Power Distance Belief and Impulsive Buying

Yinlong Zhang, Karen Page Winterich, and Vikas Mittal
Journal of Marketing Research (JMR)
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Executive Summary
Approximately 62% of supermarket sales and 80% of luxury good sales in the United States result from impulsive buying. Does culture have any effect on impulsive buying? Does the relationship differ for vice (e.g., chocolate, chips) versus virtue (e.g., granola, apples) goods? Power distance belief (PDB) is a cultural construct, defined as the degree of power disparity that people in a culture expect and accept. Typically, people from countries such as Japan and China score higher on PDB, whereas those from North America exhibit lower scores. This article shows that when PDB is high or activated, it triggers associations related to self-control in people’s minds. These self-control associations lead to less impulsive buying, particularly for socially proscribed products such as vice goods.

This study relates impulsive buying scores from ACNielson|ShopperTrends in 15 Asia-Pacific markets to the countries’ PDB scores. Even after the authors control for a country’s gross domestic product and individualism–collectivism level, the results show that countries with higher PDB tend to indicate lower levels of impulsive buying. Two follow-up experiments confirm this association and causally establish the effect of PDB on impulsive buying tendencies. To test the underlying process, another study considers anagram-solving speed. If PDB triggers control-related associations, people with high PDB should solve control-related anagrams much faster than those with low PDB, but no difference should exist when they solve control-unrelated anagrams. The authors confirm this distinction. Finally, in a field study using a nationally representative sample of U.S. adults, the authors show that PDB affects impulsive purchases of vice products (e.g., candy bar) but not virtue products (e.g., granola bar).

These findings show that impulsive buying is partly shaped by cultural forces. Firms dealing with multicultural markets need to understand whether their customers have high or low PDB beliefs to position their products appropriately as impulsive or not impulsive products. More important, marketers need to ascertain whether their products or brands are viewed by different consumer segments as virtue or vice products. In Asian countries such as India, luxury brands of staple beverages (e.g., tea) may be viewed as vice products. Similarly, whereas lemonade may be regarded as a virtue product, cola may represent a vice product. By understanding the interplay between PDB and likelihood to purchase, managers can increase sales by positioning their products along the vice versus virtue continuum.

Public policy officials also should take note, particularly those focused on the war against obesity, which may result partly from impulsive buying. The reported studies show that impulsive buying can be affected even if high PDB is just primed among those living in a chronically low PDB culture. Thus, policy makers could design messages that trigger high PDB and control-related associations, which should lead to higher compliance with messages designed to curtail impulsive consumption of vice products. Policy makers also should be sensitive to the cultural differences in the U.S. population when designing such messages. Different subcultures will have different PDB beliefs and, therefore, different likelihoods to respond to messages about curtailing impulsive buying.

Yinlong Zhang is Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He earned his PhD in Marketing from the Katz Graduate School of Business at the University of Pittsburgh. His main research interests are the marketing implications of consumers’ self-identity (e.g., self-construal, global–local identity). Before joining academia, he worked as a senior researcher for a Chinese marketing research firm. He has recently published in Journal of Consumer Research.

Karen Page Winterich is Assistant Professor of Marketing in the Smeal College of Business at the Pennsylvania State University. She received her PhD in Marketing from the Katz Graduate School of Business at University of Pittsburgh. Her research examines the effects of cultural and social identities on consumer decisions, brand evaluations, and charitable giving. Her recent publications have appeared in Journal of Consumer Research.

Vikas Mittal is J. Hugh Liedtke Professor of Marketing in the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University. He is currently working on research examining donation behavior, job satisfaction among the working poor, and the effect of corporate reputation on stock prices.

Journal of Marketing Research, Volume 47, Number 5, October 2010
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Yinlong Zhang, Karen Page Winterich, and Vikas Mittal
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