There are a wide variety of different ways that consumers can participate in the spectrum of behaviors sometimes referred to as “consumer misbehavior.” Consumer misbehavior runs the gamut from criminal behavior like shoplifting to the compulsive behavior of a shopping addiction. Fullerton and Punj (1997) note that consumer misbehavior has long been accepted to be a problem in the retail world, but that little research has been done on the issue. The most common type of consumer misbehavior considered by researchers is usually shoplifting, but perhaps that is because this type of behavior is very easy to track; other types of consumer misbehavior may be more aberrant and more difficult to keep track of in a retail setting. Consumer misbehavior always, according to Fullerton and Punj (1997) takes place in a retail setting; retail provides the consumer with all the access he or she needs to the goods and services that are necessary for consumer misbehavior. Retail consumer misbehavior takes many different forms, but each form is designed to take something that intrinsically has value, and obtain it for a price less than what the company or corporation has set. This may come through the guise of shoplifting, or it may be as sophisticated as credit card fraud or identity theft. Regardless of how it is understood, consumer misbehavior is something that affects all retailers in varying degrees of severity, no matter how strong and secure their business model is.
Before discussing specific types of consumer misbehavior, it is important to consider why and how consumer misbehavior impacts a business and the economy at large. Phillips, Alex and Shaw (2005) write that consumer misbehavior almost always has a high cost for businesses that fall victim to it. Consumer misbehavior, Phillips, Alex and Shaw (2005) write, is problematic on many levels. It causes economic harm to the company, but also does sometimes-irreparable harm to the brand image of the company or corporation. Fullerton and Punj (1997) note that consumer misbehavior is, at its core, the violation of a network of expectations. Fullerton and Punj (1997) write, regarding the exchange network necessary for a functioning exchange system:
there are three sub-networks: 1) that comprised of the expectations which the marketer has of consumer conduct; 2) that made up of consumers’ expectations about other consumers’ conduct; and 3) that comprised of the expectations which consumers have of marketer conduct. consumers are implicitly allied with other consumers and with marketers. Acts of consumer misbehavior disrupt the exchange environment by violating one or both of these contracts. They can violate the norms of orderly behavior which marketers apply to consumers, and those which consumers apply to one another. They challenge the trust which marketers have in consumers, and that which consumers have in their peers. (Fullerton and Punj 1997)
Essentially, when a consumer participates in consumer misbehavior, he or she is violating a system of ethics and mutual trust that is designed to protect the process of exchange; Fullerton and Punj (1997) use this distinction to discuss the difference between consumer misbehavior in the retail setting versus outside; according to Fullerton and Punj (1997), the retail and consumption culture in society today is such that it encourages acts like vandalism and theft. These acts, then, are part of the consumer culture that also fosters consumer misbehavior; thus, they include acts like these under the same umbrella of consumer misbehavior.
Shoplifting is, perhaps, the most common and pervasive type of consumer misbehavior. On its face, it is easy to understand why shoplifting happens in certain situations; people commit theft from stores for the value of the items they are stealing, especially if they believe that they can resell the item for a higher price. Shoplifting, as an action, includes a variety of different types of actions, but for the most part, it focuses on the action of stealing items from a retail environment without paying for them.Tonglet (1999) notes that attitudes towards shoplifting and the shoplifting environment are highly predictive for future shoplifting behavior; Tonglet notes that “Over 52 percent of recent shoplifters thought it likely that they would shoplift in the future, compared with less than five percent of the non shoplifters and ten percent of the past shoplifters” (Tonglet 1999). This is a very significant difference in self-reported behavior, and seems to indicate that shoplifting itself-- perhaps the relative ease by which it can be done-- triggers some kind of call to action in the individual’s brain that provokes them into participating in the behavior. There are a number of important ways in which this self-reported behavior can be applied by those interested in minimizing shoplifting, most notably by raising the stakes for recent shoplifters so that they do not feel confident in their ability to get away with the behavior.
Tonglet (1999) also notes that one of the reasons that shoplifting, as a behavior, is not more tightly controlled is because one of the determinants of the behavior is that people do not believe they are likely to be caught. Current or recent shoplifters are more likely to believe that arrest and apprehension are unlikely, while non-shoplifters and those who have not shoplifted recently are much more likely to believe that apprehension and arrest are not only possible, but likely (Tonglet 1999). The mental difference between current shoplifters and non shoplifters accounts for much of the difference in their actions.
Another important determinant of shoplifting behavior is opportunity. While some shoplifters are very sophisticated, there are many shoplifters that participate in the behavior because the opportunity to do so presented itself to them. Most current shoplifters, according to Tonglet (1999), believed shoplifting to be an easy crime, one that they would most likely succeed at with ease; this belief, Tonglet (1999) postulated, was one of the main reasons that shoplifters continued with their behavior. There was no deterrent discovered, because those who participated in the behavior felt that there was very little chance of being caught.
Overall, the distinction must be made between those who shoplift once and those who continuously shoplift; those who participate in long-term, sustained shoplifting are more likely to believe that they are unlikely to get caught, and that their behavior is not necessarily wrong (Tonglet 1999). This could be for a few reasons: first, some shoplifters participate in the behavior in the hopes of causing harm to a large corporation or business that they feel has wronged them in some fashion. Second, some shoplifters participate in the behavior because they believe that the corporation or business is too large to truly feel the effects of their shoplifting behavior in the long run (Phillips et al. 2005).
Another type of significant consumer misbehavior occurs on special holidays, like Black Friday in the United States. Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving, and it is the day that almost all retailers open their doors at midnight, offering sales and deals on items that are ostensibly on peoples’ Christmas lists. In recent years, Black Friday has become infamous for its consumer misbehavior, as people have been killed in a variety of different ways across the United States during the rush for items. Each year on Black Friday, people are maimed, beaten, and sometimes killed in the name of consumption (Lennon et al. 2011). Lennon, Johnson and Lee (2011) write, “ we found shoppers who perceived they expended effort planning for and shopping on BF were likely to misbehave. We also found BF shoppers who expended effort planning and executing tended to score high on trait impulsivity. While this may seem contradictory, it can be explained by considering that people who expend effort in their BF planning may cognitively plan their BF activities and then take advantage of unplanned deals along the way. Our results support premises of the general aggression model to explain consumer misbehavior on BF” (Lennon et al. 2011). Lennon, Johnson and Lee (2011) note that there is one determinant for misbehavior on Black Friday: goal blockage. Goal blockage can occur at any time from any number of reasons, but the dangerous reasons-- for other consumers-- is when consumers get in the way of goal fulfillment for an individual who has the potential to misbehave.
Goal blockage and goal fulfillment are two sides to the same coin. Black Friday is a day that is, for the consumer, about goal fulfillment; normally rational, non-violent people can turn into violent, rampaging maniacs on Black Friday when someone stands in the way of their goal fulfillment. The day itself is marketed as a day of shopping, and people are even encouraged to set aside their self-control for the day in search of good deals during their shopping trip. This has been demonstrably shown to be an incredibly dangerous way to provoke people into shopping; however, marketing professionals and corporations certainly have a hand in provoking their customers into this particular type of frenzy on Black Friday. As marketers encourage people to buy more goods on Black Friday and tell them that there will be good deals on items that they want, they are encouraging people to behave in a manner outside their normal sphere of behavior. While people who misbehave on Black Friday may not misbehave on other days, they are still motivated by the same desire for value at a lower price that the credit card fraudster is motivated by. The customer’s motivations—and how strong their motivations are—certainly encourage and foster misbehavior in certain circumstances.
When another customer participates in goal blockage-- whether intentionally or unintentionally-- the individual who is being blocked can sometimes resort to violence. This has been seen on multiple occasions where customers are trampled when the doors to certain stores open, or when one customer assaults another over a coveted item. This behavior takes place in a unique setting-- the sales on Black Friday (Milavec 2012). It is very rare for this type of behavior to take place in other places or situations, because there is no situation that presents the same potential goal and potential for blockage of that goal as the Black Friday tradition.
Marketing professionals and corporations are simultaneously responsible for violence on Black Friday (along with the perpetrators, of course-- Black Friday does not give anyone the right to participate in violence, no matter how the situation is presented). Marketing professionals and corporations have spun the idea of Black Friday into such a spectacle that it is no wonder that people are willing to go to great lengths to achieve their goals and ends. Milavec (2012) found that the frenzy surrounding Black Friday in the United States was such that it negatively impacted consumer self-control and self-awareness, and that this negative impact on self-control and self-awareness then simultaneously lowered inhibitions and negatively impacted overall consumer behavior. Milavec (2012) attributes some of this negativity to the media hype surrounding Black Friday and the encouragement that consumers get from the consumer-based culture surrounding the Christmas holiday season (Milavec 2012).
The final type of consumer misbehavior that will be discussed here is the issue of purchasing illegal or illicit goods on the black market. This may be as simple as purchasing counterfeit goods, or as nefarious as purchasing highly illegal or illicit substances for criminal purposes. Obviously, the housewife who purchases a counterfeit handbag is a different type of individual than the person who purchases illegal weapons or drugs; however, these behaviors are on the same spectrum of behavior, and must be considered as a group rather than individually. While some of these behaviors are, quite understandably, more worrisome than the others, without understanding the underlying mentality behind all of the relevant behaviors, it is impossible to quell the overall tide of the behaviors as a whole.
Many people may think about purchasing a counterfeit handbag or watch with little care; indeed, some may consider it to be a way of bypassing the system and getting a very good value for very little. However, counterfeit goods are often goods that are used to pay for highly illegal and illicit activities; in some cases, counterfeit goods have been shown to fund oppressive regimes and the drug trade (Drennan et al. 2007). Counterfeiting is a very large industry in the United States, for instance, and makes many millions of dollars each year. These counterfeiting enterprises do not exist in a vacuum; they are often used to fund other activities that the individual purchasing the goods are not aware of.
The cost of this type of consumer misbehavior is quite high, and it is high in a very different way than other types of consumer misbehavior. In other types of consumer misbehavior-- outside the aberrant incidents on days like Black Friday-- most of the time, individuals are not harmed by the consumer misbehavior. However, when purchasing counterfeit goods, the individual who is using his or her money to purchase those goods is often directly funding drug trafficking, human trafficking, or even terrorist organizations (Drennan et al. 2007). This is difficult to explain to many consumers, as well, since they are not often very well-versed in the potential effects of their purchases. Sometimes, they refuse to believe that purchasing counterfeit goods could result in the funding of such organizations. Counterfeiting is a huge operation, however, and many people do not realize that it takes many people to produce counterfeit goods. When counterfeit goods are, in fact, real goods, they are often stolen. Counterfeiting undermines the integrity of intellectual property rights and gives rise to a number of potential problems regarding violence and labor laws.
Retailers expend huge amounts of energy and time each year in an attempt to curb consumer misbehavior in its myriad forms. Shoplifting-- perhaps one of the more innocuous forms of consumer misbehavior-- happens in nearly every retail environment on a semi-regular basis, no matter how much time and energy is spent trying to curb it. However, this does not mean that the retailer should stop trying to curb consumer misbehavior; as Fullerton and Punj (1997) note, the perception of risk has a high level of impact on consumer misbehavior. This is why bank robberies are much less common than retail store robberies-- while the payoff for bank robberies has the potential to be extremely high, the risk level for these robberies is similarly extremely high. Risk and reward consideration is very important when an individual is interested in carrying out some kind of misbehavior; shoplifting, for instance, may be considerably more dangerous in the short-term insofar as risk and reward are concerned, but in the long term, credit card fraud may carry the longer or harsher sentence. Considering these things is part of what drives the individual forward with consumer misbehavior.
The consumer has a very distinct perception of value, and that is often what drives consumer misbehavior in its many forms. The cost for retailers is very high, but the consumer’s moral compass can be offset by their view of the potential value of an object or item. This can be seen in violent incidents like those that occur on Black Friday, for instance, or when a customer participates in credit card fraud to purchase items illegally. Retailers, depending on their particular niche, have a number of different ways of fighting consumer misbehavior. Electronic and technological controls have made it much more difficult for people to commit credit card fraud, although there are still individuals who manage to circumvent the system with ease. Electronic tracking devices and ink devices are sometimes used to control inventory, especially inventory that is particularly valuable or most frequently stolen. Surveillance video, cameras, and other types of technological equipment is sometimes used to ensure that the retailer who is the victim of customer misbehavior can properly pinpoint the individual or individuals responsible. On days like Black Friday, where the potential for customer misbehavior is higher and there is the potential for violence, many stores are reacting by hiring extra security and staff to ensure that incidents of customer misbehavior do not get out of hand.
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