identified and examined more than 500 of these programs, and many more have been organized since that time. These programs are administered by a wide variety of public and private organizations, and are designed to help consumers of all age brackets, social classes, and ethnic backgrounds. A brief review follows of the consumer education programs administered by Federal, state, and local governments and by private non-profit and profit-making organizations.

The Federal government has a host of agencies administering consumer education programs. Some of these agencies set up and run model programs for other organizations to copy. Other agencies produce and distribute consumer information materials which are used by the media to help design consumer education messages or by teachers to help instruct consumer education classes. Still other agencies are involved in stimulating additional interest in consumer education among educators, businessmen, and the general public through conducting workshops, symposiums, and seminars. Finally, there are a few agencies which distribute Federal funds to consumer education programs.

The Federal agencies which are most actively involved with consumer education include the Office of Consumer Affairs (within the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare), the Department of Agriculture, the Office of Economic Opportunity, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and the newly formed Office of Consumers' Education (within the Office of Education of HEW). The Office of Consumer Affairs, for example, publishes and distributes a large variety of materials related to consumer education including curriculum guides, bibliographies, directories, and a newsletter called Consumer News. This agency also sets up and runs model consumer education programs, including one for the residents of the Indian Pueblos of New Mexico, and it is continually arranging seminars and meetings to stimulate interest in consumer education.

The new Office of Consumers' Education also deserves special mention. This agency was established in 1975 to act as a source of funds for consumer education research and programs. Approximately $3 million per year has been budgeted for this agency during fiscal years 1976 and 1977. This is the first Federal agency that has been given the right to award funds specifically for consumer education research. In the past, funds for this purpose have had to come from monies appropriated for vocational education and other areas. It should be noted that President Ford supported the appropriation of $3 million per year to this agency, and that he has also demonstrated his support for consumer education by holding a one-day conference on the subject at the White House on March 11, 1975.

State governments tend to get most involved with consumer education through their control over public school systems. However, many state governments also run consumer education programs to help the poor, disadvantaged, or other segments of their populations such as ex-convicts (Goetting, 1974). In the schools, at least six states (Illinois, Oregon, Wisconsin, Florida, Kentucky, and Hawaii) have decided to make consumer education a required course (Brooks, 1973), and many other states have recommended that consumer education be included in the high school curriculum. Thus far, consumer education courses have tended to focus only on "good buymanship" (Scherf, 1974; Uhl, 1970) -- how to maximize current family consumption by stretching dollars wisely and how to maximize future family consumption through wise savings and investments -- but topics such as consumer protection, consumer redress, and "values clarification" have received increasing attention.

Typical of the more innovative programs being conducted in the public schools is one being run in Irving, Texas. Twelfth-grade students are asked to simulate the actions they would have to take if they were to become totally independent from their families upon high-school graduation. They are required to search the want ads for a suitable job (for which they are qualified) and then plan a life style for themselves supported by the take-home pay of that job. They must find an apartment (with furniture), purchase an appropriate wardrobe, budget for cleaning and laundry expenses, open charge accounts, plan and conduct food-shopping trips, and pay for and maintain automobiles. The course has helped many students achieve a well-planned independent life, while it has helped others see the need for further schooling or for improving their relationships with their families (Mahan, 1972).

The consumer education programs administered by local governments are numerous and diverse. There are consumer affairs offices and other agencies in many localities which devote a great deal of time, effort and resources to consumer education programs. Some programs are designed to help consumers with special needs -- such as the poor, Spanish-speaking, or elderly -- and others are more general in nature and, in effect, attempt to help a broad spectrum of individuals. Information about local government programs can be found in two studies by the Office of Consumer Affairs (1973;1974).

Several private, non-profit organizations such as Consumers Union, the Council of Better Business Bureaus, and the American Council on Consumer Interests are extremely active in consumer education. These organizations conduct consumer education classes, publish consumer magazines and newsletters, produce consumer messages for the media, and provide consumer education teachers with valuable teaching materials. They also provide guest speakers for classes and meetings, conduct conferences where consumer education teachers can exchange ideas, and sponsor workshops.

The Consumer Services Program of the Baltimore Urban League is an example of a highly successful consumer education program run by a non-profit organization. This program involves the teaching of six-week mini-courses in consumer education to community groups and clubs (e.g., Golden Agers, school parent groups, church groups, etc.). Participants are awarded certificates upon completion of these courses. Besides the courses, the program also has its staff members working on a one-to-one basis with approximately three to five families, helping them set up their monthly budgets and plan purchases of food, clothing, and other household items. Those involved with the Baltimore Urban League program attribute much of its success to the strategy of working with incentives (i.e., the certificates) and established groups (rather than newly-formed ones)(Johnson, 1975).

Consumer education programs are also now being run by many business firms. Profit-making organizations are providing consumer education teachers with a wealth of booklets, transparencies, film strips, product samples, and guest speakers. They are sponsoring consumer education media messages (e.g., Giant Foods (see Peterson, 1974)) and are even conducting in-service courses for teachers of consumer education (e.g., Montgomery Ward). Some firms, like the publishers of Changing Times magazine, have given considerable support to consumer education programs because this support has produced immediate returns for them (i.e., more subscriptions). Other firms, like the major department store chains (e.g., Sears, J. C. Penney), have made substantial investments in consumer education in anticipation of long-run returns. They apparently feel that support of consumer education can lead in the long-run to more consumer satisfaction with their products and, perhaps, less government interference with their operations.

HYPOTHESIZED CHANGES IN CONSUMER BEHAVIOR

Although many of the current consumer education programs have been in existence for quite some time, there has not been any research reported on how these programs have affected consumer behavior. Clearly, cross-sectional and longitudinal studies should be conducted to try to measure how much various consumer education programs have changed consumer attitudes, preferences, habits, and so on. It should be recognized, however, that research in this area will be filled with many obstacles. It will be difficult to determine whether a change in consumer behavior has been caused by a consumer education program or by other confounding or intervening variables. Moreover, with some programs, it may take long periods of time before program-induced changes in consumer behavior can be detected -- the learning process can be very slow.

A group of hypotheses that could be tested when researching the effects of consumer education programs are presented and discussed below. These hypotheses describe the long-run changes that the author expects to occur in the behavior of most consumers as a result of continued exposure to a Variety of consumer education programs. In the absence of any past research from which inferences could be drawn, it was necessary to rely upon deductive reasoning to develop these hypotheses.

Hypothesis 1:

Consumers will express their wants and needs to sellers more explicitly and more frequently.

Exposure to consumer education programs should allow consumers to obtain a better understanding of what the marketplace has to offer then in terms of product variations and services. In addition, exposure to consumer education courses which cover areas like "values clarification" or "life adjustment" -- such as the course offered at a Portland, Oregon high school in which students simulate real-life adult experiences including getting married, buying a home and car, and getting a divorce ("Divorce Course", 1974) -- should help many consumers obtain a better understanding of what they want and need from life and from the marketplace. An improved understanding of both what is available and what is wanted from the marketplace should result in an improved ability among consumers to state explicitly what they want and need to sellers in the form of unsolicited letters, responses to marketing research questions, or other methods of communication. Suggestion letters from consumers should become more helpful to sellers and questionnaire responses of consumers should become less ambiguous. Moreover, consumers should become more likely to communicate their wants and needs to sellers as they learn, through consumer education, more about how consumer feedback can influence the decisions of these sellers. The number of suggestion letters and questionnaire responses received by sellers should increase.

Hypothesis 2:

Consumers will seek out and use larger amounts of information to help them make price, quality, and service comparisons before making a purchase.

By teaching consumers where consumer information can be found, how it can be used, and what the benefits are of using it, consumer education programs should tend to lower the perceived costs (in lost time and energy) and increase the perceived benefits of searching for and using consumer information. This, in turn, should lead consumers to seek out and use larger quantities of information from consumer magazines or advertising, unit pricing, open dating, and nutritional content disclosures before making a purchase. Consumers must he expected to "buy" more of a commodity (information) which they perceive to be lower in price and higher in quality than it was previously.

Hypothesis 3:

Consumers will make a progressively larger proportion of their purchases from sellers who offer relatively large amounts of easily-acquired information about their products and services.

A seller who provides consumers with a considerable amount of information about his product(s) or service(s) (e.g., ingredients, uses, warranties, unit price, advantages, etc.), through either advertising, label disclosures, or salespersons, will save consumers time and energy that could be lost in searching for this information. If consumers (as a consequence of consumer education) begin to seek out and use larger amounts of information before making purchases --as hypothesized above -- then they should become progressively more appreciative of sellers who can save them information search costs. As consumers develop more favorable attitudes toward information-providing sellers, the likelihood that they will actually prefer these sellers over others will increase. Thus, consumers can be expected to make an increasing proportion of their purchases from information-providing sellers. They will not buy inferior or overpriced products from these sellers, but will buy the products of these sellers with increasing frequency in those cases where all products competing in a market are perceived to have otherwise similar attributes.

Hypothesis 4:

Consumers will make a progressively larger proportion of their purchases from sellers who conduct relatively large consumer education programs.

Over time, large numbers of people can be expected to be exposed to consumer education programs. As more people benefit from their experience with these programs, more are likely to become supporters of consumer education. One way these people might show their support for consumer education is by becoming loyal patrons of sellers whose consumer education programs they personally found to be beneficial. Thus, consumers can be expected to make an increasing proportion of their purchases from sellers who conduct relatively large consumer education programs. Evidence that this trend may have already begun can possibly be found in the rapidly improving profit figures of Giant Food, Inc., a firm which is very active in consumer education (Levy, 1975).

Hypothesis 5:

Consumers will buy less products that are potentially harmful to their own health or to the health of others.

Consumer education programs often teach consumers about nutrition, product safety, health care, and environmental issues. As more people are exposed to these programs, one can expect a decline in purchase of products which could produce health problems. Consumers will become less likely to buy products such as cigarettes, alcoholic beverages, sugar-laden foods, low-mileage automobiles, or aerosol sprays, and they will become more likely to buy products such as low-cholesterol foods, automobiles with safety and pollution-control features, or dental floss. It should be noted, however, that it will be necessary to reinforce constantly an inclination that might develop among consumers to buy safer, healthier products. If messages about nutrition, product safety, health care, and pollution are not constantly received by consumers, they may forget what they have learned in these areas. For example, many consumers seem to have forgotten what they learned about the dangers of cigarette smoking in the absence of frequent anti-smoking messages. The volume of these messages was reduced significantly following the banning from the broadcast media of cigarette advertising in 1971. Since that time, cigarette sales have increased steadily, reversing several years of decline.

Hypothesis 6:

Consumers will more actively seek remedies, redress, or restitution when dissatisfied with a product, service, or marketing practice.

Through exposure to consumer education programs, consumers should learn where to go when they are dissatisfied with an experience they have had in the marketplace. They should learn which agencies, organizations, and individuals can help them if they have been deceived or have found a practice they would like to see discontinued. They should also learn how consumers can achieve highly favorable results by filing complaint letters and lawsuits. This knowledge should lead consumers to become much more active in filing complaints and lawsuits against business firms.

Hypothesis 7:

Consumers will become more active participants in the debates over legislation that could affect the workings of the marketplace.

Consumer education programs should teach consumers about the important role that government plays in our economy. They should learn about the laws which exist to protect and help consumers and about the legislative history of these laws. They should discover how important it is, from their point of view, to have their voices heard, along with those of representatives of businesses and government, during debates over legislation that could affect their ability to obtain what they want and need from the marketplace. Consumers should therefore become more active in writing to legislators, lobbying for or against legislation, testifying before legislative committees, and supporting politically-active consumer organizations.

A FEW COMMENTS

The possibility that the changes hypothesized above might occur in the very near future should be recognized. Business firms could respond to a changing consumer population, and the changing practices of competing firms, by trying to outdo one another in creating progressive, extensive consumer education programs. At the same time, legislators might respond to the increased political activity of consumers by starting and funding new consumer education programs and by requiring consumer education courses for all public school students. The amount of exposure consumers would receive to consumer education programs could therefore increase rapidly, leading to the hypothesized changes in consumer behavior at an earlier point in time.

No matter when they occur, the changes hypothesized above will probably occur more rapidly among middle and upper class consumers, younger consumers, and consumers living in or near large metropolitan areas. These groups are more likely to be exposed to consumer education courses, messages, and materials through school programs, the media, and friends. They are also more likely to learn about the workings of the marketplace at a fast pace. Changes in the behavior of poor, elderly, and rural consumers will probably come much more slowly. Consumer educators will have to do a considerable amount of research to find the best strategies for "marketing" consumer education to these segments.

It should be noted that nothing has been mentioned thus far about the consumer of the future paying less attention to advertising or buying more lower-priced, private-label brands -- two results that many people might expect from continued exposure to consumer education programs. These changes have not been hypothesized to occur because it seems equally plausible to expect opposite results. Consumers could pay greater attention to advertising as part of their efforts to acquire more information before making purchases. Similarly, consumers could buy less private label brands because of an increased desire to buy familiar, widely-available products about which they have a great deal of favorable information.

Finally, it should be mentioned that if consumer behavior changes in the directions hypothesized above as a consequence of consumer education, it will not necessarily be totally beneficial for consumers. If consumers buy less cigarettes, alcoholic beverages, and low-mileage automobiles, then unemployment could increase. If consumers tie up the courts with lawsuits against sellers, then crime in the streets could increase. And if consumers lobby for more consumer protection legislation, then prices charged by sellers could increase (to cover the cost of compliance with new laws). In short, consumer education might unintentionally hurt the interests of many consumers.

CONCLUSIONS

In the future, consumers will go through a different consumer socialization process than consumers do today. They will spend more time in consumer education classes and will see and hear more consumer education messages. This new socialization process can be expected to produce consumers who will be more willing and able to state what they want and need to sellers and who will also be more willing and able to file complaints and lawsuits against sellers. In addition, this process can be expected to produce consumers who will seek out and use more information before making purchases and who will tend to make an increasing amount of these purchases from sellers who (1) provide large amounts of easily-acquired consumer information, (2) conduct consumer education programs, and (3) offer products that present little danger to the public's health.

Finally, this process can be expected to produce consumers who will fight more actively in the political arena for legislation which serves their interests. All of these hypotheses should be tested by conducting cross-sectional and longitudinal studies of how the many present-day consumer education programs have affected consumer behavior.

REFERENCES

Brooks, Thomas M. "Consumer Education: Can We Improve Our Score?" Journal of Home Economics, 65 (September, 1973), 33-35.

Day, George S. and William K. Brandt. "Consumer Research and the Evaluation of Information Disclosure Requirements: The Case of Truth in Lending," Journal of Consumer Research, 1 (June, 1974), 21-32.

"Divorce Course," Time (December 2, 1974), p. 92.

Goetting, Marsha. "Let's Put Consumer Education in Prison," Journal of Consumer Affairs, 8 (Winter, 1974), 198-203.

Isakson, Hans R. and Alex R. Maurizi. "The Consumer Economics of Unit Pricing," Journal of Marketing Research 10 (August, 1973), 277-85.

Jacoby, Jacob, Donald E. Speller, and Carol A. Kohn. "Brand Choice Behavior As A Function of Information Load," Journal of Marketing Research, 11 (February, 1974), 63-9.

Johnson, Edna D. "Remarks by Edna D. Johnson," A speech given before the White House conference on consumer education, March 11, 1975.

Levy, Claudia. "Giant's Net Shows Gain Over '74," Washington Post (June 4, 1974), p. D1.

Mahan, Linda. ."Twelfth-Year Itch," Consumer Education Forum, 3 (Spring, 1972), 1.

Office of Consumer Affairs. "Directory of Consumer Education Activities Conducted by State, County, and City Consumer Agencies," mimeo, U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare, June, 1974.

Office of Consumer Affairs. "Federally-Funded Consumer Programs in Low-Income Communities: A Preliminary Compilation," mimeo, U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare, May, 1973.

Peterson, Esther. "Consumerism As a Retailer's Asset," Harvard Business Review, 52 (May-June, 1974), 91-101.

Scherf, Gerhard, W. H. "Consumer Education As A Means of Alleviating Dissatisfaction," Journal of Consumer Affairs, 8 (Summer, 1974), 61-75.

Seitz, Wesley D. "Consumer Education As the Means to Attain Efficient Market Performance," Journal of Consumer Affairs, 6 (Winter, 1972), 199-201.

Uhl, Joseph N. and Others. Survey and Evaluation of Consumer Education Programs in the United States.

Willett, Sandra L. "Preliminary Statement," A handout prepared for the Panel on Consult Education of the 1974 meeting of the Education Commission of the States, June 21, 1974.

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