Consumer science is the research discipline that studies opinions, choices and behaviour of consumers in relation to products and services. Consumer science draws on insights from other “mother” disciplines such as psychology and sociology. Consumer science is an applied science that relates to marketing research. Consumer science aims to predict and explain consumer attitudes, perceptions, values and choice behaviour to provide insights into marketing, development and production of consumer goods. Consumer science predictions are based on characteristics of products, consumers and contexts , in which a consumer forms and opinion and choice, or engages into behaviour. It uses a range of qualitative and quantitative techniques to gather consumers data. Consumer food science draws heavily on general consumers science, but also might involve sensory and nutrition science.
Consumer science can provide insight into which properties of a new technology or product are most likely to induce negative or positive evaluations, influencing acceptance or rejection. In the past many determinants have been identified. These include among others: Attitudes (overall evaluations), risk perceptions, benefit perceptions, emotions, trust, norms (that what your environment or your conscience expects of you), perceived control over a situation (connect4Action report 2.2). Causal models are based on determinants of consumer response to new technology, that aims to predict consumer response in a new situation. In addition to causal models, consumer science provides insights into what properties in a technology may cause problems. Perceived risk increases due to uncertainty, lack of knowledge, newness and being a technology rather than a natural product group. Similarly a technology with the potential of fatal consequences, having impact on many people at the same time, having long term uncontrollable and generally nasty consequences is perceived as more risky. Awareness of relevant determinants for positive or negative responses and their interrelations, and the knowledge of factors that increase or reduce positive and negative perceptions of a new technology can support development of technologies that are acceptable. Two topics are relevant to discuss with consumers related to new food technology. (1) The technology as a whole, and (2) Products in which the technology is applied. When discussing the technology as a whole with consumers the discussion tends to be more abstract and removed from day to day action. It is likely in these cases that societal concerns play a relatively large role., When discussing concrete products with consumers, immediate experience and personal benefits to the consumer play a relatively larger role.
Consumer research aims to understand the behaviour of consumers. It provides exploration of previously unknown behaviour, for example because a new technology introduces completely new possibilities for consumer action. It provides quantification of effects and testing of theoretical models. As such consumer behaviour covers all phases of the empirical cycle (de Groot, 1969): (1) observing consumer behaviour in the world (2) induction of generalizable concepts and values from that behaviour (3) Deduction and testing of predictions (4) Evaluation of the outcomes in the context of the world. These different phases typically require different research methods. When making observations, consumer science has to deal with a large amount of largely unstructured, real world data. In addition, during observations the research should be open to new insights that go beyond the current knowledge. Observations asks for exploratory research. Exploratory research is often qualitative research, meaning that it aims at identification of drivers for and understanding of observed consumer behaviour, rather than at capturing the average behaviour of consumers in numbers. Qualitative research depends on techniques such as interviewing and focus groups. Results are often not based on large representative samples, but on small samples aimed to explore a broad range of opinions. Generalising observations towards more generic concepts is done through induction. Induction aims at generalizing observations to the general population or to other situations; most frequently in a quantitative way. Theories and models are suggested during the induction stage. Large representative samples are often used to estimate how relevant, important and large observed effects are in a relevant population at a given moment in time, for a specific product. To validate models derived from empirical or theoretical induction, experimental hypotheses are deduced and tested. Specific changes made to products and technologies in a controlled experiment are ways to test whether the induced relation between product and consumer behaviour does actually exist. In many of these studies the aim is a proof of principle rather than a quantitative prediction of market potential. Samples are often small and not representative. Random assignment to conditions is used to control for between participant variation. These studies typically provide insight into the existence or lack thereof of specific relations, but not necessarily in the exact parameters in the model. To relate findings back to the larger context, field studies, proof of implementation studies and market introduction research can be conducted. Complexities of the world come back into play allowing estimation about the limits of the simplified model. A mix of quantitative and qualitative methods to explore this relation can be applied.
Consumer science uses a lot of methods derived from psychological and sociological research. Observations, interviews and focus groups are qualitative methods used to identify important deliberations, ideas and thoughts of consumers. The emphasis in these methods lies on identifying and understanding consumer behaviour, rather than quantifying it. In depth interpretation of responses in order to understand logical argument structure is the key issue; while generalisation to the general population is of less importance.. The use of market data, representative surveys (questionnaires), experimental surveys, behavioural experiments (measuring behaviour), and psychophysiological responses on situations are typical quantitative methods used in consumer science. A range of statistical methods are used to describe parameters and to test whether hypothesised relations are likely in the population.