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Embarrassment and Consumer Behaviour


The negative emotions such as embarrassment may significantly affect individual’s behaviour in different purchase situations. The article “Effects of consumer embarrassment on shopping basket size and value: a study of the millennial consumer” written by Nichols, Raska, and Flint and published in the Journal of Consumer Behaviour in 2015 has a purpose of investigation of the consumers’ behaviour in situations when they experience embarrassment while purchasing various personal care items.

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Through the method of the empirical analysis, the authors examine the interrelations between the individual’s feeling of anticipated embarrassment and the number of purchased products among Millennial and non-Millennial consumers. The investigation of the consumer behaviour in relation to emotions is of significant importance for research in the fields of marketing and retail. Comprehension of multiple aspects affecting purchase decisions may help to make consumer experience more positive and, as a result, increase organisational profitability.

Critical Review

Abstract and Introduction

In the abstract, the authors succinctly review the article and identify the research problems related to the subject of embarrassment and consumer behaviour. The abstract outlines the sample of the study and grasps the instruments of the analysis. The research findings are briefly discussed in the section, and the authors underline the significance of the research for the representatives of the retail industry.

In the introduction, the problem is identified more extensively and the rational explanation is given for the choice of the sample and research methods. Nichols, Raska, and Flint start the section from the evaluation of background information regarding emotions and their interrelations with purchasing behaviour. The significance of the research is identified. According to the provided information, Millennials comprise the biggest segment of consumption in the USA, and its spending equals “$600 billion each year” (Nichols, Raska & Flint 2015). The statistic data drawn by the authors gives the rationale for the choice of the sample group.

Through the investigation of the consumer behaviour in the given segment, the study contributes to the research of the purchasing experience and the shopping outcomes on both individual and organisational levels. In the Introduction, the concept of masking and the Theory of Planned Behaviour are introduced as well. These conceptual elements are interrelated with research methodology and may be regarded as the basis for the selection of research tools, and they provide the necessary implications of the research results.

Literature Review

According to the authors, ‘embarrassment is felt when an individual’s behavior fails to gain social acceptance,’ and it emerges in case a person feels a threat to her ‘social identity’ (Nichols, Raska & Flint 2015). In the previous research findings, it is demonstrated that consumer embarrassment is a social phenomenon related to the concept of the “publicity self-consciousness’ (Lau-Gesk & Drolet 2008). In this way, the particular purchases may provoke adverse emotional experiences because of the expectation of the negative evaluation by the public.

Since embarrassment is a negative emotion, individuals tend to avoid it and develop the particular patterns of behaviour to cope with it in various situations of social interactions. From the perspective of the Theory of Planned Behaviour, the consumer’s intention, personal values, attitudes towards own behaviours, and the subjective perception of public opinion regarding behaviour in multiple social dimensions significantly affect shopping process (Hansen 2008). In this way, the consumer’s plan to perform a particular form of behaviour may be provoked by the social norms or beliefs subjectively considered by an individual.

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According to the principles of the Theory of Planned Behaviour introduced in the article, the emotions may be considered the stimuli for the creation of schemes for planning the behaviour in an attempt to avoid negative social experiences (Nichols, Raska & Flint 2015). In the consumption context, a person often cannot avoid the face to face interaction, and, in this case, a person is put into a vulnerable position which she naturally attempts to dodge.

Embarrassment is perceived as a threat to the social acceptance and desired public identity. In this way, the embarrassing situations are regarded as ‘predicaments that convey an undesired public identity’ (Blair & Roese 2013). Social identity is subjective in its nature that is shaped by the self-evaluation and self-definition of personal features and characteristics that may cause social exclusion or acceptance. The violations of socially accepted norms, embarrassment, or shame are regarded as the risk factors for the distortion of the public identity ‘by inviting unwanted and unflattering social evaluations’ (Blair & Roese 2013). Therefore, individuals tend to plan and perform their behaviours in the ways that comply with the socially accepted norms to reduce the potential threats to the social identity and ensure a high level of acceptance.

The desire to avoid embarrassing situations affects individual’s purchase behaviour to a large extent. It is observed that for the reduction of unflattering public evaluation the individuals may tend to avoid purchasing the necessary products even in the face of a threat to their health and well-being, or the consumers tend to mask the sensitive purchases by buying extra ‘non-embarrassing’ items (Lau-Gesk & Drolet 2008).

According to the authors of the analysed article, masking is the conscious strategic instrument of behavioural planning aimed at the reduction of anxieties during shopping. Masking is meant to decrease unwanted public attention and judgement. ‘Additional purchases are traditionally said to mitigate the threat of embarrassment because they shift observers’ attention away from the embarrassing product’ (Blair & Roese 2013).

As a result of the masking strategy, the shopping basket size expands and its value increases. An individual expects that the additional neutral items may ‘counterbalance’ the unwanted social identity and his/her embarrassment level decreases (Blair & Roese 2013). Thus, it is possible to say that the purchase of the additional products is stimulated by the expectation of the adverse experience and is interrelated with the concept of undesired public identity.

Understanding of how the sense of embarrassment affects shopping behaviour in the largest consumer segment represented by Millennials is of increasing interest. Generally speaking, the Millennial generation includes people who were born in the period from 1980 to the midst of 1990. This consumer generation is the largest in the history of the USA; it is the most influential in terms of consumption and culture and has a significant buying power (Lantos 2014).

It is observed that in their purchase decision-making, Millennials are highly influenced by their peers due to the socially interconnected and technologically advanced environments in which they grew up. Therefore, it is possible to say that consumer behaviour of Millennials may be extremely affected by adverse emotions such as embarrassment. Understanding the behavioural patterns and strategic planning in order to avoid negative social experiences can help marketing practitioners in retail industry to improve shopping satisfaction from purchasing sensitive products. Through the creation of the consumer benefits, organisations may achieve positive results in productivity and profitability.

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Methodology and Data Analysis

Overall, the research paper includes three studies devoted to the investigation of the fashion in which Millennials handle the embarrassing consumption situations, the phenomena of masking, and counterbalance of sensitive products by the purchase of additional neutral items (Nichols, Raska & Flint 2015).

Study 1 has a purpose of establishment of the extent to which Millennials apply making strategy while purchasing embarrassment-related items. The sample of the study consists of 58 marketing students. The main qualitative research instrument is the online survey.

According to the results of the study, the masking strategy was previously implemented by over 60 per cent of participants (23 females and 16 males). The feminine care, digestive, and sexual health products are perceived to be embarrassment-related. The frequently purchased additional products included magazines, clothing, and personal care items (Nichols, Raska & Flint 2015). The study findings helped to establish the character of embarrassing and masking purchases. It is observed that some products are associated with a greater embarrassment than others. It is found that masking is a frequently used form of planned consumer behaviour that indicates the desire for the protection from the public judgement.

The findings of the study are in consistency with the research of embarrassment and self-presentation concerns during the condom acquisition by UK adolescents and young parents (Bell 2009). Through the quantitative analysis of data received from the sample comprised of 309 young people, the researcher found that most of the participants were afraid and embarrassed to buy condoms because of the anticipated judgement. In this way, Bell’s findings support the results of Study 1 related to the establishment of products’ ability to elicit adverse emotions.

Study 2 investigates the differences in individuals’ experience of embarrassment and effects of masking on the basket size and value. The sample of the study included 300 male and female undergraduates from the universities in the Midwestern and the South-eastern regions of the USA. The data collection tool was the survey comprised of 33 items. The participants were asked to evaluate these items on a 7-point scale. Through the analysis, the researchers obtained the data that helped to establish which products are the most associated with embarrassment. In the second part of the study, the participants were asked to purchase the products related to embarrassment and give the response describing their purchasing experience.

The results of the data analysis make it clear that ‘those in the embarrassment condition who were highly susceptible to embarrassment spent significantly more money than those who were low on this trait’ and the number of the products in their baskets was higher (Nichols, Raska & Flint 2015). Therefore, it is demonstrated that purchase of sensitive products increases the cases of masking behaviours, and the sense of embarrassment directly affects the size and value of shopping basket.

In their study devoted to the investigation of consumer behaviour and embarrassment, Lau-Gesk and Drolet also applied the 7-point scale for the identification of anxiety rates related to particular products (Lau-Gesk & Drolet 2008). According to the researchers rationale, the 7-point scale helps to establish the level of individual’s self-consciousness and social anxiety and evaluate the level of embarrassment related to items more efficiently through the provision of the comprehensive and detailed classification (Lau-Gesk & Drolet 2008).

In compassion to study by Nichols, Raska, and Flint, the analysed sample in Lau-Gesk and Drolet’s research included 157 female participants. It is possible to assume that the sample of 300 participants ensures a higher level of test reliability and validity because a variable of gender is taken into consideration. Through the consideration of a wider number of independent variables (social status, educational level, income level, etc.) it is possible to reduce the test bias.

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Nevertheless, the findings of both studies found similar interconnections between embarrassment rate and the number of additionally purchased items that consequently affected the total value of the shopping basket in both sample groups. Therefore, it is possible to assume that the study findings are reliable and the research bias may be considered insignificant.

The Study 3 explores the counterbalancing characteristics of the additional items in relation to shopping basket size and value. The study sample included two groups of participants: 259 Millennial and 145 non-Millennial. The data collection instruments included online questionnaire and survey in which the participants were asked to evaluate items and counterbalancing elements on the 5-point scale. ANOVA was applied for the estimation of the results.

It is found that the combination of some products increases the level of embarrassment (i.e. haemorrhoid cream and toilet paper) while purchasing other neutral items (i.e. haemorrhoid cream and markers) may help to balance adverse emotions (Nichols, Raska & Flint 2015). Through the comparison of the two sample groups (Millennial versus non-Millennial), the authors established that the overall basket values of Millennials were higher. The findings demonstrate that a younger demographic group is more dependent on social opinions and tends to modify behaviour in order to protect social identity.

According to the study results, there was no significant attenuation of embarrassment caused by the counterbalancing purchase. However, the study by Blair and Roese revealed that additional purchases may significantly attenuate negative emotions. The related mean scores of the participants ranged from 1.72 to 2.77 coefficients (Blair & Roese 2013). The differences in the results of evaluation of counterbalancing effects make it clear that the additional testing is needed for the increase of test reliability.

Limitations and Future Research

Since the major study instruments included self-reports, the main limitation of the research is related to the subjectivity of results. The analysis bias may appear due to the differences in the reported behaviours and the actual behaviours of individuals. Moreover, the experimental study method that involved the simulation of the shopping experience could result in the decrease of the level of embarrassment in the participants.

The artificially designed situation may provoke the lack of reliability in survey scores, and the scoring errors inevitably lead to the misinterpretation and wrong conclusions. To provide more reliable and valid data, the further research in the natural environment is recommended. It is also important to take into consideration a larger number of independent variables that may affect scoring results: environmental factors, participants of the purchasing situation and the level of consumer’s familiarity with them, etc. It is important to evaluate the consumer’s attitude towards the people who present during the item purchasing and take into consideration their social status, age, gender, etc.

The main factor that may affect the validity of the research findings is associated with the fact that some individuals may be prone to embarrassment more than others. Embarrassment is a psychological phenomenon, and its presence in the life of a person depends on her cultural, personal, and demographic background to a significant extent. Therefore, the study results’ implementation is of the limited scope.


The critical review of the article helped to conduct the analysis of relations between consumer embarrassment and different forms of behaviour modification in the Millennial generation of consumers. The evaluation of the concepts of social identity and social acceptance allows the identification of the motivation for the emergence of consumer embarrassment that, in its turn, leads to conscious masking of sensitive products by purchasing the additional items.

According to the research findings, masking is a common method a person applies in an attempt to avoid embarrassment as a threat to the desired social identity. Consumer embarrassment affects the size and value of shopping basket as well. It is observed that the additional purchases most frequently result in the increase total value of items. Overall, the article findings are consistent with other research findings. And no significant difference in the data collection tools and methods of analysis are found.

Negative emotions affect purchasing decisions and customers’ shopping experience significantly. The research of consumer embarrassment and its effects on his/her behaviour is important for the development of advantageous marketing strategies that may help to enhance consumer’s shopping attitudes and satisfaction. To reduce potential research bias, it is important to take into consideration multiple limitations and variables that may affect the reliability of results. Obtaining of the valid and evidence-based information regarding the issues of consumer behaviour is essential to the effective change in the marketing strategies that would create benefits for both consumers and organisations.

Reference List

Bell, J 2009, ‘Why embarrassment inhibits the acquisition and use of condoms: a qualitative approach to understanding risky sexual behaviour’, Journal of Adolescence, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 379-391.

Blair, S & Roese, N 2013, ‘Balancing the basket: the role of shopping basket composition in embarrassment’, Journal of Consumer Research, vol. 40, no. 4, pp. 676-691.

Hansen, T 2008, ‘Consumer values, the theory of planned behaviour and online grocery shopping’, International Journal of Consumer Studies, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 128-137.

Lantos, G 2014, ‘Marketing to Millennials: reach the largest and most influential generation of consumers ever’, Journal of Consumer Marketing, vol. 31, no. 5, pp. 401-403.

Lau-Gesk, L & Drolet, A 2008, ‘The publicly self-consciousness consumer: prepared to be embarrassed’, Journal of Consumer Psychology, vol. 18, pp. 127-136.

Nichols, B S, Raska, D & Flint, D 2015, ‘Effects of consumer embarrassment on shopping basket size and value: a study of the millennial consumer’, Journal of Consumer Behaviour, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 41-56.

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