New study explains how time influences consumer behaviour

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How does the past, present and future interact to influence consumer behaviour? A new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research considers how time is a key structural component of our lives and its resulting influence on market activities.

Ela Veresiu
Ela Veresiu

The research, undertaken by York University Associate Professor Ela Veresiu (Schulich School of Business) in collaboration with Assistant Professor Thomas Derek Robinson from Bayes Business School, University of London, and Assistant Professor Ana Babic Rosario from the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business, shows how time is a cultural consumption resource.

In this conceptual article, the authors introduce the concept of “consumer timework” to capture how past experiences and future expectations impact consumer behaviour in the present.

“Time is a key structural component of our lives and of the universe,” said Veresiu. “It is therefore no surprise that consumers engage with the multiple orientations of time – the past, the present and the future – in their daily consumption choices and activities.”

For example, some consumers treasure heirlooms from past family members and enjoy heritage-themed experiences, such as high tea at Toronto’s historic Windsor Arms Hotel. At the same time, other consumers engage in sustainable consumption like buying only second-hand clothing and installing solar panels on private homes to fight future-facing environmental degradation.

The co-authors argue that the increased speed and complexity of social change today creates multiple ways of interpreting how the past, present and future relate. In other words, it has become more difficult for individuals to anticipate their life trajectory from the past into the future. In response, the co-authors identify four strategies of consumer timework to regain control of time through consumption: integrative, disintegrative, subjugatory and emancipatory.

The scholars theorize integrative and disintegrative consumer timework respectively as harmonizing or rupturing the flow of time from the past into the future via consumption activities. As an illustration of the first strategy, consider how consumers now want to trace their own ancestry and genealogy through DNA databases like 23andMe. Alternatively, vaccine skepticism can also be understood through the second consumer timework strategy.

They theorize subjugatory and emancipatory consumer timework respectively as enforcing or disrupting temporal hierarchies of power through consumption practices. For example, self-tracking health apps, such as MyFitnessPal, SleepCycle and Fooducate, constitute a form of subjugatory consumer timework, since individuals pursue personal goals that are in actuality defined by an algorithm. Regarding the final strategy, using virtual reality devices to envision alternative futures and future selves is a form of emancipatory consumer timework.

“Our work directly responds to an observed decline in theoretical contributions in the marketing and consumer research,” said Veresiu. “In this paper, we not only realign existing ideas on time and consumption, but also offer detailed future research directions.”

The full article is available here.