2.1 Consumer Empowerment Paradigm
The consumer empowerment paradigm in marketing is an important extension of the psychological empowerment construct, long studied, in the psychology literature (cf. Zimmerman 1995; Cattaneo and Chapman 2010). Camacho et al. (2014:294), while citing previous research, describe empowerment as “strategies or mechanisms that equip people with sufficient knowledge and autonomy to allow them to exert control over a certain decision”. Similarly, it has been noted in the marketing literature that “empowerment requires mechanisms for individuals to gain control over issues that concern them, including opportunities to develop and practice skills necessary to exert control over their decision making” (Pires et al. 2006, p. 938). In light of previous discussions and among them Broniarczyk and Griffin (2014), Kucuk (2009), and Pires et al. (2006), the current investigation argues that this paradigm can help us gain understanding into the perceived use of price comparison websites and eSwitching behaviour in particular among existing shoppers. In general, the internet equips users with the tool to gain access to credible and quality information and this by implication confers more power and freedom of choice to users and in this case online shoppers. Moreover, since it is known that customers often rely on expert advice (in this instance, price comparison websites) when making purchase decisions (Camacho et al. 2014), such advice - well-intentioned – can dramatically reduce switching cost. One of the benefits of comparison tools and in this case price comparison websites is that they offer shoppers a range of choices (Broniarczyk and Griffin 2014), thus allowing shoppers to shop across stores. Online switching behaviour (or eSwitching) is considered to be a possible outcome of this process. Similarly, since it is has been suggested in the literature that digital ads may be an important source of consumer empowerment today (Hudders et al. 2019), it is considered therefore to play an influential role in shoppers’ behavioural tendencies to use price comparison websites and to consequently eSwitch. Consequently, the following hypothesis is proposed:
At the same time, it is known that intrapersonal factors, described as “how people think about themselves and includes domain-specific perceived control and self-efficacy, motivation to control, perceived competence, and mastery” (Zimmerman 1995, p. 588), is a key aspect of empowerment. Accordingly, we consider intrinsic factors, or more precisely traits, like the customer service experience and consumer/shopper innovativeness, to be strong propelling force for price comparison websites use and eSwitching behaviour. Before discussing each of these in turn, we turn to eSwitching behaviour.
2.2 eSwitching Behaviour
The reasons why customers engage in switching intentions and/or behaviour remains an important topic in the literature to this day (Bhattacherjee et al. 2012; Fan and Suh 2014; Gopta et al. 2004; Malhotra and Malhotra 2013; Mosavi et al. 2018; Pourabedin et al. 2016). Multiple reasons exist for this kind of behaviour (Chuang and Tai 2016; Keaveney 1995; Malhotra and Malhotra 2013; Mosavi et al. 2018; Zhang et al. 2012) but a factor often identified as a key determinant is the attractiveness of alternatives (Chuang and Tai 2016; Xu et al. 2013; Zhang et al. 2012). In the context of this study, consumers might easily switch between online stores when it is believed they can get better price deals elsewhere. Price comparison websites lower the barriers to switching by offering such alternatives in one central place, with links that could easily navigate to said alternatives. Because price comparison websites are price aggregators, it offers the opportunity for shoppers to easily know the prices of each competing online stores and this consequently reduces switching cost. This study hypothesized (see H1) that these price comparison websites directly influence eSwitching behavior. The following section describes the former.
2.3 Price Comparison Websites
Comparison shopping can be defined as “the practice of comparing the prices of items from different sources to find the best deal” (Hajaj et al. 2015: 563). Price comparison websites provide the online alternative to this and we, therefore, define online price comparisons as the online tool that allows for the comparison of item prices from different sources to find the best deal. The use of price comparison websites has been acknowledged as an important search information tool, which has strong potential to alter shopping behaviour both in the online and offline environment (Bodur et al. 2015; Broeckelmann and Groeppel-Klein 2008, Osakwe and Chovancová 2015; Passyn et al. 2013). Osakwe and Chovancová (2015:597) describe price comparison websites as “a near-frictionless marketing intermediary that can drive down online shoppers’ search costs”.
Because shoppers can easily compare prices of similar firms and/or brands in a matter of seconds, the active use of price comparison websites not only reduces search costs but also empowers shoppers to buy from firms offering the best deal. This study argues that the greater the perceived usefulness of price comparison websites, the more it is expected that shoppers will use the information available on these sites in their pre- and post-purchase decisions. It, therefore, acts as a key mediator in the relationship between key influencing factors and online switching behavior. From a consumer empowerment perspective, it is pertinent to consider how these websites influence the relationship between eSwitching and shopper innovativeness, perceived usefulness of an ad and the consumers’ service experience consciousness. Each of these now discussed in turn.
2.4 Shopper Innovativeness
Consumer/shopper innovativeness, or what some scholars may well refer to as variety seeking propensity, is a well-researched concept in the literature (e.g. Agarwal and Prasad 1998; Bhattacherjee et al. 2012; Xu et al. 2013; Mishra 2015). In this instance and following prior literature (Agarwal and Prasad 1998; Bhattacherjee et al. 2012), we define shopper innovativeness as a trait reflecting the willingness on the part of the shopper to experiment and/or try out any new products or range of services. Moreover, because consumer innovativeness has been implied in the internet browser context to positively relate to switching intentions among a similar sample of respondents like this study (Bhattacherjee et al. 2012), it stands to reason, that both the relationship between shopper innovativeness and eSwitching behavior, and its relationship to price comparison website perceptions begs investigation. Hence, we proposed that:
2.5 Customer Service Experience Consciousness
The role of customer service experience is well researched in academic and business literature (Berry et al. 2002; Khan et al. 2015; Meyer and Schwager 2007; Osakwe and Chovancová 2015). However, its relationship to online switching behavior and price comparison websites remains underdeveloped in empirical research. Service experience consciousness reflects a trait among shoppers who are highly demanding in service encounters, and thus tend to exhibit a higher dissatisfaction threshold. This trait, for example, has been reported to be an important enabler to customer-perceived use of price comparison websites (Osakwe and Chovancová 2015), and is therefore included in the proposed conceptual model:
We extend this research by arguing that since this set of shoppers invests a significant amount of cognitive, emotional and even intellectual resources into service interactions/encounters with the firm, they are therefore more demanding, difficult to please and more likely to move from one store to another in search for better services at all times. Customer service experience consciousness has already been identified as a trait reflecting the likelihood of a customer to become highly dissatisfied with service encounters and since customer dissatisfaction has been linked to switching intentions in prior research (e.g. Fan and Suh 2014), it can be posited therefore that customer service experience consciousness and eSwitching behavior are related. Moreover, following previous research (Keaveney 1995; Liang et al. 2013), we argue that service inconvenience, impolite behavior on the part of service personnel, and occurrence of core service and service encounter failures will be less tolerated by those scoring high in customer service experience consciousness and thus in this case impacting eSwitching behavior. Consequently, the following hypothesis has been developed:
The final construct, from an empowered customer perspective, we felt pertinent to include in the study is that of the perceived usefulness of online ads.
2.6 Perceived Usefulness of Online Ads
Consumers’ attitudinal response to advertisements in general and online ads, in particular, is mixed (Le and Vo 2017; Shavitt et al. 1998; Schlosser et al. 1999), yet it is considered an important contributing factor when investigating online consumer behavior (Ducoffe and Carlo 2000; Mehta 2000; Osakwe and Chovanocva 2015; Paliwoda et al. 2007). Some consumers have ill-feelings about online ads, others may be indifferent to online ads, while some have positive perceptions about online ads. In theory, however, ads are often meant to inform consumers and offer choices which they can easily choose from. Online ads, therefore, empower consumers concerning his/her buying decisions (cf. Ducoffe and Curlo 2000). Therefore, in this instance, online ads can confer significant power to consumers (Hudders et al. 2019), especially when it is perceived to be informative and valuable. In an online services context, strong perceptions towards online ads provide fertile ground for shoppers to become increasingly price-sensitive (Osakwe and Chovancová 2015). This may be particularly true with regard to the use of price comparison websites. This study, therefore, extends this line of the suggestion by including eSwitching behaviour as an alternative outcome of online ads’ perceived usefulness. Consequently, the following hypotheses were developed:
H6: Customers’ perceived usefulness of ads positively influences their perception of price comparison websites.
H7: Customers’ perceived usefulness of ads positively influences their eSwitching behavior.
The above literature review and proposed hypotheses can be summarized in the theoretical model proposed in Fig. 1. This model extends prior research (e.g. Osakwe and Chovancová 2015) by our assessment of enablers to the perceived use of price comparison websites and eSwitching behavior, especially concerning young and existing online shoppers.
The methodology used to test the proposed model is outlined in the following section.