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Journal of Business Research 62 (2009) 617 – 628
What drives college-age Generation Y consumers?
Stephanie M. Noble a,⁎, Diana L. Haytko b,1 , Joanna Phillips c,2
University of Mississippi, School of Business Administration, University, MS 38677, United States
Missouri State University, College of Business Administration, Springfield, MO 65804, United States
Western Kentucky University, Gordon Ford College of Business, Bowling Green, KY 42101, United States
Received 1 June 2006; received in revised form 1 March 2007; accepted 1 January 2008
Generation Y (individuals ages 14–31 in 2008) are in the marketplace with the numbers and the purchasing power to have an unprecedented
impact on the economy. Despite the potential of this group as a whole, especially the middle-aged members of this generation (ages 18–22) who
are in the highly coveted college-student market, much is unknown about the motivations behind these individuals’ consumption behavior and
preferences. This study attempts to address this gap in the literature by exploring the antecedents of the consumption behavior of college-aged
Generation Y individuals. The findings indicate that issues relating to socialization, uncertainty reduction, reactance, self-discrepancy, and feelings
of accomplishment and connectedness drive Y consumers’ product purchases and retail patronage. This article discusses these issues as well as
their theoretical and managerial implications.
© 2008 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Keywords: Generation Y; Image-oriented purchasing motives; Cognitive buying motives
1. Introduction
Following in the footsteps of their Baby Boomer parents,
Generation Y (Gen-Y) members are now highly active in the
marketplace. Gen-Y consumers’ sheer numbers and spending
power transform the market for every life stage they enter
(Morton, 2002). This group, born between 1977 and 1994, is
revitalizing the American economy (Engebretson, 2004) and
currently represents the largest teen population in the history of
the United States (Morton, 2002). Generation Y has tremendous
spending power already, at $600 billion a year, in addition to the
influence the younger members of this group still exert over
parental expenditures (Kennedy, 2001). Additionally, this
generation has been reared in a consumption-driven society
⁎ Corresponding author. Tel.: +1 662 915 5461; fax: +1 662 915 5821.
E-mail addresses: snoble@olemiss.edu (S.M. Noble),
dianahaytko@missouristate.edu (D.L. Haytko), joanna.phillips@wku.edu
(J. Phillips).
Tel.: +1 417 836 3034; fax: +1 417 836 4466.
Tel.: +1 270 745 2619; fax: +1 270 745 5956.
0148-2963/$ – see front matter © 2008 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
and has more money at their disposal than any teen group in
history (Morton, 2002).
Gen-Y numbers 76 million strong (Kennedy, 2001) and will
comprise 41% of the population by 2009 (Welles, 1999). These
consumers currently range from 14 to 31 years old and many are
in, or getting ready to enter college (approximately 34% of Gen-Y
is currently 18–23; while another 36% is 24–30 years old) (Paul,
2001). Janoff (1999) points out that college-aged individuals are
often experiencing the freedom of being on their own for the first
time, and thus have specific wants and needs as consumers.
Wolburg and Pokrywczynski (2001) discuss the long-held view of
the college market as one of the most coveted consumer segments
due to the market’s size, college students’ role as trendsetters, the
lifelong brand loyalties acquired during these formative years,
their position as early-adopters, their influence over parental
purchases, and the probability of a higher standard of living
associated with a college degree. Already, college-aged Gen-Y
individuals have purchasing power of $200 billion annually
(Gardyn, 2002). Thus, the importance of the college market,
coupled with the unprecedented power and attractiveness of this
particular generation of college students, make understanding
S.M. Noble et al. / Journal of Business Research 62 (2009) 617–628
Gen-Y’s development into consumers of great interest to
Despite the potential of the Generation Y college market,
much is unknown about this group’s motivations for consumption and patronage. Most research on Gen-Y focuses on the
entire generation and not the college-aged market. Additionally,
the majority of authors studying Generation Y as a whole focus
more on the demographic and attitudinal characteristics of this
generation rather than their consumption behaviors. For
example, Wolburg and Pokrywczynski (2001) describe Gen-Y
as the best educated and most culturally diverse generation in
history, a combination which others believe has made this
generation exceedingly tolerant and open-minded toward
different lifestyles such as homosexuality, single parent households, etc. (Morton, 2002; Paul, 2001). Additionally, researchers explore Gen-Y’s attitudes toward advertising (Beard, 2003),
celebrity endorsers (Bush et al., 2004; Stevens et al., 2003),
corporate sponsorship (Bennett and Lachowetz, 2004), ethical
Internet-related behaviors (Freestone and Mitchell, 2004) and
the media (Shearer, 2002). Findings seem to paint a portrait of a
generation that is media and technology savvy, and worldly
enough to see through many advertising tactics.
Although these accounts of Generation Y are informative,
several opportunities exist for a better understanding of this
market. First, in 2008 Gen-Y’s age range from 14 to 31 years
old indicates a heterogeneous group. A 14 year old will surely
have different motivations for a purchase than a 31 year old.
This wide age range makes generalizing these findings across
the entire generation very difficult.
This study explores a narrower group of Generation Y
individuals, specifically college-age individuals. College-aged
Y consumers represent huge potential for retailers as a market
segment (Wolburg and Pokrywczynski, 2001). Martin and
Turley (2004) observe that little is known about consumption
patterns and marketplace behaviors of older, college-aged
members of Generation Y. Additionally, a lack of understanding
exists regarding the motivations for consumption patterns of
Gen-Y individuals. In fact, Marketing Science Institute’s (MSI)
research priorities for 2004–2006 include trying to understand
and market to special populations (such as teens and collegeaged individuals). Given these factors, the current study focuses
on the heart of Gen-Y, those who are in the lucrative college
market, i.e. individuals between the ages of 18 and 22. As such,
the purpose of this study is to gain in-depth knowledge from a
sample of college-aged Generation Y individuals. In this
endeavor, the values and beliefs regarding the sample’s purchase of products and patronage of retailers will allow
marketers and academicians initial insight into this profitable
and powerful market segment.
2. Methods
Textual data for the present study were generated by means
of phenomenological focused interviews (Thompson et al.,
1989) with United States college students (18–22 years old).
Participants attend public Universities in 4 states: Mississippi,
Missouri, Texas and Florida (the participants’ home states are
listed in Table 1). Two rounds of data collection were undertaken. The authors and individuals trained by the first author
conducted the interviews. Friends, classmates, and work
colleagues of the interviewers were asked to participate in a
1-hour long semi-structured interview. College-aged students
participated voluntarily and were given no incentive for their
cooperation. A quota sampling approach was used to obtain
representation of students from all age and gender brackets
under investigation. Twenty-two subjects participated in the
first round of data collection (45% male and 55% female).
Respondents ranged in age from 18 to 22 years old, with a mean
of 20 years old. A second round of data collection took place in
3 other states, to examine whether or not themes from the initial
round of data collection would hold in other locations. Ten
subjects participated in the second round of data collection.
Both rounds of interviews were conducted following the same
procedures and took place in various locations deemed
convenient by the respondent. Table 1 displays participants’
names, ages, gender, and home states.
Participants were reminded of the purpose of the study, that
is, to understand more about their thoughts and feelings
regarding their consumption behaviors. To facilitate a discussion of their behaviors, participants were asked to write down
recently purchased products and then to place an asterisk next to
items that they considered their “most important” purchases.
Table 1
Informants’ demographics.
Mary W
Ann Marie
South Carolina
S.M. Noble et al. / Journal of Business Research 62 (2009) 617–628
Subjects were told that they could define “most important” any
way they wished. These products became the focus of the
interview. Beyond this initial structure to elicit recent purchases
that subjects considered important, the interviews were unscripted. In the course of the interview, the reasons for purchase,
both pragmatic and symbolic, were explored. Subjects were
probed regarding the significance of products and brands,
quality issues, peer pressures, trends, etc. This probing allowed
for college-aged Gen-Y’s values, beliefs, sociological influences, and consumption patterns to emerge.
Each interview was audio taped and later transcribed. Two
researchers analyzed all the transcripts, utilizing an iterative
reading strategy following the general procedures set forth by
Strauss and Corbin (1990). The first stage of coding, termed open
coding, sought to identify discrete ideas. Data that appeared to
pertain to similar ideas were then clustered into categories and
subcategories. Connections between categories were identified
through axial coding, the second type of coding. Open and axial
coding was not conducted in a linear fashion, but instead the
researchers moved back and forth between them to refine the
categories. The final type of coding, selective coding, was used to
identify the story that emerged from the data.
Several steps were taken to ensure confidence in the findings
(Lincoln and Guba, 1985). First, multiple interviewers were
used to ensure that one interviewer was not creating their own
reality or biasing the results in some way. The interviewers also
met after each round of interviews to discuss emerging themes
(intra-team communication in Lincoln and Guba’s terms) and to
keep all members moving together. Second, after each
interview, the interviewers would debrief with the primary
investigator. In this session the primary investigator would
probe for biases, working hypotheses, and support for such
working hypotheses.
Lincoln and Guba (1985) note that negative case analysis is
another way to establish credibility. A form of negative case
analysis was undertaken in the coding of the transcripts. As
noted above, throughout the coding process, the researchers
tried to identify quotes and ideas that did not fit into the
emerging framework to ensure that the data were not being
forced into this framework. Recognition of a disjuncture often
results in changes to the definition of themes and/or how quotes
are categorized (Price and Arnould, 1998).
Finally, interviewers were trained to paraphrase their interpretation of participant responses and clarify with the respondent that they [the interviewer] understood the respondent
correctly. This method was an informal way of member
checking, which gave the respondent an opportunity to react
to the interviewer’s interpretation and to correct him/her if they
interpreted the respondent incorrectly. Taken together, the
appropriate measures were employed to establish trustworthiness and credibility in the qualitative research. Due to the
amount of participants, only illustrative quotes of particular
note, which are representative of each final theme, are discussed
below. The second round of data collection and analysis
provided support for the themes found in the initial round of
data collection. While generalizability is not a primary goal of
qualitative research, the second round of interviews was conducted to alleviate the concern that the resulting themes could
be due to the culture and geography of the University where the
interviews were conducted.
3. Findings
Respondents mention many different stores, products and
brands in discussing their shopping behaviors. Several key
themes emerge from analyzing the transcripts. These themes are
organized into the exploratory model presented in Fig. 1. As the
model shows, seven categories of variables: freedom, finding
yourself, blend in/stand out, brand personality, fashion knowledge, value-seeking and the comfort of brands influence retail
patronage and product purchases. Each of these categories is
discussed in detail in this section to familiarize the reader with
Fig. 1. Conceptual model of purchasing motivations of college-aged Generation Y consumers.
S.M. Noble et al. / Journal of Business Research 62 (2009) 617–628
the themes. The theoretical underpinnings of these themes are
illustrated after each corresponding theme to highlight what is
driving this age group’s consumption behaviors.
3.1. Freedom
Participants are aware of their increasing knowledge of all
things consumption-related, yet often face struggles in the
marketplace in light of their new role as consumer, independent
of their parents and friends. They are maturing and finding
themselves as adults, backing away from parental influence,
determining where friends and reference groups fit in, and
making their first key decisions on their own. In light of these
developmental processes, the first emerging theme is the idea of
gaining freedom through the use of products or specific
consumption experiences. Certain products or brands represent
an assertion of freedom or independence for these participants,
including several participants’ discussion of consumption
experiences that provide a feeling of breaking free of family
influence. Below are examples of the theme of finding freedom
in one’s purchases:
Um, it’s [the ring] important because I went out and I picked
it out. And, um, searched and searched and searched, and I
picked it out. And it says a lot about me because, um, I’m
getting old enough where I’m making some decisions on my
own. And, uh, I may have not necessarily paid for it. I mean
I may have had mom and dad’s help, but uh, you know. I
picked it out, so… (Jodie, 21, referring to the purchase of a
David Yurman ring).
When I got my first part time job, I was so excited because I
had my own money! I could buy whatever I wanted for the
first time and I was really into the urban look, with the low
rider jeans and my underwear showing. My parents didn’t
like it, but I bought it myself so they couldn’t really say
anything (Steve, 20).
3.2. Finding yourself
The “finding yourself” theme involves the use of chosen
products and activities to aid in the processes that young adults
go through to define who they are. Products and brands are used
to help college-aged consumers figure out who they are, what is
important to them, and what they value most in life. Examples
include talking about how purchasing certain products or brands
helps them find out who they are without their parents’
involvement (e.g., respondents buying their first car and trying
to figure out what features are important to them personally),
and others talking about activities they are involved in that are
influentially significant in their lives.
I: So what does that [your picture-taking] say about you?
My pictures show what’s important to me. Like if you see
the pictures I have they are of my friends and my family and
the pictures kind of show what is important to me… I like
taking pictures of just everyday things with my friends
because you know after the moment happens it’s gone. I
think pictures are something that are always important
because that’s something you can keep forever. My pictures
show me with my friends because my friends are such an
important part of my life. They usually show me doing
outgoing things because I see myself as pretty outgoing. I
guess when I take pictures of something it shows me doing
the things that are important to me (Mary Walker, 20,
referring to the purchase of film to take pictures with).
Socialization theory informs the first two themes. Socialization
theory is the most common ground for understanding how young
consumers learn to shop. The accepted definition of consumer
socialization is the “processes by which young people acquire
skills, knowledge, and attitudes relevant to their functioning as
consumers in the marketplace” (Ward, 1974, p. 2). According to
Moschis (1981), significant differences exist in attitudes toward
advertising, brands, prices, and in levels of consumer affairs
knowledge between younger adolescents (under 15) and older
adolescents (over 15). This finding indicates that consumer
socialization is still occurring through the teen years. Thus, the
respondents are included within the critical years of securing their
role in the marketplace.
For the respondents, the main struggles they face include
striving for independence from their parents and trying to figure
out who they (the consumers) are independent of their families
and friends. These issues seem to be a lens through which all
purchasing decisions are made. The struggles for independence
from parents are apparent in the “freedom” theme, while the
struggles in trying to mature as both an individual and consumer
independent of family and friends are shown in the “finding
yourself” theme.
The results appear to be rooted in consumer socialization
theory (Moschis 1981) in that they exemplify how these
consumers are trying to use the skills, knowledge and attitudes
that are learned in the process of becoming consumers in the
marketplace, yet also trying to develop their own purchasing
styles as they struggle for independence from family and
friends. For example, Jeremy (19 year old male), referring to
budgeting money to purchase a calculator, “My mother, she
always told me ‘J’, when you go to college, I’m not gonna be
there. I’m not gonna be there to help you do this. But now, it’s
given me a chance to do it on my own. So, that’s what I’m
talking about in maturing.” This quote exemplifies the parental
role of teaching children to become consumers and how
consumers in this college-age group are now taking what they
have been socialized to do and practicing on their own. Taz
(18 year old male) also illustrates the role parents’ play in
teaching their children, but shows the struggle to break free,
“Music has always meant a lot to me ever since I was growing
up. Everyone in my family likes music, but I think it is
important that I have different musical tastes because it shows
that I’ve gone out and explored the dif…
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