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What particularly took our interest as we observed the Primark store at Kirkgate Mall was the reaction of people towards certain products. Therefore, our ethnography of Primark at Kirkgate Mall will be linked to symbolic consumption, lifestyle and consumption and the influence of reference group in consumer behaviour.
According to Levy, symbolic consumption is the tendency for consumers to focus on meanings beyond the tangible, physical characteristics of material objects (Levy, 1959). Symbolic consumption is also the way by which consumers can buy, consume and dispose product and services on the basis of symbol. Consumers are more likely to consume products that have a brand image that is congruent with their self-concept (Bettany 2010).
According to Maria and Greig (2004), individuals use consumer goods and practices in a number of ways. First, they use goods as materials to create, advance and develop their identity (Elliott and Wattanasuwan, 1998). In this case, the symbolic meaning of goods is used as a way of expressing their self-concept and link to the public (Elliott, 1999).
Wattanasuwan (2005) says that consumption is definitely an important source of symbolic meaning with which we execute and maintain the project of self. He also said that in our everyday life, we use consumption symbolism to create and express the self concepts as well as to classify our association with others (Dittmar 1992; Elliott 1997; Wallendorf and Arnold 1988).
According to Levy 1959, symbolic consumption is the tendency for consumers to focus on meanings beyond the tangible, physical characteristics of material objects; this is clear to our ethnography study especially when we noticed most people focused more on the section where new releases for summer/ spring were displayed and also on sales.
An important determinant of the impact of products' symbolic meaning is the interrelationship between the perceived product image and the buyer's self-concept. A consumer may decide to buy a product because he/she feels that the product enhances his/ her own self-concept (Zinkhan and Hong, 1991). This applies to the case where consumers purchased more of bikini and underwear to create some sort of identity or to be identified as "sexy". This can imply that when a product's ability to satisfy mere physical need is achieved, consumers attach symbolic meaning to possessions in search for the meaning of existence and identity in the society.
Furthermore, symbolic consumption is also the way by which consumers can buy, consume and dispose product and services on the basis of symbol. (Elliot, 1997) further suggested that consumers use products not only for their material utilities, but also for the symbolic meaning of those products as portrayed in their images (in Xue 2008).
Also, consumers reject products or brands for symbolic reasons (i.e. negative symbolic consumption) to protect their self-esteem (Banister and Hogg 2004). This is consistent with our study that very few men were shopping in Primark, could this imply that men do not want to be associated with Primark which is not a sophisticated brand and also known for affordable items with low quality?
This is consistent with the findings of Aaker (1997) who suggested that negatively valence attributes, i.e. those which may contribute to portraying negative brand-related images, are deliberately excluded. The consumption activities of the majority of consumers seemed to be predominantly informed by the motivation to avoid consuming (or being identified with) negative images, rather than reflecting attempts to achieve a positive image" (Banister and Hogg, 2004, p. 859).
Reference group is "an actual or imaginary individual or group conceived of having significant relevance upon an individual's evaluations, aspirations or behaviour" (Park and Lessig 1977 pp.102). It can also be seen as groups with which the individual compares himself, his attitudes, his behaviours, his performance or groups whose social perspectives are assumed by the individual as a framework of reference for his own actions (Bettany 2010).
Park and Lessig (1977) in their article argues that an influence is accepted if it is identified as increasing the individual's knowledge of his environment and/or his ability to cope with some aspect of this environment, e.g., purchasing a product. They also argued that an individual in a product purchasing situation would be expected to conform to the preferences or expectations of another individual.
According to Bearden and Etzel (1982), a reference group is a person or group of people that significantly influences an individual's behaviour. They also argued that an informational influence is based on the desire to make informed decisions. If an individual is faced with uncertainty, he or she will seek information from sources available. A utilitarian reference group influence is reflected in attempts to comply with the wishes of others to achieve punishment. If an individual feels that certain types of behaviour will result in punishments from others and these outcomes are viewed as important, he or she will find it useful to meet the expectations of these significant others and lastly a value-expressive, is regarded as the need for psychological association with a person or group and is reflected in the acceptance of positions expressed by others.
During the course of our study, we realised that a lot of consumers were also influenced by reference groups. Park and Lessig (1977) argued that an individual in a product purchasing situation would be expected to conform to the preferences or expectations of another individual; this is evident to our ethnography study, particularly when we noticed a young lady who her boyfriend influenced her choice of scandals. This particularly applies to the value-expressive reference group influence where an individual can be influenced because of his simple affect (like) for that group. This is consistent with our study where groups of girls asked for each other's opinion before purchasing items.
If an individual is faced with uncertainty, he or she will seek information from sources available (Bearden and Etzel 1982); this agrees to the case where woman who was buying scandals as well made a phone call and was describing the scandals to the person she was talking to, after about 3mins, she made her choice and left. Informational influence is based on the desire to make informed decisions. If an individual feels that certain types of behaviour will result in punishments from others and these outcomes are viewed as important, he or she will find it useful to meet the expectations of these significant others; it relates to our study where a lady came in with her children and picked shoes for them, despite the fact that they were unhappy with their mother's choice of shoes for them, they had to accept it to avoid being punished. This is known as a utilitarian reference group influence which is reflected in attempts to comply with the wishes of others to avoid punishment (Park and Lessig 1977; Bearden and Etzel 1982).
LIFESTYLE AND CONSUMPTION PATTERNS
Lifestyle suggests a pattern way of life into which consumers fit various products, activities and resources. It can also be viewed as shared values or taste, reflected in consumption patterns (Bettany 2010).
Fisher (1987) argued that while it is certainly obvious that the absence of sufficient economic resources can effectively prevent one from practicing a certain lifestyle, it is perhaps less evident that the various values, skills, and aesthetic standards embodied in a particular lifestyle may also resist easy acquisition or imitation and therefore they can just as effectively limit one's economic and social opportunities. This was observed when the couples from Poundland came in to the store and didn't buy anything. This can imply that their inability to purchase was due to economic constraints or they just choose to purchase affordable products in place of luxury goods. So we can imply that the couples have chosen a modest lifestyle in terms of consumption.
Quester et al (2000) proposed that self congruity is a key concept for understanding consumer behaviour. Ross (1971) further proposed that one of the "self-evident" truths in consumer behaviour is that consumers purchase a product or brand only if these things are consistent with, enhance or in some way fit well with the conception they have of themselves" (Quester et al 2000, pp.525).
Individuals hold favourable attitudes and intentions towards, and will most probably purchase those brands that match particular aspects of their self-concept; this is referred to as self-image congruency (Bosnjak and Rudolph 2008). Rosenberg, 1979 has defined Self-concept as "the totality of the individual's thoughts and feelings having reference to himself as an object" (in Xue 2008). A brand image is an impression in the consumers' mind of a brand's total personality (real and imaginary qualities and shortcomings). Brand image is developed over time through advertising campaigns with a consistent theme, and is authenticated through the consumers' direct experience.
The degree to which product image coincides with self-concept is referred to as self-congruity (Zinkhan and Hong, 1991). Just as people can be described in terms of their personality as perceived by other people, brands can be described in terms of their images as perceived by consumers (Xue, 2008). Self-image congruence refers to the match between consumers' self-concept (actual self, ideal self, etc.) and the user image (or "personality') of a given product, brand, store, etc (Kressmann et al, 2006).
Based on the ethnographic study done it has been observed that consumers are influenced by their social environment in making decisions as regards the consumption of products. Also, they attached meaning to products purchased and these products communicate the consumer's identity within the consumer's social environment.