Dr. Buerke, your dissertation is entitled “Sustainability and consumer confusion at the point of sale”. What exactly does this topic involve?
Despite the fact that sustainable products are found more and more on supermarket shelves and counters, they are still considered more of a niche market than conventional products when it comes to the food retail industry. Therefore, an important research issue is what barriers there are in shopping and how the growth potential of sustainable food products can be better exploited. The increased complexity of buying sustainable products, caused for instance by different certifications and claims, means that it is almost inevitable that customers are sometimes overwhelmed and confused. In light of this, my work addresses the question of how to promote the purchase of sustainable products by reducing consumer confusion.
Would you tell us a little more about your approach to this and your findings?
In order to discover the causes of consumer confusion in business, i.e., at the point of sale, I carried out a representative, Germany-wide survey via the GfK online panel and asked consumers about their shopping experiences in the main stores they visit. Based on the factors discussed in the literature and empirical results, I was able to identify the following six influencing factors contributing to consumer confusion at the point of sale: Perceived diversity of products, a lack of information, complexity, similarity, changes and conflicts.
Were you surprised by any of the findings?
I was surprised about how little research there has been into the phenomenon of consumer confusion when it comes to sustainable products in scientific marketing and consumer research, even though it is relatively obvious that there is great potential for confusion in this area. Additionally, I found out that the various different certification standards combine to create two confusion factors in one: Having so many different seals of quality increases not only the amount of information, but also add to the complexity, because each seal of quality has different standards and criteria. This problem is nothing new, but it is sobering to think that it is still a problem and that consumers are not offered an easier guidance system. The biggest surprise was the consensus among all consumer groups (those who buy organic products rarely, occasionally and often) that they find it contradictory, for example, for organic vegetables to be packaged in plastic. An holistic “sustainable” product design is therefore important.
At the end of your work, you put together a few practical implications. Based on your findings, what would you recommend if a retailer asked you for advice?
Retailers can exert significant influence over product range and shop designs. If customers have to weigh up whether to favor “regional”, “organic” or “fair trade” products, this complicates the decision-making process when buying. Retail can make this decision easier for consumers by narrowing down the choice and by providing guidance on what customers should look for if they want to buy as sustainably as possible. This investigation also showed that product visibility within the shop is an important factor in reducing confusion. Retailers can make a real effort in this regard and ensure that sustainable products are clearly visible for customers by positioning them suitably and designating specific areas on shelves with additional relevant information.
Where is your work available to read/buy?
My work has already been published by Springer-Verlag as part of the HHL publication series and is available both in print and as an eBook.
To conclude, a more personal question: Did this work change your shopping habits or the way you perceive retail?
I actually pay more attention to organic labels and the like than I did previously. I find it’s a good strategy for deciding more quickly when shopping. After all, in general there aren’t so many organic products to choose from. The situation with organic or Fairtrade products is not all perfect, but I think that we as consumers can make our mark by choosing the products and production processes we desire.
Thank you for your time!