Professor Kathy Hamilton is a member of the Department of Marketing at the University of Strathclyde. As co-author of the 2016 publication Consumer Vulnerability: Conditions, Contexts and Characteristics, she literally wrote the book on consumer vulnerability and her research examines, among other things, the relationships between globalised consumerism and social exclusion.
Could we start with an overview of what your work deals with?
My broad area of interest is consumer research, specifically Consumer Culture Theory (CCT) and Transformative Consumer Research (TCR). They’re both sub-disciplines within that broader area.
I’ll start with TCR, because that’s perhaps most relevant to our conversation. The key word is ‘transformative’. This is research that has some kind of transformative benefit for the consumers who are participating in the study. It may be a benefit in terms of consumer wellbeing, welfare or quality of life. It shows that academic research within a marketing department can have a broader scope than just having a managerial implication or a managerial benefit. So it’s not research that’s intended to have a commercial benefit in terms of helping organisations sell more products or helping businesses with their brand. It’s something that will have a benefit for the consumer.
TCR is focused on social problems of some kind. It could be about food access, sustainability, gender issues, or health-related issues for example. My interest in consumer vulnerability dovetails nicely within that arena of work that has a social impact.
CCT tends to be a bit more theoretical. It’s about understanding consumption phenomenon within the cultural context of globalised consumer culture. It recognises that consumption is embedded within the processes of globalisation within market capitalism and thinks about how those broader systems impact on consumers, institutions and society at large. CCT recognises that consumption is about much more than just the moment of purchase, and that there are multiple ways in which a consumer can acquire their goods and services. So it might be a purchase, but it also might be sharing, or renting for example.
It also extends to the whole consumption cycle and really broadens the scope of topics that might be considered under consumer research, and takes a broader perspective. It recognises the complexity and diversity of consumers and moves away from big classifications, and recognises that each individual is impacted by the global consumer culture that we live in.
How does consumer vulnerability extend beyond ‘big classifications’?
One of the most important things is moving beyond thinking about consumer vulnerability in broadly demographic terms. Very often ‘vulnerable’ is a label that’s given to certain demographic groups of consumers. Individuals of pensionable age might be one
of those groups. Yet that doesn’t match reality, because the research tells us that individuals of pensionable age can live very active, multi-dimensional, fulfilling lives. The problem with these demographic classifications is that they generalise, and they generalise to an extent that it no longer becomes useful.
One of the main themes of a lot of the different conversations and research projects that I’ve been involved in over the years is a shift away from this demographic approach to vulnerability, and recognising that consumer vulnerability can be experienced by everyone at various points in their lives.
It can be felt particularly during times of transition, whether that be a job loss or a period of ill health, or grief.
Something else that’s worth mentioning is language. Within my own work over the years, there’s been a definite shift away from speaking about ‘vulnerable consumers’ to speaking
about ‘consumer vulnerability’. There are probably two main reasons for that. The first is that if we say ‘vulnerable consumers’, that can create an impression that somehow there’s
a certain blame or responsibility on the consumer, and they are vulnerable because of their own actions. The second reason is this idea of permanence; if you say that somebody is a vulnerable consumer, it gives an impression of a fixed state that they are stuck in, when again, vulnerability can be very transitory.
Vulnerability can’t be solved from the individual perspective alone – it’s due to bigger market issues. And it’s due to market failure in some cases.
What role do businesses have to play in identifying and addressing consumer vulnerability?
I think they have a big role. This is something I’ve thought about quite a lot recently. For the past 20 months, I’ve had an ongoing problem with my electricity service provider, to the extent that I have a file on my computer with all my correspondence, and I take a note every time I’ve had a conversation with them. It has been quite stressful and challenging for me, even as somebody who has a fairly good awareness of consumer rights, to deal with this organisation. And it made me think about how it must be even more difficult for consumers who don’t have that background and who are vulnerable in some way.
One of the definitions that you sometimes see of consumer vulnerability is the sense of powerlessness. As an individual consumer, you have to make a really significant effort to get your voice heard sometimes. There is a disparity in power between a business, whatever it may be, and the consumer, which can often create instances of vulnerability.
If you were to read a company’s policy, they’re probably saying they’re doing a lot of the right things on consumer vulnerability. But there’s a big difference between what they say they’re going to do and how that’s actually implemented within the organisation, especially when you’re talking about these massive organisations that have thousands of employees. Often there are good intentions – but they need to be put into practice.
You’ve spoken about individual circumstances and transitional phases that can create vulnerability. But what about more long-term factors like poverty, or social exclusion, or racial discrimination in certain markets and situations?
They have a big role. My PhD looked at low-income families and how they coped within consumer culture. One of the things that came out of that research is that poverty is much more than just an economic condition; it is a socio-cultural condition as well.
I did interviews with families that were living on very low incomes. They felt a pressure to keep up with societal norms of consumption, which has an impact on their choices. For example, quite a few of the families I spoke to told me that they really diverted their attention to visible things. So it was important that their children had the right brand names, the right trainers, because they felt they were going to be judged on them and they didn’t want their children to stand out from their peers. So in their budgeting decisions, that’s where the money was allocated, because that’s something people can see. But what people can’t see is whether or not you heat your home. They would sit at home with multiple jumpers on and blankets around them because nobody can see that, and nobody can judge you for that. They would skimp on the food they were eating because again, nobody knows what you’re eating for your dinner.
When you think of [Maslow’s] traditional theory, it would be that we have this hierarchy of needs – we meet our basic needs before we move up to our social needs. But for many of these people, there was a switch going on there. It was all about fitting in, it was about stigma and it was about being included.
What impact has COVID-19 had on consumer vulnerability?
It’s definitely heightened particular forms of vulnerability that were there before. Obvious examples of that might be things like food poverty, and the huge increase in demand for food banks. It’s also brought loneliness to the fore a lot more. People don’t go to the marketplace for purely functional reasons. They go there for social reasons too, and when all the normal spaces that you interact in are shut down, it really heightens the experience of loneliness, which in itself can be a form of consumer vulnerability.
Everyone has experienced it, but I don’t think everyone has experienced it in the same way. Certainly, most people have experienced glimpses of vulnerability but it’s a very different experience to be stuck in a comfortable home, with a garden and everything you need around you, versus being stuck somewhere small, with no outdoor space, and not in the state of repair that you would want it to be.
Could you tell us about your current work on shared public spaces?
This is part of a Transformative Service Research (TSR) project. TSR is about understanding how services can have an impact on consumer wellbeing. Traditionally Service Research might focus on things like firm profitability, or customer loyalty. Our interest is much more on consumers themselves. We wanted to think about what role public service spaces have in consumers’ lives and how they could be empowering and inclusive for consumers who are experiencing vulnerability.
The project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and we have been working with a non-profit organisation in a deprived part of Glasgow. They have a library, a museum, art space and community space. And they have a very strong ethos of delivering services that are for different groups of people who are experiencing vulnerability. The project started in April 2020, just after we went into lockdown. The whole project is geared around space, but we couldn’t access the space for such a long time. In itself that was interesting, because
it brought to light even more the importance of that space within the lives of the local community.
When we spoke to people, they talked about this space in very positive ways. The words they use are ‘nurturing’, ‘inclusive’, ‘caring’, ‘welcoming’. One of the things that has come out of this is the importance of having a physical space that is cared for, because in turn that makes the people who go there feel like they are cared for.
How can trading standards benefit from, or help with, your research?
I feel that one of the things that’s missing is having joined-up conversations where we can all speak together. We want our work to have a social impact, and to do that we academics need to partner with people like trading standards, regulators, third-sector organisations and people working in policy.
A few years ago, we did some work across the UK, the US and France, as part of a bigger group. We did interviews with people in consumer organisations and charities at a practical level. And we found that there are certain barriers to these collaborations. Trying to break down those barriers so that everyone can have conversations is really important.
One of our key pieces of advice has been to move away from the demographic approach to vulnerability, and it’s really nice when you see publications come out from regulators who have approached vulnerability a bit more broadly than in the past. So I do think that that has filtered through quite well. But I feel that there are more opportunities for interaction, and that that’s the key, because academics don’t want their work to be sitting there and not being used.
One of the things I’m working on with some colleagues at the moment is whether or not theory has any place in practice. When we’re publishing work in academic journals, for example, that has to be quite theory-heavy. But is that useful for non-academics? Do they see any value in it? Can it help them solve some of these practical problems around vulnerability, or whatever the social problem may be? If people who read this have any thoughts on that, it would be great if they could contact me.