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International design concepts in internet tourism marketing: comparing web-design practices in Atlantic Canada and New England.

INTRODUCTION

As online travel services such as Expedia.com and Travelocity.com continue to gain market share in the tourism industry and as travel agents become less critical for international tourists, travelers' reliance on information gathered via the Internet will continue to grow in the foreseeable future. As the growth in tourism has become a driver for national economies worldwide, nation-states and other political entities such as territories and other autonomous regions (e.g. principalities, states and provinces) must compete to gain attention, foster interest, create desire and encourage action among potential travelers. As noted by Sharma, Carson & DeLacy (2000): "State and federal governments see tourism as an economic driver to counter declining commodity prices and increased economic instability, particularly in regional and rural areas" (p. 160). The information provided to tourists through government-sponsored websites needs to be strategically marketed and properly defined to reach target audiences if these governments wish to charge that engine of their economies.

The North American tourism industry faces challenges that differ from the rest of the world in many ways. One of the most important considerations is that tourism in North America is centered on three nations: Canada, the United States and Mexico. All three nations are established on a federal system of governance subdivided into smaller geographic districts (states in the USA and Mexico, provinces in Canada). When one considers that in visiting these nations one must visit individual states or provinces, the focus of tourism changes particularly in the cases of the USA and Canada where regional differences are clear and well-defined. As a result of the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) travel across North American borders increased both in terms of commerce and tourism. Until recently citizens of the United States, Canada and Mexico could transit the NAFTA borders without a passport, therefore the options for vacations were plentiful and North American citizens freely chose to vacation in different areas of the continent. Despite the new passport requirements, economic and political circumstances may lead to continued interest in travel opportunities on this continent that do not involve a trans-oceanic crossing but offer many exciting options for North American tourists.

This study seeks to examine the differences in online tourism marketing practices between two politically distinct yet culturally similar North American regions: the New England states of the USA (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont) and the Atlantic Provinces of Canada (New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island). As these areas are considered as vacation destinations, even in difficult economic times, it is beneficial to understand the differences in how these provinces and states promote their offerings to potential travelers. The focus of this study is to better understand how these states and provinces market themselves on the Internet in relation to their national and hence broader brand identities.

ONLINE TOURISM

As discussed by Sears (2003) tourism is an experiential product therefore it has become incumbent upon managers to create websites that effectively communicate tourism products in ways that are authentic and attractive to information seekers. However Morgan et al (2001) note that information overload and web complexity may be issues for consumers particularly in regards to translating homepage information. Yet the fact that information is readily available via the Internet may satisfy the desire for service convenience consumers seek in their searches. According to Berry, Seiders & Grewal (2002) consumers actively seek satisfaction related to time and effort savings. The Internet allows consumers to experience service satisfaction in terms of decision convenience, access convenience, transaction convenience, and benefit convenience.

Correia, Oom do Valle & Moco (2007) identified six motivating factors (Figure 1) among Portuguese tourists that were critical in destination selection and perception. These motivators identified as push and pull factors consisted of knowledge, leisure, socialization (all push factors) and facilities, core attractions and landscape features (all pull factors). Correia et al (2007) found in the case of Portuguese tourists "that the decision to travel to exotic places arises from the desire of knowledge, having social status and intellectual leisure... since tourists were found to be more aware of facilities and core attractions, marketing of these destinations must be focused on these factors rather than on beautiful images of landscape." (p. 79). They also note importantly that tourists "do not understand leisure as 'doing nothing'. Knowing why people travel the way they do may lead to the offer of appropriated attractions and activities to the right tourist." (p. 79).

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

Morgan, Pritchard and Abbott (2001) argue that "technology and tourism are increasingly interdependent" and that effectively created websites are "critical in tourism because, as an intangible product, its marketing largely depends upon visual representation" (p. 111). Australia, in the late 20th century, sought to define a national online tourism policy. Of paramount concern in the Australian project was the proper design of websites to efficiently and effectively reach Internet consumers and understand their information needs. Given the distinct visual symbols (boomerangs, kangaroos, the Sydney Opera House) associated with Australia as one nation rather than a political entity divided into subunits, the idea of visiting Australia rather than New South Wales or Queensland makes more sense to tourists given the position Australia occupies in the mind. It should be noted that in the Australian model, the federal government sought to direct the tourism efforts for the entire nation (Sharma, Carson & DeLacy 2000) however in North America guidance from a centralized tourism authority in Canada or the USA is less obvious.

In a recent review of tourism marketing by Parker (2007) the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) sought to launch a new "brand Canada" strategy in 2005. This strategy was designed to focus consumers on the "experience" of Canada rather than on the natural environment of the country. The CTC had hoped the campaign would redefine Canada in terms other than moose and Mounties. Yet in a preliminary analysis of provincial and territorial homepages Parker found that all subdivisions from the federal government of Canada continued to focus on the "great outdoors" image Canadian tourism had fostered among the traveling public for more than 50 years despite the initiative from Ottawa.

It seems that the CTC would agree with Correia et al (2007), that focus must lead to other places than "beautiful landscapes". Their theme for Canada of "Keep Exploring" seems to follow the argument of marketing core attractions as a central theme to boost tourism. However the individual provinces are still following suit regarding the status quo of Canada as a nature destination (Parker 2007). Correia et al (2007) suggest that "destination marketing must be focused on push motives to enhance the destination's competitiveness" (p. 79). If their conclusion is accurate, then how will similar regions in neighbouring countries compete online for tourists?

The design elements of a website are controlled by managers in their efforts to engineer the experiences that sustain their brand positioning. Interestingly, the links between objective product characteristics and more abstract consumer responses have been of interest to consumer behaviour researchers for some time. For instance, means-end theory and laddering techniques have been used to link product features to functional and psychosocial outcomes of the consumption experience (Reynolds & Gutman 1988). Moreover, strategies such as the House of Quality aim to translate consumer needs into concrete design or engineering characteristics such as usability or ease of use (c.f. Davis, Bagozzi & Warshaw 1989). Founded on this stream of research, a coding scheme was developed that first considers the functional parameters of the website that are prerequisites before features can be added that will create pleasurable experiences.

Thus, consideration of best practices in website development is salient to this discussion. First and foremost, the creation of an effective website requires a clear understanding of the characteristics and values of the target audience (Brilliant design 2002) and the use of words, phrases, and concepts that are familiar to these users (Levi 2001). A minimalist design that is visually pleasing and avoids unnecessary text (Brilliant design 2002; Levi 2001) will be more appealing than one that overwhelms the visitor with busyness and reading.

While a cutting edge appearance is desirable (Carroll & Broadhead 1999), all users will appreciate judicious use of tools such as flash; media overkill such as excessive use of graphics, colour, sound, video, and other media will lead to excessive cognitive overhead for viewers (Brilliant design 2002; McNally & Bradley 2000; Levi 2001; Dalal, Quible, & Wyatt 1999). When sound is used, it should be designed so that visitors can control the volume or turn it off altogether (Brilliant design 2002).

Navigation through the site must be clear, with a consistent layout of pages and formatting, the navigation bar in expected locations (left and/or top of page), and with typefaces and labeling legible and consistent (Brilliant design 2002; McNally & Bradley 2000; Levi 2001; Adam & Deans 1998; Dalal, Quible, & Wyatt 1999). These factors will reduce frustration and enable visitors to visualize the overall architecture of the site (Dalal, Quible, & Wyatt 1999).

The front page of a website is like a store's window display (Carroll & Broadhead 1999)--it must convince the visitor to enter the shopping environment. Fresh updated content (Brilliant design 2002; Dholakia, & Rego 1998; Adam & Deans 1998) will encourage repeat visits. Credibility, trust, respect (Carroll & Broadhead 1999) and security (McNally & Bradley 2000) are necessary ingredients to inspire purchase.

One factor that is seen as key to the success of a web site is interactivity (Adam & Deans 2000; McNally & Bradley 2000; Levi 2001); as such web experiences are expected to help maintain customer loyalty (Adam & Deans 2000). Some of the other facets of the browsing experience which have been consistently identified as vital are stickyness (the site's ability to encourage long visits; Wolfinbarger & Gilly 2001), virtual reality (Steuer 1992), and download times--both perceived and objective. (Katterattanakul 2002) Overall, in keeping with the objective of staging an experience, the site must provoke the "willing suspension of disbelief"--a phrase coined by poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and commonly used to describe a sense of flow that is usually inspired by a captivating book or theatre experience. Moe and Fader (2001) suggest that, "...e-marketers should target hedonic browsers with flashy and attractive promotions rather than with messages focused on objective product attributes" (pp. 115-116). A meta-analysis by Park & Gretzel (2007) shows that factors of success for destination marketing website include: information quality, ease of use, responsiveness, security/privacy, visual appearance, trust, interactivity, personalization and fulfillment. However, there is a need for empirical work that will examine and explain the design elements (or atmospheric qualities; Eroglu, Machleit, & Davis 2001) of web sites that lead to a memorable customer experience and which, in turn, translate into market outcomes for the brand. "We argue that, in the highly competitive Internet commerce environment, the companies that offer the best customer experience are the ones that will receive trusts from customers and are more likely to succeed on the web" (Katerattanakul 2002, p. 62).

It is important to understand best practices in website design when considering that marketers must appeal to sensory perception of audience members in order to attract their interest in a good or service. Both extrinsic and intrinsic motivators are often triggered by sensory perceptions such as sight and sound. Since potential visitors to a geographic area need to be pushed or pulled, both visual and auditory symbols can potentially be effective in marketing efforts. Internet marketers are able to utilize devices that appeal to sight and sound only--touch, taste and smell are at this point in technological development unattainable to the average Internet user. Hence, effective website development will continue to be critically important in competitive marketplaces. The tourism market is no exception. The use of visuals and the emphasis on credibility and trust will no doubt be key components in continuity programs of tourism marketers.

The tourism industry is unique in that the web provides substantial advantages over traditional methods of representing an experiential product that consumers must purchase without seeing and cannot return if it does not suit them. This is no doubt one of the reasons for its early adoption as a means of both searching information and making bookings in this sector.

[FIGURE 2 OMITTED]

METHOD

Thus far, research has focused on a very narrow spectrum of site features, such as limited coding of the front page or levels of interactivity (Yoo & Donthu 2001; Chen & Wells 1999; Chen, Clifford & Wells 2002; Dreze & Zufryden 1997; Liu 2002; Szymanski & Hise 2000). To our knowledge, no study has taken a holistic and detailed view of all of the features of the site. As a foundation for developing a list of relevant design features, it is important to consider the unique challenges of the web environment, in contrast to the more well understood real-world environment. As suggested previously, in the real-world, consumers can rely upon all five senses, however, the web environment is limited to the senses of sight and sound. Yet, despite its inherent limitations, the web environment may be used to convey some of the sensory aspects of product consumption (Lynch & Ariely 2000). In fact Klein (1998) holds that via interactive media the consumer drastically lowers information search costs. Since time and space are compressed and the consumer has a central place in the virtual environment, communication may take on an immersive quality, creating a sense of telepresence (Hoffman & Novak 1996; Steuer 1992). Furthermore, interaction with the brand may also influence the consumer in online environments. Although the web still does not provide the same 'real-life' sense of interactivity exemplified by human-to-human interactions, tools such as intelligent agents and real-time chat have steadily improved interactivity (Dehn & van Mulken 2000).

The inherent characteristics of the web environment were used as a foundation to develop a list of objective parameters that are likely to be particularly important in designing and creating compelling online brand experiences. The coding scheme was developed with an eye to web best practice, concurrently considering the need to understand each state or province's depiction of push or pull factors. This goal was accomplished using an iterative approach that carefully examined best practice, interviews with commercial designers, and previous studies of tourism websites. First, a thorough search of pertinent literature on website design in consumer, psychology, engineering, and communications domains was conducted. Next, the search was then broadened to include domains such as advertising and psychophysics, all aimed at identifying the features that would be more directly tied to pleasurable or perhaps compelling experiences. The parameters considered in the coding scheme ultimately included: address of the site (URL); language options; presence (absence) of sound and moving pictures; and overall assessment of push/pull representation. For a full list of the parameters in the coding scheme, see Appendix A.

The sites were identified using a search engine (Google) aimed at locating the official government tourism agency of each state and province. Next, the website for each state (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont) and province (New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island) was thoroughly examined to capture each region's use of design features to represent the brand characteristics and positioning strategy. Each site was analyzed and coded over a 60-day period in mid-2007. (Note--Subsequent to the 2007 analysis, the websites may have changed in design, content and layout to maintain up-to-date content for information seekers.)

FINDINGS

The domain names of the four Atlantic Provinces and the six New England state tourism websites illustrate differences in uniformity. (See Table I) New England state tourism websites, while not completely consistent, are more uniform than those of the four Atlantic Provinces. New England sites include "visit" or "vacation" in the name while just two of the four Canadian sites display "tourism". Moreover, two of the Canadian websites end with ".com" and two with ".ca". The New England sites list ".com" except for New Hampshire with ".gov". The Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island sites fail to even suggest they are portals for travel information. Another important consideration is that websites with names similar to the states' or provinces' travel sites, often direct visitors to portals that may or may not have anything to do with the primary travel website. The use of similarly named websites may be a topic of consideration for future research in this area or other areas of marketing that study naming conventions for websites.

The websites' languages reflect (Table II) the national identity of the two countries studied as well as the target markets for the New England states and Atlantic Provinces. The four Atlantic Province websites are available in at least English and French. Nova Scotia includes German while Prince Edward Island includes German and Japanese. (The latter of these languages thanks to Anne of Green Gables, which enjoys tremendous popularity in Japan.) The New England states' websites provide information only in English. Only the New Brunswick--Canada's lone bilingual province--web page required the visitor to make a language choice before entering the website.

The Atlantic Province pages are similar in that none of the websites include sounds or moving pictures. Of the New England states only New Hampshire and Maine incorporate moving pictures. Like the Atlantic Provinces, no New England site has sound. In fact, none of the websites employs music or sound. Pictures (as noted in Table III in the column "Roll Over Picture") change, move or appear when a cursor is moved over a menu option for Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and Massachusetts. Except for Vermont, New England states' and Atlantic Provinces' menu options and/or links change color when clicked or 'moused over'.

According to the preceding discussion, it seems reasonable that the Atlantic Province websites would emphasize push factors (knowledge, leisure and socialization) more than pull factors (facilities, core attractions and landscape features). However, Table IV reveals that the Canadian Atlantic Provinces emphasize pull factors more than push factors. All main pictures highlight a peaceful setting and only one features a non-nature theme. The Atlantic Province websites are consistent in that they stress the leisure and relaxation of a vacation. No people are included in any of the main pictures.

Similarly, the New England state sites are consistent in their image of the area (Table V). The main pictures on the first page all emphasize action, outdoor activities--mainly skiing but also horseback riding and the sea. The backgrounds encourage outdoor sports. Two of the websites focus on individuals whereas the other four focus on groups of people--emphasizing the socialization of a vacation, i.e. push factors. All of the New England sites include people.

DISCUSSION

With the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 many concerns were raised over the economic viability of such an agreement. However Globerman & Storer (2005) found that the economic integration of the US and Canadian economies created a stabilization that had been unforeseen by many analysts. This stabilizing factor may function as an equalizer in the tourism industry for the border regions discussed in this paper. For most of 2008, the Canadian dollar was at virtual parity with the American dollar; this may pose either an advantage or disadvantage depending upon the home country of tourists and the relative costs for lodging, souvenirs and consumable items such as food and fuel. If both Atlantic Canada and New England are relative equals in terms of cost for travel, then the push motives outlined by Correia et al (2007) become even more important to consider for two important reasons: (1) pull motives seem to be employed more persistently on the websites than push motives (see Tables IV and V); and (2) push motives are often more difficult to duplicate and, therefore, create more effective points of differentiation for destinations.

It seems clear from the review of websites that despite the CTC's desire for the image of Canada to go beyond a "nature destination" the Atlantic Provinces are still emphasizing the natural beauty of the area. The New England states, on the other hand, seem to be emphasizing a socialization element given their primary emphasis on people in their main photographic image found on their tourism homepages. The position that may be developing in the minds of travelers for these two regions is that New England is for playing while Atlantic Canada is for sight-seeing.

An important issue to consider is whether or not these regions will, in the future, seek to develop a unified regional brand identity as destinations. The fact that New England states have a somewhat uniform naming convention for their websites (e.g. containing the word "visit" or "vacation" and ending with a .com) will help in the establishment of a New England tourism brand. Given that Canada was the first nation to purchase a .travel domain for the country in 2005 (Parker, 2007) the provinces of Atlantic Canada could actually take advantage of that by renaming their websites to reflect some uniform regional identity. Since the coding of websites in this research project was performed in 2007, there has apparently been some movement in Canada to reflect uniformity of tourism websites in naming conventions; it must be assumed this is a recent development undertaken by tourism authorities after our research was conducted.

Another consideration centers around the available language choices found on state and provincial tourism homepages. It is interesting to note that none of the New England states offered tourism information in any language other than English. Is this a reflection that tourism officials in these states do not consider international tourists--including francophones from neighboring provinces--to be part of their target market? The failure of these states to provide visitors to websites a choice of languages when considering vacationing options may prove to be a handicapping factor in the future in competing with other regions for tourism dollars. The Canadian provinces are not only encouraging tourists from Quebec with French language option but because German is offered on two provincial websites (Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island) European tourists may feel more welcome in Atlantic Canada than in the New England states. As the United States continues to become a more diverse nation and more people around the world begin to rely on the Internet for information, website designers will most likely have to consider the development of multilingual sites for tourists, otherwise Canada and Mexico could become primary tourism destinations in North America for US residents whose first language is not English and for travelers from the rest of the non-English speaking world. It makes sense that tourism planners in the United States consider Spanish as a language option on their official government sponsored websites to appeal to the second-largest, and fastest growing, linguistic population in the United States.

While most people searching for information clearly seek to obtain what they need prior to arriving at a destination, Ortega & Rodriguez (2007) observed that travelers to Spain from the USA, Britain, Germany and France placed great importance on the availability of information at the actual tourist destinations. Given this new finding, one consideration website designers might take into account is the nature of information sought by travelers upon arrival. Knowing the exact information tourists are seeking with regard to dining, events, entertainment and other activities may help to draw visitors to locations. Perhaps an opportunity exists to study the means by which tourism authorities choose to disseminate information to travelers at specific tourism information locations (e.g. convention and visitors' bureaus, Internet kiosks, web-enabled mobile devices or tourist information offices).

[FIGURE 3 OMITTED]

In light of the best practices discussion above, tourism marketing managers in both the USA and Canada would be wise to consider how they are addressing important issues relating to satisfying the sensory perception issues of visitors to their websites. If tourism is to fully become an experiential good then tourism marketers must consider the intrinsic rewards that occur from visiting a New England state or Atlantic Canadian province. Developing websites effectively will no doubt become something of a horse race for tourism marketers in these regions.

CONCLUSION

As we have noted at the beginning of this paper, the North American tourism industry faces challenges that are different from the rest of the world. Unlike Europe, Africa and Asia, only three vast nations govern the primary North American landmass but as these nations are subdivided into small autonomous geographical units, consumers have diverse options in choosing where to spend vacations. As the Internet continues to evolve into the primary source for information on vacation and holiday destinations the importance of understanding how tourism authorities develop and maintain their information portals, also known as websites, will be critical for marketers and other scholars seeking to understand consumer behaviour particularly in the area of experiential consumption.

This study has been designed to be an opening look at the differences between online tourism marketing in two distinct regions in the United States and Canada. It is by no means meant to be a final analysis into this area. We encourage discussion and further pursuit of research into the differences between New England and Atlantic Canada online tourism marketing efforts. We also feel there is room to study the regional differences in online tourism marketing in other parts of North America such as the Pacific Northwest or along the Gulf of Mexico where many beach resorts exist in both Mexico and the USA.

It is our hope that this paper will lead to further research in the area. There is room for a more in-depth examination of the website differences between the New England states and the provinces of Atlantic Canada. We are hopeful for further study in this area and for continued research on the development of effective tourism websites.

APPENDIX A: CODING SCHEME PARAMETERS

Usability Parameters

Presence/absence of splash page

Interactivity: opportunities to enter user information

Appearance of brand logo

Dominant function of site

Booking available

Menu characteristics

Contact information on front page

Characteristics of pop ups/pop unders

Font is legible (size and color)

Site Mechanics

Bad links

HTML problems

Browser compatibility

Loading time (whole page)

Meaningful in 8 sec

Spell check

Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Number of links to site (Google)

Search engine position (Google)

Executional Framework Parameters

Color and texture

Background

Borders

Foreground

Sound

Type of sound

Loop

Control characteristics

Number of sounds

If music: tempo, genre, vocal/instrumental

Pictures

Number

Animation

Can be saved/copied

Picture content

People, landscape, animal, product, etc

If people, how many...relationship

If people, what are they doing

If setting, what

If product, how depicted

If animal, what one(s)

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Richard D. Parker, High Point University

Donna Sears, Acadia University

Rachel K. Smith, University of Memphis
Table I: Tourism Websites of the Atlantic Provinces of Canada and New
England States

                      CANADA

New Brunswick              http://www.tourismnewbrunswick.ca
Newfoundland and Labrador  http://newfoundlandandlabradortourism.com
Nova Scotia                http://novascotia.com
Prince Edward Island       http://www.gov.pe.ca

                       USA

Connecticut                http://www.ctvisit.com
Maine                      http://visitmaine.com
Massachusetts              http://www.mass-vacation.com
New Hampshire              http://visitnh.gov
Rhode Island               http://www.visitrhodeisland.com
Vermont                    http://www.vermontvacation.com

Table II: Languages Offered on Websites

CANADA

PROVINCE                     LANGUAGE

New Brunswick                English, French
Newfoundland and Labrador    English, French
Nova Scotia                  English, French, German
Prince Edward Island         English, French, German, Japanese

USA

STATE                        LANGUAGE

Connecticut                  English
Maine                        English
Massachusetts                English
New Hampshire                English
Rhode Island                 English
Vermont                      English

Table III: Sounds and Moving Pictures

CANADA                      COLOUR   SOUNDS    MOVING     ROLL
                                              PICTURES    OVER
                                                         PICTURE

New Brunswick                Yes       No        No         No
Newfoundland and Labrador    Yes       No        No        Yes
Nova Scotia                  Yes       No        No        Yes
Prince Edward Island         Yes       No        No        Yes

USA                         COLOUR   SOUNDS    MOVING     ROLL
                                              PICTURES     OVER
                                                         PICTURES

Connecticut                  Yes       No        No         No
Maine                        Yes       No       Yes         No
Massachusetts                Yes       No        No        Yes
New Hampshire                Yes       No       Yes         No
Rhode Island                 Yes       No        No         No
Vermont                       No       No        No         No

Table IV: Atlantic Provinces Main Picture on First Page

PROVINCE               PHOTO DESCRIPTION             PUSH/PULL
                                                       FACTOR
New Brunswick    Quiet place to relax, calming          Pull
                   colors that make the scenery
                   look peaceful.
Newfoundland     Overlooking grassy hills in a          Pull
  and Labrador     late night setting. Nice view
                   of calming river.
Nova Scotia      Cozy dining area by the                Pull
                   fireplace for a relaxing
                   dinner.
Prince Edward    Ocean, sky with clouds, mountain       Pull
  Island           with a lighthouse.

Table V: New England States Main Picture on First Page

STATE                    PHOTO DESCRIPTION             PUSH/PULL
                                                        FACTOR

Connecticut     Person skiing down a mountain.           Pull

Maine           Moving picture of a person skiing.       Pull
                  Mountain, snow, trees, dogs,
                  birds.

Massachusetts   Cluster of people skiing down a          Push
                  slope.

New Hampshire   Group of people in ski outfits           Push
                  standing around a circle.

Rhode Island    Man on horseback by the water            Push
                  with two other people in a
                  seascape background.

Vermont         Fireplace, kids on a sled, someone       Push
                  skiing down a mountain.
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Author:Parker, Richard D.; Sears, Donna; Smith, Rachel K.
Publication:Academy of Marketing Studies Journal
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:May 18, 2012
Words:5579
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