Wieser H.(a), Tröger N.(a) and Hübner R.(b)
a) Austrian Chamber of Labour, Prinz-Eugen-Straße 20-22, 1040 Vienna, Austria
b) Alpe-Adria University of Klagenfurt, Sterneckstraße 15, A-9020 Klagenfurt, Austria
Keywords: product use-time; desired lifetime; expectations; replacement decisions; survey.
Abstract: In this paper, we present empirical evidence from a large-scale questionnaire survey on the average use-times of durable goods and the consumers’ desired lifetimes. The results show that consumers’ want durable goods to last between 1.7 and 3.6 times longer than they are used. Moreover, we emphasise the difference between desired and expected lifetimes and explain, how the consumers’ expectations regarding product lifetimes affect their buying and replacement decisions.
Modern society witnesses an unprecedented acceleration of social life (see Rosa, 2015). This can also be observed for contemporary material and consumer culture, which is characterised by increasing product replacement rates and short product life spans. As a result of this development, overall resource consumption reached a level that severely harms the environment and threatens the well-being of future generations. Moreover, increasing replacement rates create social pressures to stay up to date and keep pace with the technological development, resulting in harried and exhausted consumers. In light of these adverse consequences of fast consumerism, various observers called for a deceleration of consumption (Ax, 2001; Cooper, 2005).
However, surprisingly little is known about the motivations behind replacement decisions and empirical evidence on the actual replacement rate of consumer durables remains rare.1 Most evidence is limited to single products like cars, washing machines and mobile phones. Another limitation is that the data lacks comparability due to conceptual confusion and different approaches to measurement. To bring some conceptual clarity into the debate, we thus decided to introduce a useful term from German. The “use-time” (German: Nutzungsdauer) denotes how long a product is used and includes both the duration in operation and the duration in stand-by (Murakami, Oguchi, Tasaki, Daigo, & Hashimoto, 2010). The use-time is thus formulated from the perspective of the user instead of the product. Correspondingly, we suggest to use common terms like product lifespan, lifetime and service life from a products’ perspective only.
In this paper, we provide empirical evidence from a large-scale questionnaire survey on the average use-times of 21 products, including cars, clothes, consumer electronics, small and major household appliances, and furniture. Furthermore, we draw from 25 interviews with Austrian residents to show how product use- times and replacement decisions are related to the consumers’ expectations regarding product lifetimes. This study thus contributes to the discussion on replacement motivations and addresses calls for evidence beyond single product categories (Cox, Griffith, Giorgi, & King, 2013; Evans & Cooper, 2010).
Methods and sample
The empirical material comprises two sources of data: The first one is a web-based, large- scale questionnaire survey that was sent out to appr. 5,600 Austrian residents in November, 2014. Within two weeks, we received 1,009 completed questionnaires (response rate: 18%). The final sample is representative for the Austrian population aged between 18 and 65 in terms of gender, age, education, household structure, and region (see appendix).
Before we sent out the questionnaire, it was cognitively pre-tested among nine participants using probing and paraphrasing techniques (see Collins, 2003).
The second data source is derived from 25 semi-structured interviews conducted in the period between January and March 2015. The interviews followed a guideline and took 95 minutes on average. The first half of the interviews inquired about the “careers” (i.e. past experiences) of the interviewees as users of mobile phones. The second half was concerned with the living situation and focused on items like major household appliances and furniture. The design of the interview guideline was inspired by practice research (see Røpke, 2009; Warde, 2005).
The interviewees were obtained via the questionnaire survey, in which we asked respondents to indicate their willingness to participate in a follow-up study. 2 The final sample was fairly balanced in terms of gender, age, household composition, and housing situation. Finally, the interviews were fully transcribed and coded.
The questionnaire survey inquired about the use-time of various products. This required two steps: First, respondents had to go through a list of 21 products and indicate which they have already possessed and discarded or replaced. We selected at least three durable goods from five product categories: clothes, consumer electronics, small household appliances, major household appliances, and furniture. Moreover, we added the car because of the high environmental potential associated with an extension of its average use-time. The dissemination of the selected goods ranges from 37% (desk and camera) to 83% (mobile phone). Only 8.6% of the respondents have already possessed all 21 goods. In a second step, respondents were asked to indicate how long they typically use the selected products before storing, passing on or discarding them (in years and months).
Figure 1 depicts the average use-time of each product.3 The lowest use-times are found for clothes, which are used between 2.2 (sandals) and 3.9 years (winter jacket/coat) on average. Being used for only 2.7 years, mobile phones clearly stand out among consumer electronics. In terms of differences between socio-demographic groups, we find strong, positive relationships between the respondents’ age and the use-times of most products. Although less pronounced, also income, and educational level are positively related to longer use-times. Moreover, use-times are negatively related to household size.
Intriguingly, the use-times obtained in this study are significantly shorter than the ones reported in recent studies conducted in Spain (Gutíerrez, Adenso-Díaz, Lozano & González-Torre, 2011) and Germany (Prakash, Dehoust, Gsell & Schleicher, 2015). In comparison with the use- times reported in the latter study, the differences amount to 3.6 years for washing machines, 3.9 years for refrigerators, three years for stoves and 2.9 years for TVs. A recent study from Brazil, however, yielded similar use- times as reported here (Echegaray, 2014).
Figure 2 illustrates how long consumers would like products to last (i.e. ‘desired lifetimes’). Notably, consumers want products to last considerably longer than they are currently used. A summary of the ratios between actual use-times and desired lifetimes can be found in Table 1.
The desired lifetimes, however, should not be conflated with the people’s expectations regarding product lifetimes. Our interviews show that people generally assume that products will last considerably shorter than they would like them to last. For instance, one interviewee stated: “I want a washing machine to last 10 years, but expect 5 years”. With the notable exceptions of Knight, King, Steffen & Cox (2013) and Wilhelm, Yankov & Magee (2011), this difference was not taken into account in previous studies. Cooper (2004), Brook Lyndhurst (2011) and Echegaray (2014), for instance, asked their respondents to indicate a ‘reasonable’ lifespan of various products and interpreted the results as desired lifetimes. A ‘reasonable’ lifespan, however, can also reflect the respondents’ assumptions or expectations regarding product lifetimes. Consequently, previous studies underestimated the difference between desired lifetimes and use-times.
Differentiating between desired and expected lifetimes proves also important for a better understanding of the consumers’ buying and replacement decisions. In subsequent sections we discuss how the consumers’ expectations regarding product lifetimes affect their buying and replacement decisions.
Buying and replacement decisions
The consumers’ expectations regarding product lifetimes play a vital role throughout the consumption process. In the acquisition phase, consumers are confronted with the decision on whether to buy a new or used product. Consider the following example: Person A generally expects a car to last 15 years.
Accordingly, she would expect a second-hand, 5-year-old car to run another 10 years. Person B, in contrast, assumes a new car to last 10 years and a 5-year-old car another 5 years only. In this case, buying a second-hand car is clearly more attractive to Person A: Whereas Person B would expect the new car to run twice as long as a second-hand car, the ratio would be only 1.5 for Person A. Hence, low expectations regarding product lifetimes make second-hand products less attractive to consumers.
Besides the decision on whether to buy new or used products, consumers also have to make a decision regarding product quality and costs. An interesting starting point is Cooper’s observation that “many consumers who want longer lasting appliances do not generally purchase premium quality models” (2004: 442). He argued that consumers may have difficulties at judging the durability of products because prices are not reliable indicators for quality. However, the consumers’ expectations regarding product lifetimes are important as well. Some interviewees questioned that higher quality comes with higher prices and that differences between premium and no-name products are still as pronounced as they used to be. These consumers do not expect products from premium brands to last longer and see little reason for paying higher prices for premium products. Other interviewees would expect a positive relationship between price and quality, but are anxious that a high-priced product could break down early and hesitate to invest a lot of money for premium products. In both cases, low confidence in the durability of products eventually leads to shorter use-times.
Consumers are confronted with a similar problem in the case of a mobile phone contract renewal. In Austria, consumers are typically given the choice between taking a new phone and a discount on phone calls and other services. An interviewee explained that he prefers a new phone in these situations because he is sceptical that a mobile phone would last for another two years (typical contract period).
The consumer’s expectations regarding product lifetimes affect also their decisions on whether to repair or replace a defective product. Consumers with low expectations regarding product lifetimes are more likely to prefer replacements to repairs because they think that the latter would not pay off. In this context, also the technicians’ and salespersons’ expectations regarding product lifetimes are important because they base their recommendations to customers on these expectations. For example, in one case a technician did not bring any spare parts along, because the dryer was ‘already’ 10 years old. In his opinion, 10 years was a reasonable lifetime of a dryer. However, although he recommended replacing the dryer, the interviewee wanted it repaired. In these situations, the expectations regarding product lifetimes are actively negotiated between consumers and technicians/salespersons.
Finally, low expectations may also be used as justifications for early replacements. Once a product has met one’s expectations, it is “mentally written off”, as van Nes (2010: 116) has pointed out. The following example may illustrate this point: At the time when the dishwasher stopped working after 18 years of usage, the interviewee did not even consider repairing the dishwasher because she felt that after 18 years one can allow oneself to buy a new dishwasher. The interviewee added that if the dishwasher would have been only eight years old, she would have repaired it.
In this section we have shown various ways how the consumers’ expectations regarding product lifetimes influence their buying and replacement decisions. Eventually, low expectations always lead to shorter use-times and earlier replacements. In light of the critical role of expectations, it is essential to understand how these are formed.
The formation of expectations
How long a consumer expects a specific product to last depends on a number of factors, including prices, brand, online reviews and the length of guarantee (see Cox et al., 2013; Knight et al., 2013). In this section, however, we are primarily concerned with the question why general expectations have reached such a low level. The analysis of our interviews suggests that mainly two factors are at play: past experiences and the widespread belief that built-in obsolescence is ubiquitous (see also Brook Lyndhurst, 2011).
Without being prompted, 18 out of 25 interviewees stated that in their opinion manufacturers design their products with built- in obsolescence and that this is common practice across all industries. While some concluded this on the basis of their own experiences, others referred to the logic of competitive markets. In their opinion, designing products with short lifetimes is a necessary sales strategy in a competitive environment. Some interviewees thus blamed the capitalist system rather than individual manufacturers. This widespread scepticism may be the reason why the link between brand and longevity is often questioned.
With regard to the people’s past experiences, two observations are worth noting: First, negative experiences weigh much more than positive experiences. While all interviewees could easily name some products which could not meet their expectations, many were surprised to find out during the interview how old some of their possessions are (interestingly, some started knocking on wood – a sign to express one’s luck in a situation considered to be out of one’s control). Moreover, while we found many cases where our interviewees lowered their expectations due to negative experiences, none of them appears to have raised her expectations over time. The second important observation is that negative experiences with one product tend to affect the expectations of other products as well. One negative experience with one product can thus lead to low expectations of product lifetimes in general. A possible explanation for this is that consumers interpret negative experiences as confirmations of their conviction that manufacturers accelerate the obsolescence of their products. Since built-in obsolescence is considered common practice across all industries, one negative experience can lower one’s expectations in general.
In the previous sections, we have outlined how expected lifetimes affect buying and replacement decisions and provided some insights into how these expectations are formed. A better understanding of these processes is key for designing strategies towards slower replacement rates. Moreover, we have presented the average use-times and desired lifetimes of 21 products. This paper was also written with the intention to bring some conceptual clarity into the debate. First, differentiating between use-times and lifetimes would make it clearer whether the products’ or the consumers’ perspective is taken. Second, distinguishing the consumers’ expectations from what they desire, is key in order to understand how desires differ from use-times and how expectations influence both buying and replacement decisions.
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Appendix: sample characteristics