Friday, August 30, 2013

Article Note: On Consumers Information Seeking at the Supermarket

This is the kind of article I like to read that combines something interesting or curious I did not consider before with a small history lesson. In addition, my interest was further piqued given that I recently read the book Breakfast: A History (link to my review).

The authors begin by outlining some common themes in supermarkets: the use of labels on products, government standards being imposed on food production, processes, and marketing, and the role of advertising to convey information and shape consumer behavior. The article looks at the information-seeking behaviors of supermarket shoppers within stores, but it may mention government actions and/or other consumer behaviors outside of the stores as necessary. The article is organized into three parts: a historical overview, a discussion of information-seeking behaviors and theories (think of this a bit as a primer as well as a demonstration of applicability to supermarket shoppers. This is the "meat" of the article.), and the conclusion.

Some notes from the article I would like to remember:

  • On women in the 1900s U.S.: "At that time, women were primarily responsible for their families' baking and felt that buying baked bread would reflect poorly on their reputations as industrious homemakers" (179). Clearly women have come quite a ways when it comes to using sliced bread. On a more serious note, the reason this caught my attention is because it is also mentioned in the Breakfast book.
  • That thing about learning which days to shop for what deals? It goes back to at least the 1930s: "Common newspaper advertisements during the 1930s featured select items for sale at reduced prices on specific days of the week. Informed customers were able to plan which days they would shop in order to save money" (182-183). Keep in mind, this was during the Great Depression, and stores were responding to the times, as well as maintaining their customers.
  • A little trivia: "Between 1954 and 1964 the number of supermarkets in America rose from 11,140 to 16,000" (185). Other stuff that happened in the meantime and earlier: 
  • Advertisements now, when it comes to supermarkets, focus mostly on low prices and getting you the better deal. It was not always the case. For example: "Advertisements in the early 1940s and 1950s tended to focus on the experience of shopping and highlighted customer service and personal attention instead of promoting products or prices" (185). This was the era when amenities like a butcher clerk (someone to handle questions about meat while the other butchers focused on their work) were added in stores. 
  • The rise of coupons, which today have pretty much declined somewhat due to supermarket loyalty cards: "The economic crisis of the late 1960s and early 1970s in the United States reflected in rising grocery prices. Coupons became popular in this era of inflation" (186). 
  • Later we go shelf labeling and barcodes, which for a time were resisted by consumers fearful they could not see a price on a can or product. 
  • In 1990, we got the National Labeling and Education Act (Wikipedia link).
  • Now we have supermarkets using websites along with loyalty cards to convey information and move consumer behavior. 
  • The Thomas D. Wilson model of information seeking involves an active demand for information and exchange of information between people. "Thus, information seeking involves deliberate inquiry, whether satisfied or not, and subsequently results in the using, exchanging, or both of learned knowledge" (190). See Journal of Documentation, vol. 55, 1999.
  • Diane H. Sonnenwald, described information horizons. "Information sources 'may include social networks, documents, information retrieval tools, and experimentation and observation in the world'. Individuals construct their own unique information horizons, yet individuals' horizons may intersect and share any number of commonalities" (190). See New Review of Information Behavior Research, vol. 2, 2001. The information horizon of a grocery shopper can include any number of sources: family and relatives, trusted store clerks, product labels, and advertisements.
  • More on the information horizon: "While an individual builds an information horizon with sources found within his or her own circles of influence, communities can develop information horizons as multiple people become connected through shared information resources. When the information found within these shared sources is displeasing to the population affected, social change soon occurs" (191-192). The skeptic or cynic in me thinks this may be ideal condition. What happens when the community shares bad information (c'mon, would you really trust a bunch of Fox News viewers, for example?). 
  • "Finally, the rise of technology in the 1990s and early twenty-first century provided new resources in information horizons. Websites and applications on mobile smartphones put the world of information into the hands of consumers" (192). We need to add the usual caveat most librarians and infotech enthusiasts tend to conveniently forget: as long as the consumers could afford the technology and the internet connection. 
  • The idea of "warm experts," usually friends and acquaintances you seek out for knowledge and assistance. These can often be more effective than print or media. To an extent, your local librarian could fill this role for people. "Additionally, the term 'warm' impliles that the source being questioned is known, familiar, and trusted" (193). 
  • On information gathering: "For grocery shoppers, information was often transmitted from food manufacturers, the supermarket industry, the media, or the government. The information was typically impersonal or may have even been biased toward the transmitter's interests; however, the shopper was able to make each piece of information personally meaningful by gathering from various sources and adding to the base of orienting information" (195). Interesting to note now that with things like loyalty cards, which track people's actual purchases and then (depending on the program) may generate coupons or offers "relevant" to the consumer, that there is some illusion of being more "personal."
  • On Marcia Bates idea of "berrypicking." The authors argue that grocery shoppers "regularly employed the berrypicking search method to satisfy some information needs during the shopping experience" (196). Consumers modified their strategies and techniques as the supermarket landscape changed. 
  • See Catherine Ross article in Information Processing and Management vol. 35, 1999 on information seeking and reading for pleasure for idea of behind-the-eyes knowledge. According to the authors', Ross' model applies to grocery shoppers as they do price comparison shopping. According to the authors, "shoppers' memories were not like infallible databases that allowed them to accurately recall the price of any items and compare it to the one at hand. Instead, they relied on a wealth of relative information they had gathered over the years" (198). Additionally, note that Ms. Ross is author of Reading Matters, a book that I read (link to my review).
  • On information acquisition: "...information acquisition is potentially unending; a user may encounter information anywhere at any time. Second, acquired information may satisfy past or current queries or may be stored for use in undefined future queries" (198). Further on, "if information can be infinitely acquired and applied at any time to an infinite number of potential queries, the challenge for the information user is in filtering the cloud of information to identify the useful nuggets" (199). 

Note: Book cited in the article I may want to look up later: Aspray and Hayes, Everyday Information: the Evolution of Information Seeking in America.

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