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Consumers' use of recommended food buying practices.

Consumers' Use of Recommended Food Buying Practices

For decades consumer educators have been recommending practices that promise to reduce food costs, increase satisfaction with food choices, and improve dietary quality. They have recommended such measures as checking unit prices for different package sizes, examining ingredient labels, and making a shopping list before going to the store. However, little attention has been given to the extent to which consumers have taken this advice or to their reasons for doing so. Food shopping practices, which have been recommended frequently in the consumer information and education literature, have been identified in a recent study by Friedman and Rees (1988). The study reported here extends the Friedman and Rees analysis by examining consumers' acceptance of nine practices that were among those recommended most frequently.

Initially this study examined the reported frequency of use of these practices. Next, underlying dimensions of the practices were investigated using factor analysis. This study then focused on patterns in use of the recommended practices. Cluster analysis was used to group consumers who were similar in their use of the nine practices. The identification of usage clusters serves several purposes. When one looks at a cluster of consumers who are using a particular set of practices, assessment of their motives and their overall strategy becomes easier. The identification of clusters of consumers using particular sets of practices along with an understanding of their motives makes it possible to target consumer education and information efforts more effectively.


Grocery Shopper Surveys

The annual consumer surveys of the Food Marketing Institute (Opinion Research Corporation 1989) examine a number of aspects of grocery shopping behavior. A few recommended practices have been included among the behaviors and attitudes investigated. Cross-tabulations in the 1989 report suggested that older women in low income households were more likely to say they looked for newspaper ads on bargains and specials and compared prices between supermarkets. Older shoppers with a household member on a medically restricted diet were more likely to read label information on ingredients and nutrition. While these results are of interest, a more comprehensive approach involving a full range of recommended practices would be useful for consumer education and policy purposes.

Grocery Shopper Typologies

A small group of past studies has focused on broad motivational factors underlying shopping behavior or on factors underlying store preferences or store choices (Westbrook and Black 1985). The concerns identified in these studies resemble those that might find expression in particular food buying practices. The underlying concerns that motivate store choices or preferences may also motivate the use of particular shopping practices.

Two studies based on interviews concerning food shopping are of particular relevance. The typology created by Williams, Painter, and Nicholas (1978) was based on questions about the perceived attributes of the respondent's preferred grocery store. On the basis of cluster analysis they identified four groups.

* Apathetic Shoppers who generally had negative reactions to their preferred store's characteristics.

* Convenience Shoppers who rated their preferred stores high on location and parking, but unfavorably on prices.

* Price Shoppers who perceived their stores' prices favorably, but judged the stores inconvenient.

* Involved Shoppers who judged prices, quality, convenience, and stores' advertising favorably.

Darden and Ashton (1974) developed their typology from respondents' ratings preferred store attributes. Their study is based on a relatively small sample of middle-class suburban housewives, which may have restricted the range of their results. On the basis of cluster analysis they identified seven types.

* Apathetic Shoppers who generally did not express any preferences, although many were concerned about competitive prices and the variety of brand offerings.

* Demanding Shoppers who wanted excellence in all areas (cleanliness, friendly personnel, convenient location, brand variety, quality meat cuts) except trading stamps.

* Quality Shoppers, many of whom expressed preferences for quality meat cuts and fresh produce.

* Fastidious Shoppers, all of whom were concerned about store cleanliness and who typically also were concerned about quality of meat cuts, fresh produce, and brand variety.

* Convenient Location Shoppers who typically required only one attribute--locational convenience.

* Stamp Preferrers who also typically were concerned about cleanliness, quality meats, fresh produce, and friendly personnel.

* Stamp Haters who preferred no trading stamps and typically were concerned about competitive prices.

Darden and Ashtonhs cluster results were heavily influenced by the questions on trading stamps and on the friendliness of store personnel because views on these issues were highly polarized. If these questions are put aside, the Demanding, Quality, and Fastidious Shoppers, the Stamp Haters, and the Stamp Preferrers are much alike. This leaves the Apathetic Shoppers and the Convenient Location Shoppers as distinctive types along with a combined "Involved Shopper" type. Although concern with competitive prices was widespread, a separate group similar to the Price Shoppers in the Williams, Painter, and Nicholas (1978) article did not emerge. This may be a consequence of the question utilized or the middle-class suburban sample employed.

Another study of food buyer types also provides insights into motives for use of recommended practices. Unfortunately, full details are not available because the study by SRI International is a proprietary one, available only to subscribers (Shorney and Carney 1988:Schwartz 1988). Four types were identified.

* Working Singles were time-pressed and wanted eating to be convenient.

* Financially Restricteds were constrained by limited budgets, but time and convenience were not primary concerns.

* Harrieds were highly time-pressed with all adult members in the labor force, but they were not so financially pressed.

* Traditionals were somewhat financially constrained but somewhat less time-pressed since at least one adult household member was not employed.

The four categories are based on three key factors that were felt to affect household food-buying decisions: income, time available for food-related activities, and household composition.

The results of these three studies underline the key influence of time and money constraints on food-buying behavior. The chief differences in the two store preference studies seem to be attributable to variables that are of only secondary interest: the friendliness of store personnel and the provision of trading stamps. The differences in the SRI International results are at least partly a result of the emphasis on family composition and labor force participation.


The data on the use of nine consumer food buying practices were collected in telephone interviews with 458 respondents in the coterminous 48 states. A random sample of operating numbers with stratification to the county level was employed. The interviews were with the major food preparer in the household, who also did all or some of the household food shopping. Interviewing was done in June and July, 1985. As often occurs, households in the lowest income category (under $15,000), nonwhites, and one person households were underrepresented.

The nine food-buying practices under consideration deal with the gathering of product information, use of comparison shopping, and the planning of menus and food shopping. The nine practices are described in Table 1. The food-buying practices included have been widely recommended by consumer educators. Seven of the practices, or variants of them, were found by Friedman and Rees (1988) to be among the food-buying practices most frequently recommended in widely used consumer education textbooks. The two remaining practices, "Look for new ideas about getting better food buys," and "Check menus for nutritional balance," can be regarded as implicit messages of most consumer education materials on food buying. Respondents were asked to indicate how frequently they engaged in each practice.


The reported frequency of use for each of the nine practices is presented in Table 1. The frequency of use of the nine practices varied widely. Over 70 percent reported they frequently checked different package sizes for the best buy, looked for bargains and specials, and made a grocery list before shopping. In contrast, less than one-third of the respondents said they frequently went to several stores to get the best grocery values. The less frequently used practices appear to be either relatively intellectually complex, time consuming, or both. The two most popular practices, "Comparing unit prices" and "Checking for bargains and specials," require relatively little time and can be executed in the store during a shopping trip. The third most popular practice, "Making a shopping list," requires some time at home but can offer offsetting time savings by reducing in-store shopping time and extra trips to the store for forgotten items.


Since the nine recommended practices represented a diverse set of tasks, varying in abstractness and complexity, it appeared useful to determine whether they represented a single set of behaviors or multiple sets of behaviors. In order to assess the dimensions underlying the data they were subjected to factor analysis. The SPSS-X factor analysis program (Norusis 1985) was employed with varimax rotation. Items that loaded over .35 were considered part of a particular factor.

The results (Table 2) indicate that the practices represent two distinct sets of behaviors. Factor I includes behaviors dealing with shopping and saving money. Factor II includes planning behaviors that ensure efficient shopping and nutritionally adequate meals. The two factors resemble Rosen and Granbois' (1983) distinction between decision tasks involving planning and implementation tasks that put these decisions into effect in their study of family financial management.


Cluster analysis were employed to identify groups of respondents who were similar in their use of particular practices. The data were analyzed using the SPSS-X cluster analysis program utilizing Ward's method (Norusis 1985). Cluster methods combine observations with similar values on the clustering variables. The result, in this case, was to create groups of respondents who were relatively homogeneous in terms of the frequency with which they employed particular recommended practices. On the basis of the factor analysis results, a four-cluster solution was hypothesized with high and low levels of economizing activity and high and low levels of planning activity. Initial attention was given to the four-cluster solution. The five-cluster solution, which differentiated Cluster 1 from Cluster 2, appeared to offer some interesting insights and was utilized for this study.

The five clusters displayed dictinctly different behaviors on the nine practices. The mean score for each practice for each of the clusters is reported in Table 3. The clusters were given names to highlight their practice usage and to faciltate discussion.

Compleat Consumers

The Compleat Consumers (20 percent of respondents) were actively involved using all nine of the recommended practices as can be seen from the high mean scores (Table 3). The cluster name was chosen (with apologies to Isaac Walton) to indicate the respondents' all-around involvement in the food planning and buying process. Those in the cluster were active users of economizing practices involving product information seeking and comparison shopping. They also were active menu- and shopping-planners.

Almost Compleat Consumers

The Almost Compleat Consumers (32 percent of respondents) were highly involved in using all but one of the nine practices. The chief difference between this cluster and the Compleat Consumers was a lower mean score on shopping several stores to get the best values. On the other eight practices, mean scores were similar to those of the Compleat Consumers.

Economy Specialists

The Economy Specialists (25 percent of respondents) scored high only on practices likely to produce dollar savings in purchasing. These economizing practices included reading food ads, looking for bargains and specials, and checking package sizes to get the best buy. The Economy Specialists' mean score for shopping several stores to get the best values also was above the overall sample mean. The cluster's mean scores were substantially below those of the Compleat Consumers and Almost Compleat Consumers on other variables dealing with menu and shopping planning.

Planning Specialists

In contrast to the Economy Specialists, the Planning Specialists (11 percent of respondents) focused chiefly on planning-related practices. Their mean scores were the highest of the five clusters on preparing a shopping list before shopping and on planning menus before shopping. The cluster's mean scores on checking nutritional and ingredient labels and checking menus for nutritional balance were in the intermediate range but fell below the overall sample means.

Disinterested Consumers

The Disinterested Consumers (10 percent of respondents) had, on average, the lowest mean scores on the nine practices. Those in the cluster clearly were not concerned with any aspect of the food buying process. They typically neither engaged in the economizing practices nor in advance planning of shopping.

The clusters identified have many similarities to the four categories hypothesized on the basis of the factor analysis. The economizing practices employed by the Economy Specialists emphasized saving money. This cluster less often employed planning practices. The Compleat and Almost Compleat Consumers utilized both economizing practices and planning practices. The Almost Compleat Consumers did, however, differ from the Compleat Consumers in their lower use of a relatively time-consuming technique for reducing food costs: visits to several stores to get the best values. The Planning Specialists utilized planning practices but were only occasional users of money-saving practices. The Disinterested made relatively little use of either the economizing practices or the planning practices.


The personal characteristics of the respondents and the characteristics of their households were examined for insights into motives underlying the behavior of the five clusters. The percentages with particular characteristics are reported in Table 4. To identify those characteristics that differentiated the clusters, multiple discriminant analysis was employed. In discriminant analysis, the discriminating variables (in this case, the personal and household characteristics) define a multidimensional space. If the groups under analysis differ with respect to the discriminating variables, they are concentrated in some particular portion of the multidimensional space defined. The results provide some measure of the relative importance of each of the discriminating variables (Klecka 1980).

Eight discriminating variables were included in the analysis, which employed SPSS-X (Norusis 1985). The discriminant analysis produced two significant functions. The results are presented in Table 4. To facilitate interpretation, the results are presented graphically in Figure 1. The centroids of the five clusters are depicted in the two dimensional space defined by the two significant functions. To summarize the position of each group, each is depicted at its centroid. The centroid represents the point whose coordinates are the cluster's mean on each of the discriminating variables.

Function 1 is defined by the education and sex of the respondent (only those discriminating variables with coefficients of .35 or greater were considered to contribute to defining a function). As seen in Figure 1, the Almost Compleat Consumer and the Planning Specialist clusters tended to have higher levels of formal education and to include more women, while the Economy Specialist cluster tended to have less formal education and to include more men. The second dimension is defined by marital status, houselhold size, age, and household income. The Compleat Consumer cluster tended to include more married and older respondents from households that were larger in size and had lower incomes. The Disinterested cluster fell at the opposite end of this dimension. Of the eight discriminating variables only two, employment outside the home and the presence of children under ager 21, did not contribute to differentiating the cluster categories.

The higher use of the recommended practices among females may be a result of their socialization in the shopping role (Blaylock and Smallwood 1987). Because of this training, females may find the role a more rewarding one, both psychologically and financially, than do males. The results also suggest that the responsibilities and pressures of marriage, a larger household size, and a lower income increase the use of the recommended practices. These factors could be expected to increase the need to resources carefully and to organize painstakingly to deal with extensive family obligations.


In addition to the nine questions concerning use of particular food-buying practices, the respondents were asked a number of other questions about their involvement with food and nutrition, the effect of financial constraints on their food buying, and the effects of time and physical energy constraints on food preparation. Responses on these variables provide additional insights into the behavioral patterns that have been identified. The percentage giving particular responses is reported in Table 5.

Significant differences existed among the five clusters in their enjoyment of the food planning-shopping-preparation process and in their enjoyment of talking with others about food and recipes. There also were substantial differences among the clusters in concern about and interest in nutrition. In addition, there were significant differences among the clusters in responses to a question designed to assess mealtime pressures; it asked about the use of easy-to-fix meals to save bother.

Responses to a second question about the frequency of feeling rushed at mealtime did not differ significantly among the clusters. Responses to a question designed to assess financial pressures did not differ significantly among the clusters.

The Compleat Consumers and Almost Compleat Consumers clearly are the most interested in food nutrition. A substantial majority of these two clusters reported that they "really enjoy" talking about food and recipes and cooking and preparing meals. While the Compleat Consumer and Almost Compleat Consumer clusters were somewhat less enthusiastic about meal planning and grocery shopping, they more often reported enjoying these two activities than did respondents in other clusters. Substantial percentages of the two clusters also indicated that they were more concerned about their food choices that they had been previously. Sizable proportions rated their knowledge of nutrition as relatively high, saying they knew "quite a bit" or "a lot."

The Economy Specialists indicated lower levels of enjoyment of meal planning, food shopping, and the preparation process. Somewhat fewer of them indicated they were more concerned about their food choices than previously, and they indicated substantially lower levels of nutritional knowledge than did the Compleat and Almost Compleat Consumers. The responses of the Planning Specialists and Disinterested clusters indicated the lowest levels of involvement with food and nutrition. Overall, higher levels of usage of the recommended food buying practices appeared to be associated with higher levels of enjoyment of the process, higher levels of concern with food choices, and higher levels of nutritional knowledge.

An effort was made to assess whether the differing patterns of behavior identified were associated with a sense of financial constraint. Responses to the question about whether diets would be improved if more money were available did not differ significantly among the clust ers.

Two questions were used to provide insights into the effects of time and physical energy constraints. Responses to the question that focused specifically on time pressures on meal preparation did not differ significantly among the clusters. Responses to the question about the use of meals that are easy-to-fix as a way to reduce bother was used as a measure of physical energy constraints. The responses to this question were found to differ significantly among the clusters. The preparation of easy-to-fix meals was most common among the Planning Specialists and the Disinterested. It also was widespread among the Almost Compleat Consumers and the Economy Specialists.


To assess the interest of the rspondents in information on food products, food buying, and nutrition, they were asked about their use of six different information sources. Responses differed significantly among the cluster classifications for five of the six sources (Table 6). There were sharp differences in the use of (1) pamphlets distributed through grocery stores, (2) magazine articles about recipes and food products, (3) articles in the newspaper food pages, (4) television programs on food and cooking, and (5) other individuals such as friends and family. Use of advice from health professionals (e.g., physicians, nurses, nutritionists, etc.) did not, however, differ among the five clusters.

The Compleat Consumers clearly are the most involved group and frequently use the full range of print media and television. The Almost Compleat Consumers were frequent readers of the newspaper food pages and magazine articles. The Economy Specialists were somewhat less frequent users of the food pages and magazine articles and had relatively low levels of use of other print media. The Planning Specialists were less frequent media users. Relatively few of the Disinterested seemed to have any priority informational requirements. In addition to the differences among the clusters in their use of print media and television, there also were sharp differences among the clusters in the use of other people as a source of information about food products and recipes.


The results of this study closely resemble the four types hypothesized on the basis of the factor analysis. A cluster that was high both on economizing and on planning activity (the Compleat Consumers) was identified. The Almost Compleat Consumers cluster which was similar but less often shopped several stores in order to save, also was identified. Economy Specialists were identified as high on use of economizing practices but low on planning practices. Another cluster (the Planning Specialists) was low on economizing practices but high on planning. The final cluster (the Disinterested) was low on the use of both economizing and planning practices.

In planning this study it was anticipated that the need to save both time and money would play important roles in shaping the behavior reported. The important role of involvement with food and enjoyment of the planning and food shopping process in explaining behavior was not, however, fully anticipated. The Compleat Consumers engaged in a full range of information search activities that appeared to be motivated by a desire to save money and to ensure good nutrition as well. These activities also are motivated by enjoyment of the shopping process, as suggested by Kolodinsky (1988). The planning activities used may have been motivated more by a desire to manage shopping time efficiently and by involvement with the shopping process than by a desire to reduce shopping time. Many of those in the Compleat Consumers cluster resemble the traditional stereotype of the homemaker: a moderately-educated woman who is not employed outside the home and has a sizable family.

The Almost Compleat Consumers were similarly involved with the full range of economizing and planning activities. They did, however, make less use of one time-consuming practice: visiting several stores to get the best values. While many in the group reported enjoying meal planning and preparation, a smaller number reported enjoying grocery shopping, which may help to explain their lower use of visits to several stores. It appears useful to differentiate the Almost Compleat Consumer cluster from the Compleat Consumer cluster because these two types differed not only in their use of the nine practices but also in their sociodemographic characteristics, their related behaviors, and their use of information sources.

The Economizers focused chiefly on information search practices that promised to produce cost savings but were less interested in nutrition information. The cluster engaged in advance planning of shopping less frequently than did the Compleat and Almost Compleat Consumers. This may be a result of both a lower level of involvement with food and nutrition and less enjoyment of the meal planning, grocery shopping, and food preparation process. The lower level of education in this cluster may have inhibited use of planning practies because some are complex and relatively abstract.

The Planning specialists were characterized by their emphasis on advanced planning of shopping. They also showed some interest in a few practices that can provide cost savings. This cluster generally reported a lower level of enjoyment of the food planning-shopping-preparation process than did the Compleat and Almost Compleat Consumers. They also were substantially less interested in the food media. There is some evidence that many in this cluster wanted to get through the food process with as little effort and bother as possible.

The Disinterested showed little interest in either economizing practices or in advanced planning. This behavior seems attributable to their lower level of interest in the food planning-shopping-preparation process and in the food media. Planning food purchases and economizing appear to be, at most, a secondary concern in this group of smaller, high income households, which included more male food preparers.

The dimensions that underlie the clusters bear many similarities to those identified in the earlier shopper typology studies. The Planning Specialist cluster does, however, delineate an approach to grocery shopping not identified in the earlier typologies.

The results also bear many similarities to Sproles and Kendall's (1986) profile of consumer decision making styles. Some of the differences arise out of Sproles and Kendall's focus on clothing shopping. Their identification of an implusive/deliberate factor is of particular interest because of its relationship to the questions that distinguished the Planning Specialists in this study.


The responses to this study indicate that a substantial portion of the consumer public does not regularly employ the food shopping practices consumer educators have recommended most frequently. The reasons are a lack of interest coupled with time and physical energy constraints. Efforts to reach these groups with consumer information and education programs will be hampered by these same factors.

The Compleat Consumers category conforms to historical stereotypes. Interest in food was high, and substantial time and attention were given to its purchase and preparation. The group was using recommended practices and clearly would be interested in learning more. It is useful, however, to note that this category includes only about one-fifth of the respondents.

The Almost Compleat Consumers are a more upscale and contemporary type. While interest in food buying and preparation was high, time and physical energy constraints appeared to have limited some activities. Those in this cluster, while interested, clearly are more difficult to reach than the Compleat Consumers.

The Economy Specialists were less interested in food buying and preparation than the two clusters discussed previously. Under time, money, and physical energy constraints they focused their attention on practices that promised to reduce food costs. While those in the cluster used the food information sources less frequently than did the previous two categories, they did have some contact with information in the print media.

The Planning specialists typically showed a lower level of interest in food buying and preparation. They were affected by time and physical energy constraints. Despite this, many reported they really enjoyed cooking. While those in the cluster may be receptive to some kinds of information, they clearly are difficult to reach because of their low level of media usage.

The Disinterested showed a low level of interest in food buying and preparation. The cluster's interests undoubtedly were affected by the higher proportion of male food preparers. The group's low level of interest in food and its physical energy constraints limited its use of the recommended practices. These constraints also undoubtedly have the effect of making the Disinterested harder to reach.

Overall, the results remind us that the audience for consumer information and education is a diverse one. fortunately, analyses such as the one described here can help to identify segments within the public with particular interests and concerns. With such information, consumer educators can both identify group needs for program development and also identify group interests that can be used in gaining initial attention before leading into a more comprehensive educational program.


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Robert O. Herrmann is a Professor of Agricultural Economics, and Rex H. Warland is a Professor of Rural Sociology in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology at The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA.
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Author:Herrmann, Robert O.; Warland, Rex H.
Publication:Journal of Consumer Affairs
Date:Dec 22, 1990
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