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The influence of moral philosophy on retail salespeople's ethical perceptions.

The relatively minimal literature on ethics in a retail selling context indicates that retail sales personnel perceive that their job creates ethical dilemmas. However, what drives those beliefs is virtually unknown. Investigations in non-retailing venues have found that employees' moral philosophy (or ideology) influences whether they view a particular situation, action, or behavior as unacceptable (ethically inappropriate). The present study extends previous retail sales ethics research by examining the impact of retail salespersons' moral philosophy on their perceptions of situations that are potentially ethically troublesome. Findings reveal some evidence that moral philosophy does indeed have an effect on retail salespeople's ethical beliefs. The impact of these results on the consumer is brought out through a discussion of the various implications from the vantage point of consumer welfare.

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Employee propriety, decorum, fiscal and personal rectitude, and societal concern seemingly have become watchwords for many business organizations. Accordingly, firms have established mechanisms, such as codes of ethics, ethics training, ethics chaplains, and anonymous tip lines for reporting employee misconduct, that are directed at increasing the likelihood that decorous behavior will permeate the company. Notwithstanding the ethics juggernaut, corporate malfeasance continues to plague business.

For instance, witness the misprision in multinationals Enron, Global Crossing, WorldCom, and Arthur Andersen, the impact of which was inimical for numerous stakeholders (Roberts and Thomas 2002). Or consider a higher-level Coca Cola manager's falsifying the results of a test market so that Burger King would be induced to spend $30 million in preparation for its selling Frozen Coke (The Economist 2003). Also, recall the recent securities pandemic engendered by use of questionable trading practices in the mutual fund industry (e.g., Dwyer and Borrus 2003). Of course, high-level employees are not the only ones to engage in misconduct. Subalterns at all organizational levels and in all functional departments have opportunity to partake in questionable business practices.

One department that is frequently maligned for ethical malfeasance is marketing. A major reason for this negativity is that marketing tends to be the most visible or conspicuous department to the public at large (Murphy and Laczniak 1981). As examples, fictitious pricing, deceptive advertising, and false sales pitches from sales personnel often become cannon fodder for aggrieved customers and the media. And the costs associated with such practices are widespread for the marketer. For instance, Laczniak and Murphy (1985) aver that unethical marketing decisions can engender considerable personal (e.g., employee termination, low morale), organizational (e.g., adverse word-of-mouth promotion, low employee morale), and societal costs (e.g., reduced perceived trust in business, increased consumer vigilance). After all, ethics functions as a form of social control, something that is especially critical to customers, salespeople, and the organization (Trawick et al. 1991).

One area in marketing where ethical misconduct can easily occur is the selling arena. In fact, one study has found that unethical behavior is positively related to salesperson performance (Howe, Hoffman, and Hardigree 1994). In another investigation, 39% of respondents felt that salespeople could not be trusted (Vitell and Muncy 1992). The very nature of the sales position--the buyer-seller dyad--fosters a "laboratory of ethical scenarios" (Wotruba 1990). Moreover, Caywood and Laczniak (1986) argue that ethical conflicts and choices inhere in the selling arena, particularly because sales personnel tend to be under pressure to achieve their quotas, lack close supervision, have an inadequate job support system, and need to make decisions on the spot. Also, salespeople's role in trying to satisfy their managers and customers--essentially two masters--simultaneously, as well as their organizational and affiliative estrangement, could conduce to engaging in unethical conduct (Dubinsky et al. 1992).

Ethics in personal selling has received extensive research attention (see the literature review by McClaren [2000]). However, much of this empirical effort has focused on ethics in industrial sales. Scholars have been far less interested in ethics in retail selling. Indeed, although previous investigations have considered retail customers' ethical beliefs (e.g., Vitell and Muncy 1992) and their perceptions of the customer orientation of retail salespeople (Brown, Widing, and Coulter 1991), as well as college students' apperceptions of retail sales personnel (Burns and Brady 1996) and retail managers' ethical assessments (e.g., Reidenbach, Robin, and Dawson 1991), the last known study of retail salespersons' ethical beliefs was conducted almost 20 years ago (Dubinsky and Levy 1985).

The paucity of attention directed toward retail salespeople's ethics is surprising given the import of the consumer/retail salesperson relationship. As Burns and Brady (1996, 196-197) promulgate:
 As the final stage in the marketing channel, situations which
 present themselves in retailing are particularly visible to
 consumers and to society as a whole. Often only the business
 organization with which consumers and potential customers interact,
 the decisions and actions of retailers can easily be presumed to
 extend to the entire business community. Furthermore, from a micro
 perspective, retailing involves direct transactions with
 consumers--individuals who can be expected to be most vulnerable
 to the effects of questionable practices in the marketing channel.


Moreover, some evidence exists that questionable business practices, if directed at customers, are considered to be more unethical--by managers and students--than those directed at other parties, such as competitors or the organization (Dabholkar and Kellaris 1992). Furthermore, empirical work in retail selling has ascertained that retail salespersons do not appear to be particularly concerned about ethically troublesome situations they face in their sales positions (Dubinsky and Levy 1985; Levy and Dubinsky 1983). Additionally, one study in retailing found that only 50% of a sample's respondents rated retail salespeople as being customer oriented, a variable that has been found to be positively related to ethical sales behavior (Howe, Hoffman, and Hardigree 1994).

The foregoing suggests that ethical problems palpably exist in a retail sales context. Management's failure to address the issue adequately is likely to be folly. If retail sales personnel do not act in an ethical fashion or are unable to resolve their ethical dilemmas effectively and appropriately, they may experience increased levels of job-related tension, frustration, anxiety, conflict with management, and manager ridicule (Levy and Dubinsky 1983). In addition, their actions may induce customer dissatisfaction, customer defection, and unfavorable word-of-mouth promotion from such customers (Dubinsky 1985). The ultimate outcome may well be a declivity in salesperson performance and in the firm's financial success (Dubinsky and Levy 1985).

The import of retail sales ethics as well as the dearth of recent work in the area led to undertaking an investigation that examined retail salespeople's ethical perceptions. Rather than solely investigating their perceptions, as has been the situation in prior work, the present study extends retail selling ethics by focusing on the relationship between retail salespersons' moral philosophy and their perceptions of questionable retail selling practices. Arguably, similar explorations have been undertaken in industrial selling (e.g., Bass, Barnett, and Brown 1998; Sivadas et al. 2002-2003; Tansey et al. 1994). Because research results can vary across selling contexts (see a meta-analysis by Churchill et al. [1985] and a literature review by Comer and Dubinsky [1985]), the current study appears particularly warranted.

The remainder of this article will initially present extant literature in retail selling. Then, a discussion about moral philosophy will be proffered followed by the presentation of study hypotheses. Next, the methodology will be described, followed by a presentation of the findings. The paper concludes with a discussion of the various implications of the findings in order to comprehend the impact of the same on the well-being of the consumer.

PREVIOUS RESEARCH IN RETAIL SALES

Admittedly, a modicum of empirical work has examined ethics in a retail context (see McClaren 2000). The preponderance of this research, however, has not specifically considered retail salesperson ethics. Rather, scholars have focused virtually on ethical perceptions of retail managers (e.g., Dornoff and Tankersley 1975-1976; Gifford and Norris 1987) and college business students' apperceptions of selected retail practices (e.g., Burns and Smith 1990; Norris and Gifford 1988). In fact, only two published studies were found that pertained specifically to retail salesperson ethics.

Levy and Dubinsky (1983) developed a method to assist retail managers in guiding retail salespeople in attending effectively to ethical problems. The authors then applied the method using department and specialty store sales personnel. The findings from their illustration indicated that out of 31 potentially ethically troublesome situations, sample respondents wanted company policy assistance on only 13 of those situations. Possible rationales for the relatively little guidance desired was that the sales personnel did not see the situations as posing an ethical dilemma or that a given situation was simply the typical way of conducting the retail sales job.

Dubinsky and Levy (1985) investigated retail salespersons' perceptions of 37 potentially ethically troublesome selling situations. They categorized the 37 into work-, peer-, and customer-related problems. Only 8 of the 37 were seen by 50% or more of the retail salesperson respondents as an ethical dilemma. Nonetheless, respondents wanted policy help from their companies to address 22 of the 37 situations, particularly those where policy help was not yet provided.

The preceding studies, although useful in offering some guidance to retail managers regarding how to address ethical concerns of their sales personnel, do not indicate how retail salespeople formulate their ethical perceptions. In other words, answers to what drives retail salespersons to view some situations as having ethical overtones and others to be ethically neutral in content have yet to be addressed. Retail salesperson moral philosophy may hold promise as a potential explanation.

MORAL PHILOSOPHY AND ETHICAL PERCEPTIONS

Moral philosophy essentially refers to the overall guiding ideology that individuals employ in viewing situations as right or wrong. People's moral philosophies, in turn, putatively influence their moral judgments (i.e., assessments of whether a given situation is perceived to be ethical or unethical) and subsequent behavior (e.g., Bass, Barnett, and Brown 1998; Forsyth 1980). Schlenker and Forsyth (1977) aver that individual variations in approaches to moral judgment can be efficiently subsumed under two moral philosophy dimensions: relativism and idealism. Relativism refers to the degree to which people abjure universal moral rules, norms, or laws when making moral judgments. Idealism pertains to the degree of a person's concern for the commonweal--public welfare (avoidance of harming others); that is, his or her judgment of a given action is predicated on the outcome--a positive or adverse impact on others (Tansey et al. 1994; Forsyth 1980, 1992).

Those who are highly relativistic eschew universal laws or rules; essentially, they manifest skepticism. They believe that the situation and individual involved as well as the time and place, drive the moral action rather than moral laws or absolutes. They place great emphasis on a personal perspective (Sivadas et al. 2002-2003). Individuals who are low on relativism, though, adhere to the notion that one should act in a manner that is concordant with moral principles. A strongly idealistic person keenly believes that harming others can always be avoided; that is, desirable consequences can forever be realized. Less idealistic persons, however, conceive that some adverse outcomes of an action are inevitable--one takes the good with the bad (Forsyth 1980, 1992). Previous work in sales has found that more relativistic sales managers have more favorable evaluations of controversial sales practices than do their less relativistic counterparts; sales manager idealism, though, was observed to have no impact on assessment of those sales practices (Sivadas et al. 2002-2003).

Forsyth (1980, 1992) maintains that individuals can be high or low on both relativism and idealism, thus representing two continua (see Figure 1). These, in turn, lead to a two-by-two matrix. Individuals who are high on relativism and on idealism are referred to as "situationists" (Forsyth 1980, 1992). These persons reject universal moral laws but demand that favorable consequences flow from a behavior. While forswearing moral rules, they are concerned that a given behavior produces the best possible outcome.

Those high on relativism but low on idealism, "subjectivists," deny the existence of moral precepts but also doubt that positive consequences can always be engendered from a given action. "The only moral conclusion possible is that all people should act to promote their own self-interest, rather than focus on producing positive outcomes for others in general" (Forsyth 1992, 463).

"Absolutists" are low in relativism and high in idealism. As such, they adhere to moral absolutes and believe that behaviors should lead to positive outcomes for others. These two factors are inviolable for absolutists vis-a-vis making moral judgments.

Finally, individuals who are low in both relativism and idealism, "exceptionists," embrace universal moral standards but do not feel that auspicious consequences will always prevail. Thus, they rely on moral principles to serve as a guideline to their behavior but balance the positive and negative outcomes of a given action (Forsyth 1992).

HYPOTHESES

The preceding disquisition implies that people's moral philosophy has an impact on their moral judgment. More specifically, whether one is high or low in relativism and idealism will likely influence whether that individual perceives a given behavior as ethical or unethical. And, whether one is a situationist, subjectivist, absolutist, or exceptionist will also conceivably have an impact on how he or she perceives the ethicality of a particular action. Personal moral philosophies have been observed to influence a wide range of decisions in the business and non-business arenas (e.g., Barnett, Bass and Brown 1996; Forsyth 1980; Forsyth, Nye, and Kelley 1988; Singhapakdi et al. 1995). Similar arguments can be made vis-a-vis retail salespeople's ethical perceptions.

Relativists

Retail salespersons who are high relativists reject moral rules or precepts. They believe that there is no overriding set of moral principles that can prescribe appropriate action in every situation. As such, their assessment of a given sales behavior would be guided by their knowledge of the situation and the situation's context. Whether a decision or an action would be deemed ethical is thus derived by the situation or the individual involved. Essentially, what is considered right or wrong is strictly a matter for individuals to determine based on the ethical principle they have chosen to adopt; thus, they determine the ethicality of the situation. Conversely, retail salespersons low in relativism embrace universal moral laws; they opine that there are moral rules that can always guide a given action, irrespective of situation. Such laws are inviolable. Highly relativistic retail salespeople are unlikely to demur with questionable retail sales practices, as they might feel uneasy about doing so until they have sufficient information regarding what led to the particular behavior (Bass, Barnett, and Brown 1998). Alternatively, retail sales personnel low in relativism conceivably will believe that questionable retail sales actions are unethical owing to a belief in immutable, enduring moral precepts that have been violated. Indeed, Sivadas et al. (2002-2003) discerned that manufacturing sales managers with greater relativism viewed questionable behaviors more favorably than did those lower in relativism. Also, recent research ascertained that industrial salespersons' relativism is negatively associated with their trustworthiness (Lau and Chin 2003). Implicitly, trust and ethical conduct conceivably go hand in hand.

The foregoing dialectic leads to the following hypotheses:

H1a: Retail salespersons' relativism is positively related to how favorably they view questionable retail sales behaviors.

H1b: Questionable retail sales behaviors will be viewed more favorably by retail salespeople who are relatively high in relativism than by those who are relatively low in relativism.

Idealists

Highly idealistic retail salespersons believe that if they adopt the appropriate action, desirable consequences will result (and an attendant favorable impact on others). Their behavior is driven by what they consider will be the outcome of that behavior. Virtually only acts that produce auspicious impacts on individuals will be taken. Essentially, they believe that taking ethically responsible action will always lead to a positive result. As such, these salespersons are likely to regard questionable retail sales practices as unethical owing to the potential inimical outcome such action will have on others. Retail sales personnel low in idealism, though, perceive that propitious consequences will not always prevail, even when decorous action is taken. That is, they subscribe to the notion that even with morally upright behavior, adverse outcomes can occur along with favorable ones. Such individuals conceivably will view questionable retail sales practices somewhat favorably, as they feel that outcomes of a given act can be both good and bad. Bass, Barnett, and Brown (1998) found that the greater the idealism, the less favorable evaluation a sales manager provided of a given questionable behavior. But Sivadas et al. (2002-2003) determined that sales manager idealism was unrelated to moral judgment. A possible rationale for this latter finding is that there was minimal variance in the sample's idealism measure. Also, a recent study discerned that business-to-business salespersons' idealism is positively associated with salesperson trustworthiness (Lau and Chin 2003).

The previous discussion allows the following hypotheses to be proffered:

H2a: Retail salespersons' idealism is negatively related to how favorably they view questionable retail sales behaviors.

H2b: Questionable retail sales behaviors will be viewed less favorably by retail salespeople who are relatively high in idealism than by those who are relatively low in idealism.

Absolutists, Situationists, Subjectivists, and Exceptionists

Recall that absolutists are low on relativism (thus subscribing to universal moral precepts) and high on idealism (thus having acute concern about a given behavior's impact on others). As such, Forsyth (1992, 465) proposes that compared with the other three moral philosophy types, absolutists:
 ... tend to be more conservative in their position on contemporary
 moral issues and practices ... would be most negative toward illegal
 business practices ... [and] would also be more likely to object
 to legal, but ethically questionable behavior.


This suggests that retail sales personnel who are absolutist in their moral philosophy will likely adopt a strict posture on questionable retail sales practices. That is, they will conceivably regard such actions as unethical or unfavorable because the act violates moral law and causes harm to other parties. Such draconian beliefs are less likely to prevail with the other three types.

Specifically, situationist retail sales personnel do not follow moral rules but pay heed to the outcome of the action; they want the behavior to induce favorable impacts on others. Although desirous of a propitious consequence, their rejection of moral rules is likely to prevent ossification in thinking, thus conducing to a somewhat favorable assessment of questionable retail sales practices. Subjectivist retail salespeople, high on relativism and low on idealism, apparently do not concern themselves with moral laws or consequences of acts vis-a-vis others. As such, what is of paramount interest to them is their own self-interest. So, they may well perceive questionable retail sales practices as innocuous, to the extent that they do not impinge on their own circumstances adversely. And exceptionist retail salespersons are low in both relativism and idealism. Accordingly, they believe in moral absolutes but realize that negative consequences can occur with a given act. They are practical by weighing the pros and the cons of a given behavior. These characteristics would seemingly lead an exceptionist retail salesperson not to be especially critical of certain questionable sales practices, especially if they provide both good and bad outcomes. There is some evidence that sales manager absolutists tend to be more unfavorable in their assessments of certain controversial business situations than are situationists, subjectivists, or exceptionists (e.g., Bass, Barnett, and Brown 1998; Sivadas et al. 2002-2003).

The previous arguments lead to the following hypothesis:

H3: Absolutist retail salespeople will view questionable retail sales behaviors less favorably than will situationist, subjectivist, or exceptionist retail salespeople.

METHODOLOGY

Sample

The sample consisted of retail salespersons employed in specialty stores (e.g., electronics, clothing, clothing accessories, shoes) in a regional mall area in a mid-sized city in the Midwest. Specialty stores were selected as the sampling frame's source because rather than being merely "clerks"-as is typical in many other kinds of retail stores--specialty store salespersons actually perform a literal sales function. In fact, they tend to interact and spend time with customers, thus providing at least a modicum of service; this job milieu is thus conducive for the emergence of potentially ethically troublesome situations.

In conducting the study, a researcher approached each store's manager, explained the nature of the study, and inquired whether he or she would be willing to have his or her sales staff participate in the investigation. Only four managers declined to cooperate in the study; company policy prevented their doing so. Therefore, surveys were distributed in a total of 70 specialty stores to 224 sales personnel. The researcher returned later to pick up the questionnaires from each store. Usable questionnaires were completed by 201 sales personnel, for an effective response rate of 90%.

Sixty-nine percent of the sample was female; 31%, male. Mean respondent age was 26.4 years. Twenty-six percent had earned at least an undergraduate degree, and 55% had some college experience (but had not yet graduated). Approximately two-thirds of respondents were full-time employees; approximately one-third, part-time. Eighty-four percent were Caucasian; 16%, non-Caucasian (e.g., African-American, Hispanic, American Indian). Approximately 43% were Christians; 32% practiced a non-Christian faith; and 25% had no religious affiliation.

Questionnaire

Ethical Perceptions

Respondents provided, in addition to standard demographic information, their perceptions of potentially ethically troublesome retail sales situations involving customers, as well as their degree of relativism and idealism. Using a five-point scale (1 = very inappropriate and 5 = very appropriate), the retail salespeople indicated their reactions to 29 retail situations having potential ethical overtones. These situations were selected based on a review of germane literature (Abratt and Penman 2002; Burns and Brady 1996; Dabholkar and Kellaris 1992; Dubinsky and Levy 1985; Levy and Dubinsky 1983; Vitell, Rallapalli, and Singhapakdi 1993).

The 29 items were factor analyzed (using varimax rotation) to ascertain their dimensionality. Using .50 as a significant factor loading, the 29 were reduced to five factors (see Table 1) having eigenvalues greater than 1.0. Factor 1 represents six items pertaining to retail salespeople's use of psychological pressure on customers. Items loading on factor 2 deal with salesperson deception. Factor 3 contains two items that focus on poor customer service. Price-related items (two) constitute factor 4. Factor 5 is comprised of three items that highlight salesperson excuses. Reported in Table 1 are the eigenvalue, percent of variance explained, and coefficient alpha for these five factors.

Moral Philosophy

To assess respondent relativism and idealism, Forsyth's (1980) Ethics Position Questionnaire (EPQ) was utilized. The EPQ has ten items that measure relativism and ten that measure idealism. Psychometric properties of the EPQ have been demonstrated to be adequate (e.g., Forsyth 1980; Tansey et al. 1994). The EPQ has been frequently used in ethics studies in the marketing and selling arenas (e.g., Bass, Barnett, and Brown 1998; Singhapakdi et al. 1999; Tansey et al. 1994; Vitell, Rallapalli, and Singhapakdi 1993). Reliability analyses in this study obtained a coefficient alpha of .83 for relativism and .87 for idealism.

DATA ANALYSIS

Three different analyses were conducted to test the study's hypotheses. Hypotheses la and 2a were tested using multiple regression analysis. Using the foregoing five factors as dependent variables, the mean score for each factor was regressed separately across salesperson mean scores for relativism and idealism. Prior to conducting multiple regression, variance inflation factors (VIFs) were computed to assess multicollinearity. All VIFs were below 2.0, which suggests that multicollinearity is not a major issue in this study (Montgomery and Peck 1982).

Testing hypotheses lb and 2b was done using t-tests for differences between group means on each of the five factors. Median splits were employed to categorize the retail salespersons into high and low relativists and high and low idealists. T-tests were used as a means of post-hoc analysis.

To test hypothesis 3, multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA), followed by analysis of variance (ANOVA), were employed. Separate ANOVAs were conducted for each factor with the four types of retail salespeople--absolutists, situationists, subjectivists, and exceptionists--as the grouping variable. In addition, significant differences between pairs of the four types of sales personnel on each of the five factors were examined using least significant difference (LSD) tests. LSD was employed to determine whether absolutist retail sales personnel perceived the questionable selling behaviors less favorably than situationist, subjectivist, and exceptionist retail salespeople. Compatible with prior work (Bass, Barnett, and Brown 1998; Tansey et al. 1994), median splits were employed to categorize the retail salespersons. Those scoring above the median on both relativism and idealism were assigned situationist positions (n = 46). Sales personnel scoring above the median on relativism but below the median on idealism were subjectivists (n = 45). Salespersons scoring below the median on relativism but above the idealism median were regarded as absolutists (N = 45). And salespeople who scored below the median on both relativism and idealism were grouped as exceptionists (N = 57).

RESULTS

Results for H1 and H2

Shown in Table 2 are the findings regarding the relationship between retail salesperson moral philosophy (relativism and idealism) and their perceptions of potentially ethically troublesome situations (the five factors). Relativism was posited to be positively related to (H1a) and idealism negatively associated with (H2a) salesperson attitude toward questionable sales practices. Regression results indicate that relativism is unrelated (p > .05) to all five underlying dimensions of retail salespersons' ethical perceptions. That is, relativism seemingly has no impact on retail salespeople's attitudes toward selling situations involving psychological pressure, salesperson deception, poor customer service, price-related issues, or salesperson excuses. Therefore, H1a is not supported. As a result of this finding, t-tests were not computed between high and low relativism on the five factors (H1b).

Idealism is significantly (p < .05), negatively associated with retail salesperson attitudes toward four of these five situations; it is unrelated (p > .05), though, to retail salespeople's attitudes toward price-related issues. Consequently, in general, the higher retail salespersons' idealism, the less favorable they are toward controversial sales actions. Thus, H2a receives moderate support.

T-test results (not shown in tabular format owing to space limitations) revealed that retail salespeople who are higher in idealism are significantly more likely (p < .01) to have a less favorable view of issues pertaining to psychological pressure, salesperson deception, and salesperson excuses than retail salespersons lower in idealism. In addition, those higher in idealism are somewhat more likely (p < .07) to regard issues dealing with poor customer service less favorably than their lower idealistic counterparts. Furthermore, there is no significant difference (p > .05) between high/low idealism and retail salespeople's perceptions about price-related issues. Essentially, then, H2b receives some support.

Results for H3

When investigating whether absolutist retail salespeople view questionable retail sales behaviors less favorably than situationist, subjectivist, or exceptionist retail salespeople, MANOVA findings reveal that moral philosophy grouping has a significant overall effect (p < .05) on retail salespeople's ethical perceptions--the five factors. Subsequent ANOVAs indicate that the grouping variable has a significant impact (p < .05) on four of the five situations: psychological pressure, salesperson deception, poor customer service, and salesperson excuses. It has no significant effect (p > .05), however, on price-related issues (see Table 3).

Examining the results of the LSD tests reveals minimal support for H3. Absolutist retail sales personnel are significantly less favorably disposed (p < .05) than subjectivists or exceptionists toward sales situations entailing psychological pressure on customers and salesperson deception but are relatively similar to situationist sales personnel in their impression of these situations. Also, absolutist retail salespeople view situations involving salesperson excuses less favorably than do their subjectivist (but not their situationist or exceptionist) counterparts. There is no significant difference (p > .05) between retail sales personnel who are absolutists and the other three groups of retail salespeople vis-a-vis their attitudes toward selling activities entailing poor customer service. The foregoing findings suggest that there is little evidence that absolutist retail salespersons are different in their attitudes toward questionable retail sales situations from the other three groups.

DISCUSSION

The current investigation explored ethics in a retail sales context utilizing specialty store sales personnel as respondents. Admittedly, prior work has examined the general issue of retail selling ethics. The present study, however, differs from previous research in three important ways. First, earlier efforts were devoid of an underlying theory and attendant hypotheses; this situation was not the case here. Second, researchers have studied the perceived ethicality of individual retail sales situations but have not empirically identified the dimensionality underlying those situations; this avenue was undertaken here. And third, the impact of moral philosophy on retail salespersons' perceptions of potentially ethically troublesome sales situations was considered--something heretofore not considered in a retail selling venue.

With respect to the first key difference between the present and previous research, the work of Forsyth (1980) was employed as the overriding theory guiding this study. He avers that individuals' moral philosophy (i.e., ideology) can be subsumed under two factors that constitute two continua--relativism and idealism. Further, when considering these two continua simultaneously, people can be categorized into one of four groups --absolutists, situationists, subjectivists, exceptionists. Accordingly, hypotheses were developed that posited that retail salespeople's moral philosophy would have an impact on their perceptions of questionable retail selling situations.

When considering the second dissimilitude between this and earlier research, previously examined potentially ethically troublesome retail sales situations were found to possess an underlying structure. Using those prior selling behaviors in the current study, five factors were revealed: sales practices involving psychological pressure from the retail salesperson, salesperson deception, poor customer service, price-related situations, and salesperson excuses. Several of the selling situations utilized in prior empirical work, though, did not load on a particular factor and are not represented in the five factors.

Finally, examining the effect of retail salesperson moral philosophy on the perceived ethicality of sales situations--an extension from prior research in retail selling--revealed that salespersons' moral philosophy is associated with such perceptions. Although relativism was found to be unrelated to retail salespeople's perceptions of potentially ethically troublesome situations, idealism (as hypothesized) was generally observed to be negatively related. Furthermore, unexpectedly, absolutist retail sales personnel generally did not view questionable selling behaviors as less favorable than situationist, subjectivist, or exceptionalist retail salespeople. These findings are both consistent and discordant from previous work in industrial selling. That research observed that idealism, but not relativism, has an impact on sales manager perceptions of questionable behaviors (Bass, Barnett, and Brown 1998), and that relativism, but not idealism (Sivadas et al. 2002-2003), influences sales manager perceptions of controversial behaviors. A possible rationale for the contrariety between our findings and those of Sivadas et al. (2002-2003) is that they employed only two scenarios in testing their hypotheses rather than a panoply of questionable sales behaviors as was done in the present work. The results regarding absolutist retail salespeople vis-a-vis their ethical ideological counterparts, however, is compatible with the extant literature entailing business-to-business sales managers (Bass, Barnett, and Brown 1998; Tansey et al. 1994).

Retail salespersons' degree of relativism, then, was observed to be unassociated with their perceptions of questionable sales behaviors regarding use of psychological pressure on customers, salesperson deception, poor customer service, price-related issues, and salesperson excuses. Thus, whether a retail salesperson accepts or rejects moral canons seemingly does not influence their assessment of questionable sales practices. Apparently, then, retail salespeople do not utilize immutable, enduring moral tenets when determining if a given selling behavior is appropriate or inappropriate. Accordingly, trying to inculcate in retail sales personnel moral absolutes (e.g., act ethically all of the time) may not be especially beneficial. Doing so may appear to them to be nothing more than imperious and hortatory, and devoid of any particular benefit.

The extent of retail salespersons' idealism, however, was found to be negatively related to their perceptions of controversial selling practices. Specifically, when retail sales personnel extensively consider the impact of a questionable action on other individuals (e.g., customers, the firm), they are more likely to have an unfavorable perception of the behavior than when they are less likely to regard the impact of that behavior on others. That is, if a given action will have an inimical effect on others, it will be perceived to be inauspicious for such retail sales personnel. Thus, training programs need to demonstrate to retail salespersons what the consequences of ethical and unethical behavior are on others. They should be informed that a given action can have adverse results for the customer, the salesperson, the firm, and on society at large. Moreover, they need to know why such outcomes are undesirable.

The exception to the foregoing disquisition was the finding that retail salespersons' attitude toward controversial price-related situations (e.g., not informing a customer about an upcoming sale, having to sell a non-sale item at a sale price) is unrelated to whether they believe the price-related behavior will have an impact on others. Perhaps retail salespeople view price as an amoral aspect, a mere marketing tool that retailers utilize at their discretion to obtain a sale. That is, its employment is neither good nor bad, neither right nor wrong. It might simply be regarded as one of the tools in a retailer's kit.

The findings concerning how absolutist retail sales personnel view questionable sales practices vis-a-vis situationist, subjectivist, and exceptionist retail salespeople are understandable given that relativism was found to be unrelated to retail salespersons' perceptions of controversial sales behaviors. This unanticipated result insinuates that retail salespeople who are strict in their moral ideology (i.e., absolutists) will not necessarily perceive a given behavior having ethical overtones differently from their counterparts who are less draconian in their moral ideology. Perhaps the nature of the retail selling position fosters this phenomenon. Retail salespersons may well view each sale simply as a transaction rather than as an opportunity to build a relationship with the customer--especially if the consumer is new. As such, the salespeople might take shortcuts or even engage in unethical behavior simply to consummate the sale. If indeed this is the case, absolutist retail salespeople would interact with their customers not much differently from their peers who are less strict in their moral beliefs. That is, they may well regard certain questionable selling behaviors as not detrimental to their selling efforts.

Currently, there is a tendency in sales for salespeople to adopt a relationship selling posture rather than a transaction-oriented selling approach (e.g., Dubinsky et al. 2003; Wilson 1995). As such, retail sales personnel need to be especially circumspect about engaging in decorous deportment with their customers; to do otherwise is likely to militate against the development of a win-win buyer-seller relationship. The findings of this investigation suggest that actions that will be salubrious for customers and for society at large need to be taken. One such action entails retailers' administering psychological tests to retail sales recruits that afford ascertaining their moral/ethical philosophy. Those recruits who manifest idealism in general and an absolutist philosophy in particular are likely to be especially desirable hires (at least with respect to their degree of ethicality). That is, they are likely to be particularly scrupulous in their selling behaviors toward customers. As such, customers are likely to be served with propriety, thus developing a sense of trust in both the salesperson and the retailer.

Furthermore, retail managers need to inculcate in retail salespersons that they are not exempt from ethics. Accordingly, they need to be trained about the import of engaging in ethical conduct with customers and what should be done if they encounter the potential for ethical misconduct. Moreover, training should describe to sales personnel what the firm considers to be ethical and unethical sales behavior--using both general and specific guidelines for action. Furthermore, retail managers should lead by example, thus practicing the highest level of ethical conduct when dealing with customers, employees, peers, and the public at large.

Also, efforts should be made to educate consumers about the questionable sales behaviors in which retail salespersons may engage that are likely to place consumers at a disadvantage. Public interest groups, Consumers Union (and similar kinds of nonprofit consumer advocacy organizations), state attorneys general offices, as well as the U.S. Department of Commerce could produce publications that describe the various kinds of dubious sales practices of retail sales personnel. Moreover, information about the redress that consumers can seek should they encounter such misconduct should also be provided by such agencies. Furthermore, such training could offer consumers a list of questions to ask retail salespeople in an effort to determine their degree of ethicality.

The findings of this study should be tempered by certain limitations. These weaknesses, though, are suggestive of future research. First, the present work examined solely specialty store retail sales personnel in a Midwestern city. As such, the external validity of the findings may be limited. Thus, future research should use samples of salespeople from different geographic areas than were used here and from other kinds of retailers (e.g., department stores). Second, this investigation only considered the impact of moral philosophy on perceptions of questionable sales practices. Whether perceptions will influence behavioral intentions and ultimate behaviors of retail sales personnel is unknown. Accordingly, future efforts should be directed at the impact of moral philosophy on retail salesperson behavioral intention and actual behavior.

Third, the current examination focused solely on a moral philosophy predicated on relativism and idealism. Other moral ideologies have been promulgated (e.g., prima facie duties, proportionality, social justice--see review by Laczniak [1983]). So, subsequent efforts should be directed at investigating the impact of these moral philosophies on retail sales personnel's ethical perceptions. Fourth, the current work investigated only retail salespeople, but not their managers. Therefore, future empirical studies should focus on the impact of retail managers' moral ideologies on their view of questionable retail selling behaviors.

Fifth, several selling situations (scale items) did not load on a particular factor and thus were excluded from hypothesis testing. Had these items loaded on a particular factor and thus been included in the data analysis, findings of the study may have been starkly different. Empirical efforts should ascertain whether the selling situations excluded in the hypothesis testing in this study are also found to be psychometrically weak in subsequent work.

Sixth, the present investigation essentially utilized questionable retail selling behaviors from prior work in retail selling. That literature, however, essentially does not consider relatively new selling options (e.g., the Web, box stores). Consequently, subsequent research could examine controversial selling situations in those venues, as well as those explored in the present effort.

Finally, the present research employed cross-sectional data. As such, cause-effect relationships cannot be categorically asserted. Thus, future efforts could be directed at undertaking a controlled experiment to discern the impact of retail salesperson moral philosophy on perceptions of questionable sales behaviors. One possible means of undertaking this kind of investigation would be to provide treatments (via scenario) for high and low relativism and high and low idealism and then ask subjects how the salesperson in the scenario would likely respond to a given questionable sales behavior. An alternate approach would be to identify retail salespersons' moral philosophy and then randomly assign them to various questionable sales behaviors or observe their behavior with actual customers.
TABLE 1
Factor Analysis of Questionable Sales Activities

Items Factor 1 Factor 2 Factor 3

A retail salesperson ignores a 0.568 -- --
 prospective customer for one
 he/she believes will be a
 better one.
A retail salesperson makes a 0.514 -- --
 promise he/she cannot keep
 regarding the time when
 something will be ready.
A retail salesperson pressures 0.753 -- --
 customers into making a
 purchase.
A retail salesperson uses false 0.771 -- --
 promises to close a sale.
A retail salesperson applies 0.628 -- --
 pressure to make a sale even
 though he/she is not sure that
 the product is right for the
 customer.
A retail salesperson decides what 0.627 -- --
 products to offer on the basis
 of what he/she can convince
 retail customers to buy, not on
 the basis of what will satisfy
 them in the long run.
A retail salesperson gives a false -- 0.740 --
 delivery date in order to get a
 sale.
A retail salesperson grants -- 0.672 --
 concessions to certain customers
 depending on how much he/she
 likes them.
A retail salesperson paints too -- 0.528 --
 rosy of a picture of his/her
 products to make them sound as
 good as possible.
A retail salesperson stretches the -- 0.761 --
 truth in describing a product to
 a retail customer.
A retail salesperson doesn't -- -- 0.692
 assist customers he/she believes
 are less likely to buy.
A retail salesperson refuses a -- -- 0.780
 return by a customer when he/she
 actually thinks the item should
 be accepted.
A retail salesperson does not -- -- --
 offer information about an
 upcoming sale that will include
 merchandise a customer is
 planning to buy.
A retail salesperson has to sell -- -- --
 nonsale items at full price when
 the items were accidentally
 placed with the sale
 merchandise.
A retail salesperson makes excuses -- -- --
 to customers about unavailable
 merchandise that is not yet in
 stock or sold out.
A retail salesperson gives -- -- --
 preferential treatment to
 certain customers.
A retail salesperson makes excuses -- -- --
 when merchandise is not ready
 for customer pickup.

Eigenvalues 8.518 2.399 1.726
Percentage of variance 29.373 8.271 5.951
 explained (%)
Coefficient alpha 0.8427 0.7815 0.5870

Items Factor 4 Factor 5

A retail salesperson ignores a -- --
 prospective customer for one
 he/she believes will be a
 better one.
A retail salesperson makes a -- --
 promise he/she cannot keep
 regarding the time when
 something will be ready.
A retail salesperson pressures -- --
 customers into making a
 purchase.
A retail salesperson uses false -- --
 promises to close a sale.
A retail salesperson applies -- --
 pressure to make a sale even
 though he/she is not sure that
 the product is right for the
 customer.
A retail salesperson decides what -- --
 products to offer on the basis
 of what he/she can convince
 retail customers to buy, not on
 the basis of what will satisfy
 them in the long run.
A retail salesperson gives a false -- --
 delivery date in order to get a
 sale.
A retail salesperson grants -- --
 concessions to certain customers
 depending on how much he/she
 likes them.
A retail salesperson paints too -- --
 rosy of a picture of his/her
 products to make them sound as
 good as possible.
A retail salesperson stretches the -- --
 truth in describing a product to
 a retail customer.
A retail salesperson doesn't -- --
 assist customers he/she believes
 are less likely to buy.
A retail salesperson refuses a -- --
 return by a customer when he/she
 actually thinks the item should
 be accepted.
A retail salesperson does not 0.737 --
 offer information about an
 upcoming sale that will include
 merchandise a customer is
 planning to buy.
A retail salesperson has to sell 0.789 --
 nonsale items at full price when
 the items were accidentally
 placed with the sale
 merchandise.
A retail salesperson makes excuses -- 0.791
 to customers about unavailable
 merchandise that is not yet in
 stock or sold out.
A retail salesperson gives -- 0.629
 preferential treatment to
 certain customers.
A retail salesperson makes excuses -- 0.744
 when merchandise is not ready
 for customer pickup.

Eigenvalues 1.311 1.094
Percentage of variance 4.519 3.773
 explained (%)
Coefficient alpha 0.5208 0.6230

Note: The following items were eliminated from subsequent
analyses as they did not load on multiple-item factors:

A retail salesperson sells a more expensive product when
a less expensive one would be better for the customer.

A retail salesperson charges a markdown (lower) price to
certain customers for similar full-price merchandise.

A retail salesperson takes a return from a customer when
he/she actually thinks the item should not be accepted.

A retail salesperson sells the product as an exclusive
when it is in fact available in other stores.

A retail salesperson does not tell the complete truth to a
customer about the characteristics of a product.

A retail salesperson charges full price for a sale item without
the customer's knowledge.

A retail salesperson appeals to a customer's fear to close a sale.

A retail salesperson uses some kind of psychological manipulation
to close a sale.

A retail salesperson forces a customer to take home sample
merchandise that must be returned to the store.

A retail salesperson only stresses positive aspects of a product,
ignoring possible problems retail customers may have with it.

A retail salesperson attempts to sell products to retail
customers that have little or no value to them.

A retail salesperson implies to a customer that something
is beyond his/her control when it is not.

TABLE 2
Results of Multiple Regression Analysis

 Multiple Regression Analysis

 Standardized
 beta
 coefficient t-value p-value

Factor 1
Idealism -0.364 -5.305 <0.001
Relativism 0.095 1.386 0.167
Overall model

Factor 2
Idealism -0.267 -3.770 <0.001
Relativism -0.017 -0.236 0.814
Overall model

Factor 3
Idealism -0.260 -3.660 <0.001
Relativism 0.059 0.824 0.411
Overall model

Factor 4
Idealism -0.018 -0.241 0.810
Relativism 0.079 1.079 0.282
Overall model

Factor 5
Idealism -0.180 -2.483 0.014
Relativism 0.018 0.246 0.806
Overall model

 Multiple Regression Analysis

 F-value p-value [R.sup.2]

Factor 1
Idealism
Relativism
Overall model 14.194 <0.001 0.121

Factor 2
Idealism
Relativism
Overall model 7.498 0.001 0.063

Factor 3
Idealism
Relativism
Overall model 6.721 0.002 0.056

Factor 4
Idealism
Relativism
Overall model 0.584 0.559 -0.004

Factor 5
Idealism
Relativism
Overall model 3.099 0.047 0.021

TABLE 3
Multiple Comparisons

Dependent Mean
Variable Comparisons Differences * Significance

Factor 1 Absolutist vs. Situationist -0.0082 0.955
 Absolutist vs. Subjectivist -0.6178 0.000
 Absolutist vs. Exceptionist -0.3732 0.007

Factor 2 Absolutist vs. Situationist -0.0074 0.960
 Absolutist vs. Subjectivist -0.3963 0.009
 Absolutist vs. Exceptionist -0.4566 0.002

Factor 3 Absolutist vs. Situationist -0.1208 0.422
 Absolutist vs. Subjectivist -0.1889 0.212
 Absolutist vs. Exceptionist -0.3187 0.027

Factor 4 Absolutist vs. Situationist -0.0058 0.978
 Absolutist vs. Subjectivist -0.2778 0.184
 Absolutist vs. Exceptionist -0.0474 0.810

Factor 5 Absolutist vs. Situationist 0.0495 0.751
 Absolutist vs. Subjectivist -0.4370 0.006
 Absolutist vs. Exceptionist -0.1520 0.306

* A negative (-) mean difference reflects a stronger relationship
for absolutists vis-a-vis the other ideological group.

FIGURE 1

Forsyth 's Classification of Moral Philosophies

 Low Relativism

High Idealism Absolutist: using moral standards
 regardless of situation

Low Idealism Exceptionist: balancing moral
 standards with outcomes

 High Relativism

High Idealism Situationist: requiring
 favorable outcomes

Low Idealism Subjectivist: promoting
 one's self-interest

Source: Adapted from Forsyth (1992).


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