By Ela Veresiu

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.

This research was undertaken by York University’s Schulich School of Business Associate Professor Ela Veresiu in collaboration with Assistant Professors Thomas Derek Robinson from Bayes Business School, City, University of London and Ana Babic Rosario from the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business.

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. Overall, the authors show how time is a cultural consumption resource.

“Time is a key structural component of our lives and of the universe. 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,” said Dr. Veresiu. 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, such as buying second-hand clothing at Value Village thrift stores 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, individuals find it increasingly more difficult to anticipate their life trajectory from the past into the future with so many rare and unforeseen events happening not only on a larger scale, but also at a much faster rate. The COVID-19 pandemic is one such recent example. In response, the co-authors identify four consumer timework strategies individuals engage to regain control of time, and therefore their lives through consumption, which they term: integrative, disintegrative, subjugatory, and emancipatory.

The scholars theorize the integrative and disintegrative consumer timework strategies respectively as consciously 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 to better understand their own past and feel connected to their ancestors. Alternatively, assistive reproductive technology (ART) like In vitro fertilization (IVF) is a powerful example of the second consumer timework strategy, whereby consumers attempt to take control of their own and their immediate family’s future.

The co-authors 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 not defined by them, but rather 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. Consider as illustrations MAC Cosmetic’s Virtual Try-On online service that allows consumers to instantly swipe over 800 makeup shades on photos of themselves at home or Uniqlo’s Magic Mirror that allows in-store shoppers to see their future selves in different colours of a clothing item before making a final purchase decision.

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

In a follow-up piece intended for the Journal of Marketing, Dr. Veresiu and Dr. Robinson will tackle about how marketing managers and practitioners can leverage this framework to make strategic decisions when designing goods, services, and experiences to reflect and support different facets of consumer timework in order to achieve brand- and firm-related goals.

In the meantime, the consumer behaviour-oriented article is available in full online.

Ela Veresiu is an Associate Professor of Marketing and the Marketing Area PhD Program Coordinator at the Schulich School of Business, York University. Her research, which focuses on understanding and promoting consumer diversity and market inclusion at the interplay of identity, technology, branding, and institutions, has been awarded the prestigious Sidney J. Levy Award and the Ferber Award Honorable Mention, funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), published in the Journal of Consumer Research, the Journal of Advertising, the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, Consumption Markets & Culture, and Marketing Theory, and featured by, among others, CBC News, The Conversation, and The National Post.

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