University of Pittsburgh
June 28, 2012

New Study By Pitt Professor Highlights Reasons Consumers Choose Sharing

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PITTSBURGH—Businesses that want to successfully market commercial sharing programs like ZipcarTM should focus on cost effectiveness and product availability rather than popularity or environmental benefits, according to recently published research by the University of Pittsburgh.

The study—authored by Cait Poynor Lamberton, Fryrear Faculty Fellow and assistant professor of business administration in Pitt’s Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration, with Randall L. Rose, professor of marketing in the University of South Carolina’s Moore School of Business—examined the likelihood of using companies that shared cars, cell phone minutes, and bicycles found consumers focus on the cost of the service and the resources available.

“We see these types of companies and services popping up all over the place,” said Lamberton. “Consumers don’t have resources to waste right now. Sharing offers a good way to save money and avoids wasting resources you don’t use. But these systems aren’t simple, and we didn’t know how consumers evaluated them.” 

The paper, titled “When Is Ours Better Than Mine? A Framework for Understanding and Altering Participation in Commercial Sharing Systems,” is scheduled to be published in the July issue of the Journal of Marketing.

Lamberton said while companies are anxious to encourage consumers by marketing the popularity of sharing systems, that tactic may not garner the participation desired.

“Consumers know if companies are advertising that everyone is using their services, there may not be a product available for them when they want to use it,” she said. “There is a fine line between saying something is popular and not letting consumers feel as though they are losing access. If the pool is too crowded, there may not be any room for me. And that makes the pool pretty unpleasant.”

In the study, a fictional car-sharing service was presented to an online panel of more than 300 licensed drivers. Borrowing product information from a popular car-sharing company, including usage rates, users were asked whether they would sign up for the car-share program, how likely they would be to use the car, and whether they were concerned the car would be available when they needed it. They also answered questions about the social acceptance and environmental benefits of sharing, and whether they had any antipathy toward the industry in question.

Lamberton said the results of the study found consumers that would save money were more likely to choose the car sharing service, especially since it provided access to a car in most major cities throughout the country. However, beyond the effect of cost savings, they found that consumers considered the likely availability of cars. In fact, this consideration was a greater contributor to sharing likelihood than almost any other factor.

In two other studies—one involving a cell phone program that would allow users to share minutes and the other concerning a bicycle-share program—researchers found consumers were less likely to want to share with other consumers who were like themselves.

“Consumers realized if they shared with people who were similar to themselves, they would have the same needs at the same time and the product might be unavailable,” Lamberton said. “For example, students don’t want to share bicycles with other students because they are on similar class schedules during the day, creating competition for the resource. Sharing with different people may not feel as warm and fuzzy, but it stands a higher likelihood of success when one brings together complementary needs rather than competitive ones.” 

Lamberton noted that while an abundance of research points to consumers making poor decisions by overpaying for products and being wasteful, this study found that consumers are actually making good decisions by taking into account their finances and habits, among other practical information. 

She said businesses could use this information to help target future customers.

“Marketers like to play on cohesion, and popularity of a product, but in this case that may not be the best angle,” she said. “Social factors like the environmental benefits of using shared programs don’t seem to be primary drivers for consumer use, at least at the point of decision. At that point, in addition to cost savings, marketers need to emphasize that the resources will be available when consumers want them.”

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6/28/12/mab/lks/jdh

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