Cognitive dissonance is thought to relate to the return of retail products by consumers (Egan et al. 2007; Keaveney et al. 2007; Sweeney et al. 2000). Customers that experience dissonance may seek to reverse the effects of their purchase decision by returning the product (Gilovich and Medvec 1995; Zeelenberg et al. 1996). Cognitive dissonance may have an immediate influence on product returns, however, it is also important to consider antecedents that may affect the level of that cognitive dissonance (Inman and Zeelenberg 2002; Solvang 2007). In the research presented in this paper the relationship between the awareness of return policies, customer opportunism, and switching barriers on two forms of cognitive dissonance (product and emotional) is reported. In addition, the moderating role of gender on these relationships is identified. Structural equation models were tested for the sample in total and used to assess the role that gender has as a moderator .
The role that cognitive dissonance plays in product returns is based on a post purchase comparison of what was purchased versus other alternatives that were available. Cognitive dissonance is reported in the literature to consist of two dimensions, product dissonance and emotional dissonance. Product dissonance represents an aspect of dissonance related to the product purchased that in turn results in emotional dissonance that is closely tied to, but separate from product dissonance (Sweeney et al. 2000). Customer awareness of return policies represents the level of customer awareness of the return policies that the retailer has put in place. Customer opportunism is based on the notion of an individual or organization acting in its own self-interest (Williamson 1975). The present research suggests that the same concept may apply to retail consumers where they may act in their own self interests if given the chance (Harris 2010). Switching barriers are related to the cost and effort to the customer of switching products or switching retailers. This is important to consider as customers experiencing cognitive dissonance may search for information and find other retailers or substitute products (Gbadamosi 2009).
A bootstrapping procedure was used to determine the significance of the path coefficient by evaluating 5,000 random samples of 308 Target and Wal-Mart customers who had made product returns. H1.1 was supported, indicating a negative relationship between customer awareness and emotional dissonance. H1.2 was supported indicating a negative relationship between customer awareness and product dissonance. H2.1 was supported showing a positive linkage between customer opportunism and emotional dissonance. H2.2 was supported with a positive linkage between customer opportunism and product dissonance. H3.1 was supported where switching barriers was positively associated with the emotional dissonance. H3.2 was also supported with switching barriers positively associated with product dissonance. H4.0 was supported indicating a positive association between product dissonance and emotional dissonance.
The model was also evaluated by comparing subgroups for male and female customers separately along with the bootstrapping procedure. Group comparisons were made using a parametric t-test to detect significant differences between the path coefficients for each subgroup (Henseler et al. 2009; Keil et al. 2000). By examining the path coefficients for the male subgroup the previous hypotheses were supported with the only exception being H3.2. For females, when the direct effects of the path coefficients were considered, only one of the hypothesized linkages (H3.1) was not supported. Using the Keil et al. (2000) method parametric t-tests were calculated for the difference between the direct effects of the path coefficients for male and female subgroups. These results showed a significant difference between customer awareness and the two dimensions of cognitive dissonance (H1.1 and H1.2). Since the path coefficient is negative these linkages were less for male customers than they were for female customers. Based on the significant differences between the subgroups, the direct effects for H4.0 were significantly stronger for male customers, indicating they were more likely to have product dissonance impact emotional dissonance.
The research reported here has addressed the product and emotional dimensions of cognitive dissonance related to returns. However, a major limitation exists in that it did not measure the impact of the variables under study on the actual levels of product returns. Future research is suggested to address this issue.