Consumer research aims to understand the behaviour of consumers. This requires that three different types of issues are addressed: (1) Theory testing in consumer behaviour, (2) Describing consumer behaviour, and (3) Exploring consumer behaviour..
Much of consumer behaviour is predictable. When people are hungry they will more readily eat foods, hence hunger predicts acceptance of food products. Consumer science has provided a range of predictors for food acceptance, often more subtle than “hunger”. Consumer science aims to develop theories incorporating generally applicable predictors of food acceptance.
If relevant variables for consumer behaviour are known, consumer science can quantify the levels of these variables for a population, or a part of a population. This data can provide technology developers and marketers with input for a targeted marketing or technology development strategy.
Much of consumer behaviour is not as predictable since consumer behaviour takes place in a dynamic and changing society. New technologies bring in new, unexpected issues with consumers. Technologies acceptable in some cultures are not in others, and technologies accepted at some point in time may not be at other moments. Consumer science should keep an open mind to unexpected new behaviours that are triggered by new technologies or changes in society.
Theory building in consumer behaviour is based on the deduction of causal relations between technologies and the products embodying those as predictors and consumer behaviours as outcomes. Many consumer behaviour theories introduce psychological mediators to understand consumer behaviour. For example, by introducing risk perception as a psychological constructs, a consumer scientist theory would look at how a product triggers perceptions, which in turn influence acceptance of a product or technology. Psychological factors of which is generally agreed they are of importance to understand consumer behaviour include: Acceptance, Attitude, Risk perception, Benefit perception, Perceived quality, Awareness and Knowledge of products and technologies, Trust, Personal Values and ethics. Consumer theories aim to identify cause-effect relation in consumer decision making leading to behaviour. Theories are tested by deducing hypotheses and providing (quantitative) evidence regarding these hypotheses. Such models can predict the perceptions and attitudes and their role in consumer acceptance of new technologies to some extent. As such consumer theories give a fair idea what factors will be important and whether these will positively or negatively contribute to consumer responses. In addition, consumer science tests real or hypothetical products that combine a number of elements that may increase or reduce acceptance in specific combinations. For example, the presence of genetic modification applied to an apple that is hypoallergenic maybe more acceptable than the use of the same gene technology on apples that produce more profit to the grower. In theise cases consumer science is more interested in identifying combinations of product and technologies attributes that in combination lead to more positive or negative consumer response than in understanding the psychology of the consumer. However, as situations are complex and individuals are unique, precise (quantified) predictions are limited for several reasons.
In overview, relevantly selected consumer behaviour theories can predict which factors in the development of technologies and products embodying them will be important, and whether these factors contribute to acceptance or rejection. Quantification of predictions is limited by debate about measurement validity, modest explained variance and the lack of a grand unifying consumer behaviour theory.
To quantify consumer behaviour, accepted psychological factors are measured in large scale, representative surveys. The Eurobarometer provides such data, for example on acceptance of genetically modified organisms. In addition, purchase data is often used. Although this gives no insight into the mental thoughts of consumers, it provides real behaviour data.
Based on this type of results, consumer scientists can describe the population as a whole, but more relevantly it can identify groups of people with similar opinions within the population. This allows stakeholders to develop products and technologies aimed at specific groups, and it allows development of targeted communication strategies. The limitation of these quantitative methods is similar to those in testing consumer theories, that is, only a small fraction of relevant constructs is measured, measurement may bias results and explained variances tend to be modest. Besides quantitative ways to describe consumer behaviour, observational or anthropological studies can also be applied to study consumer behaviour. These studies can shed insight into the complex context in which consumer behaviour operates. Generalisation to the whole population or to other situations than the one studies is a problem in these studies.
For consumer behaviour to develop more comprehensive theories and more relevant measurements it is essential that consumer science keeps an open mind to substantive occurrences that are not captured in existing theories and measures. Exploratory consumer behaviour research aims to identify ideas and consumer responses unique and relevant to a specific situation, product or technology that cannot be derived from existing theories. The emphasis in this type of research is to find unexpected responses, unknown rationale behind responses, or unexpected relations between responses. Key to exploratory research is that a researcher is open to receive unanticipated outcomes, as these are what the research is looking for. In relation to the development of new technologies and products embodying those, exploratory research can be applied in several ways.
Interviews, (in particular laddering studies) can be used to identify hierarchies or motivations to like or dislike products. Focus groups can be used to identify social interactions that lead to convergence on acceptance or rejection of technologies and its products. Focus groups and interviews can provide insights into determinants for acceptance or rejection, and how these determinants relate to other predictors for consumer response. User-producer interactions can provide ideas about how consumer respond on technologies, and how this may change if consumer responses are used to adapts the product or technology. In all cases, exploratory research aims at identifying factors, rather than providing evidence of their relevance. Exploratory research tend to be qualitative research. Participants are not representative of the larger population, so generalisations should be undertaken with utmost care. Exploratory studies can feed into theory building if subsequent hypotheses are deducted and formally tested.