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Consumer Trends Report – Afterword

Afterword

We have included this short Afterword in order to outline some of the methodological and priority-setting issues for the research community that were raised by our Advisory Committee and participants at the Symposium on Consumer Trends and Research held in June 2004.

As discussed briefly in the Introduction, this initial Consumer Trends Report took a fairly straightforward economic and demographic approach to researching consumer issues, and restricted the scope of the analysis to the principal social and economic trends. This was felt appropriate for a first-time document whose emphasis should be on providing baseline economic and social data relevant to consumer issues, and on identifying where gaps exist in available data and research. In this Afterword we briefly review analytical options and priorities and their implications for future reports and research work in this area.

Analytical frameworks

A theme that emerged from the Symposium was the value of applying multiple analytical or theoretical frameworks to consumer research issues. Each one brings its unique set of perspectives, and provides very different insights on the relationship between consumers and the marketplace. A few of these approaches include:

  • Behavioural economics, which seeks to predict how consumers may react to certain market conditions, using evidence from game theory and insights obtained from sociology, psychology and anthropology on issues such as social conventions, norms and values. Such research and perspectives can be useful in exposing why and how traditional market mechanisms or policy instruments, which are supposed to protect or further the consumer interest, do not function in the way they should.
  • Consumer rights perspective, which takes as a given that consumers have certain rights in the marketplace, and assesses how well those rights are protected or furthered, either by the structure of the marketplace itself, or the institutions which govern it. Perhaps the best known example of a statement of consumer rights is the United Nations Declaration on Consumer Rights ratified by the General Assembly in 1985.
  • Institutional/legal analysis, which studies the impacts of institutions and legal systems on the nature of the interaction between consumers and the marketplace.
  • Industrial organization analysis, which looks primarily at how the private sector is organized and the implications of this for how the marketplace functions. In particular, this kind of analysis gets to the heart of the character of competition in the marketplace among industrial players, and how, or whether, consumer interests are integrated into private sector decision making.

It should be stressed that none of these approaches are mutually exclusive, and only an illustrative few have been listed here. Indeed, there is considerable benefit to be gained from applying simultaneously a number of different analytical perspectives, as this can provide a much richer and more complete description of the reality facing today's consumers.

Setting priorities

In the course of our discussions with participants at the Symposium, the issue of setting priorities, for both research and action, was frequently raised. Every organization – governmental, non-governmental, academic or business – faces difficult choices about where to devote limited resources. All actors have to make these choices based on their own capabilities, resources, and responsibilities or interests. Clearly, having a broadly based set of analytical perspectives will help to ensure that the choice of priorities is well founded. Developing clear rationales or frameworks for making analytical and policy choices is, therefore, a major issue that needs to be addressed in the future.

Scope of coverage

This initial Consumer Trends Report was, of necessity, focussed on a number of key variables, principally associated with structural trends in the marketplace (industrial organization analysis), the socio-economic forces shaping the character of consumer demand, and the ability of consumers to pursue and protect their interests in the marketplace.

This report has not addressed a variety of issues that nonetheless have a major impact on the state of the consumer in the marketplace. These issues include:

  • the nature, role and effectiveness of both public and private institutions and policies in protecting and empowering consumers;
  • the character and effectiveness of the consumer and public interest movement;
  • the nature of competition in the consumer marketplace and the business strategies companies deploy that affect consumers' access to goods and services and the exercising of their rights in the marketplace; and
  • the changing attitudes of consumers themselves to the marketplace, and indeed the very act of consumption itself (consumer as lifestyle, values-based consumption).

Looking ahead it would be advisable for researchers from government, business, academia and the non-governmental organization community to make decisions on analytical frameworks and the scope of coverage for future work in the area of consumer trends. The Office of Consumer Affairs will be encouraging all stakeholders to become engaged in these discussions and in discussions on the analytical perspectives that need to be developed to further the research agenda for use in their own work and in future editions of the Consumer Trends Report.

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