Retailing and the promiscuous consumer?


Nutrition & Food Science

ISSN: 0034-6659

Article publication date: 1 February 1999



Strugnell, C. and McGuigan, G. (1999), "Retailing and the promiscuous consumer?", Nutrition & Food Science, Vol. 99 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 1999, MCB UP Limited

Retailing and the promiscuous consumer?

Retailing and the promiscuous consumer?


Retailing in Britain and food retailing in particular has undergone many changes over the last number of years. These changes have to some regard mirrored developments in the nuclear family and demographic changes in British society. These social and demographic changes have led to more single-person households and an increasing retired or elderly population, who have considerable "purchasing power". There has also been an increasing economic divide between the top and bottom socio-economic groups in Britain. In some respects these changes are similar to what has happened in America and are as a result of economic policies prevalent in the 1980s. These economic, cultural and demographic changes have led to the creation of food deserts, which have attracted considerable government and media attention (Strugnell, 1998). The age profile of a typical British city in the 1990s, with a population of around 250,000 and an unemployment rate of 6.3 per cent, is outlined in Table I.

Table I Age profile of a typical British city

Age (Years) Percent of theAge (years) population
0-14 20.5
15-29 21.5
30-44 20.2
45-59 16.6
60-74 14.3
> 75 6.9

Retailers have responded to these changing demographics in a number of ways. The main being the increase in convenience foods to cater for changing lifestyles within the nuclear family, i.e. family members having different and varied eating occasions, ethnic foods and more single portion size products. There has also been an increase in retailers' "own brand" products, frequently designed to copy brand leaders and hopefully instill consumer loyalty. The major retail multiples in the UK, Asda, Safeway, Sainsbury's and Tesco, now wield enormous "buying power", which they use to exert pressure not only on producers but also on consumers.

Promiscuous behaviour?

With the number and variety of retail outlets it might be expected that consumers would "shop-around" i.e. exhibit promiscuous behaviour. With the four major players in the UK food retail sector, Asda, Safeway, Sainsbury's and Tesco, accounting for two-thirds of food buying, instilling customer loyalty is obviously important to maintain market share. How do these multiples prevent or seek to reduce promiscuous behaviour amongst consumers? One obvious method is the loyalty card that gives "club points" or other incentives for every £ spent. Another is location, where retailers have developed shopping centres in out of town locations away from rivals. This has led to town centres becoming known as food deserts devoid of smaller outlets and specialist shops such as bakeries and butchers (Strugnell, 1998). The use of "own branded" products is also intended to induce loyalty, together with the provision of financial services and other associated products and services. All these products and associated activities are designed to prevent consumers from "shopping-around" and thus from exhibiting promiscuous behaviour. How effective are the multiples in achieving their aim? Before these issues are examined and the hypothesis for the presence of the promiscuous consumer tested, it would be useful to examine the needs and motives of consumers (McGuigan, 1998).

Consumer needs and motives

Perhaps one of the most influential theorists of human needs has been that of Maslow (1971), who developed a model. A hierarchy of needs was suggested, from the most basic or primitive through to the most civilised in nature:

  • Physiological needs.

  • Safety needs.

  • Belongingness needs.

  • Esteem needs.

  • Self-actualisation needs.

This theory suggests that individuals seek to progress through each stage of the hierarchy, and, as needs at one level are satisfied, the next level tends to predominate. Invariably this theory has been criticised, mainly for lack of empirical support for the number of categories and the hierarchical order (McGoldrick, 1990). Human needs could be grouped into three broad categories and summarised accordingly:

  1. 1.

    Affiliation needs.

  2. 2.

    Power needs.

  3. 3.

    Achievement needs.

A basic classification of this type can however help to understand the underlying structure of human needs (McGuigan, 1998). In developing an "in-house" loyalty card such as Sainsbury's Reward Card or Tesco ClubCard, a retailer may appeal to the need for safety (cash bonus), as well as needs for belonging ("club" membership), esteem and empowerment, with additional entitlements such as air miles.

The shopping activity

Shopping is looked upon by some as an enjoyable experience, for others a necessity that must be accomplished in the shortest time possible. The former might be seen as an indication of promiscuous behaviour, the latter certainly not. Evidence suggests that some consumers exhibit both types of behaviour, with Sunday shopping looked upon almost as a leisure or recreational activity. Consideration should be given to the fact that the motivation of shoppers tends to emphasise the need for actual products or services. These have the ultimate effect of consumers choosing one store as opposed to another. Recent research has shown that consumers were loyal only to a limited extent, often having the complete range of loyalty cards available to them (McGuigan, 1998). The major factors for choosing one retailer over another was convenience, product range, associated customer services and perceived value for money. Tauber (1972) suggested a new aspect to retail research by asking the most basic of all questions, "Why do people shop?" He then proceeded to encourage strategists to address their attention to the primary motivations that determine the shopping activity, rather than simply to assume that the need to purchase is only, or even the main, reason for shopping.

Tauber hypothesised that:

People's motives for shopping are a function of many variables, some of which are unrelated to the actual buying of products. It is maintained that an understanding of the shopping motives requires the consideration of satisfactions which shopping activities provide, as well as the utility obtained from the merchandise that may be purchased.

Based upon in-depth interviews with both male and female shoppers, Tauber suggested several types of personal motives for shopping, classified as follows:

  • Role playing. Shopping may be a learned and expected behaviour pattern which, for some, becomes an integral part of their role (such as a daughter following similar purchase patterns to that of her mother).

  • Diversion. Shopping may provide a break from the daily routine, a form of recreation; it can provide a diversionary pastime for individuals or entertainment for the family (as many stores aim to create an ambient atmosphere this theory of a "relaxing diversion" should prove relevant).

  • Self-gratification. The shopping trip may represent an antidote to loneliness or boredom; the act of purchasing may be an attempt to alleviate depression. (It appears evident that Tauber indicates this point to mean that a shopping centre could be a place to meet people.)

  • Learning about new trends. Many people enjoy shopping as an opportunity to see new trends new things and get new ideas.

  • Sensory stimulation. The shopping environment can provide many forms of stimulation, through light, colours, sounds, scents, and through handling the products.

The UK multiples such as Sainsbury's, Tesco and Safeway have all put emphasis on the fifth point, in that they have tried to create an environment where the consumer can experience the ambiance of the store. Taking in the smells of fresh bread, the feel and colours of ripe fruit and vegetables, and the temptation of the delicatessen counter, all encourage the consumer to enjoy the experience and come back again. A questionnaire administered to 100 consumers has shown that these aspects are important in building customer loyalty but not as important as loyalty cards, free car parking, bus service and crèche provision (McGuigan, 1998). It was also found that the main weekly shop was carried out on a "one-stop" basis . This clearly favours the major retail multiples in that they can stock a large range of not only food products but also increasingly non-food products at the expense of smaller retailers and specialist retailers.


Design and shopping environment are therefore very important in building customer loyalty and it is easy to see why building shopping centres on "green field" sites rather than restricted town centres is an economic advantage to the multiples. Consumers do exhibit promiscuous behaviour when purchasing larger items, such as electrical items. Shopping diaries were used over a two-month period to monitor purchasing behaviour. These revealed that consumers are prepared to to seek out the best bargain by spending time and effort to find the most attractive offer and exhibit to some degree promiscuous behaviour. Case studies validated these results, although there was some variance amongst consumers as to what was regarded as a large purchase. For some it was clothes with designer labels, for others electrical items such as videos or personal computers. This study shows the clear advantage that multiples such as Tesco have if they can source and stock these items at competitive prices.


The multiples make considerable profits from their respective market shares. Margins in the UK are typically 6 per cent, compared to 3per cent in the rest of Europe and North America. They therefore have much to gain and considerable scope for providing an enjoyable shopping experience for their customers. The incentive is to prevent promiscuous purchasing behaviour in consumers by providing an ever-increasing range of products and services. There is no doubt that consumers respond to these developments and actively seek out such shopping malls and hyperstores. However not all consumers have easy access to such centres and our inner city environs are becoming denuded of retail outlets. To address the original hypothesis ­ do consumers exhibit promiscuous behaviour? The answer is yes and no! All shoppers exhibit promiscuous behaviour when purchasing major items, however they appear to be "locked in" to a particular multiple when it comes to the mundane purchases. It appears that the out of town locations which enable easy access, if you are a car owner, and other incentives do prevent us from "shopping around". The multiples are anxious to keep us loyal to a particular brand and new developments include home delivery services and internet shopping. As Christine Cross (1997) said, "the customer is not only King but also God".

Christopher Strugnell and Gail McGuigan are based in Faculty of Business and Management, University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, BT37 0QB, UK. E-mail


Cross, C.M. (1997), Buying Director for Tesco and Visiting Professor University of Ulster, personal communication.

Maslow, A.H. (1971), Farther Reaches of Human Nature, Viking Press, London.

McGoldrick, P.J. (1990), Retail Marketing, McGraw-Hill, London.

McGuigan, G. (1998),"An investigation into customer loyalty and purchase behaviour in Northern Ireland", unpublished undergraduate dissertation, University of Ulster.

Strugnell, C.J. (1998), "Food deserts ­ fact or fiction?", Nutrition & Food Science (Applied Consumer Science), No. 6, November/December, pp. 349-350.

Tauber, E.M. (1972), "Why do people shop?", Journal of Marketing, Vol. 36 No. 4, pp. 47-55.

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