For her dissertation, Natalia Firsova, a postgraduate student at the HSE Laboratory for Studies in Economic Sociology, analyzed factors influencing the choice of shopping methods. She presented her work at the Sociology of Markets seminar organized by the Laboratory.
Today, according to data of the Russian Association of E-Communication (RAEC), 64.4 million people or 55% of the adult population in Russia uses the internet. Russia ranks first in Europe and sixth in the world in number of internet users. Internet penetration in all federal districts of Russia has exceeded 50%.
According to RLMS-HSE household monitoring, 59% of the Russian population has a computer at home, and 46% have an internet connection at home. But even though the number of internet users in Russia has been constantly growing over recent years, the number of people shopping online remains low, Firsova says.
Most often the internet is used for communication: through chat rooms, blogs, forums, social networks, dating sites, and email, as reported by 30% of those surveyed. Twenty eight percent of internet users are interested in viewing and downloading images, music, films, and texts, and 27% look for information on products and services. Although searching for information on products and services was among the most popular activities, only 11% of users shopped on the internet, including for booking tickets, travel packages, and hotels.
Usually a consumer economy is studied in terms of prices, disposable income, and rationality. To study the new consumer practice of online shopping, Firsova tried to determine what factors (predictors) influence consumer behaviour among Russians using the internet, including for online shopping. She suggested using the tools of the diffusion of innovation theory, which tries to explain how, why, and at what speed new ideas and technologies spread in different cultures. Practices that have appeared over the last 20 years and have been mastered by no more than 16% of the population are classified as «innovative» under the theory.
Firsovahas proposed that the decision to buy online can be influenced both by socio-demographic characteristics and components of one’s life history perspective: accumulated social capital (education, profession, ties in the local community), involvement in practices that stimulate cognitive abilities (abilities to read and learn), and material and non-material resources (knowledge, free time). Theregion or type of community in which the online shopper lives can also be important.
Involvement in online shopping is an innovative practice closely related to social capital. One can find out about an opportunity to buy on the internet from friends. The places where people make friends are schools, universities, workplaces, and places of residence. With the appearance of the internet, people’s social links have ceased to be broken even with a change of residence or job.
Growing social connections, related to employment or education,are the most instrumental means through which the individual obtains new information, says Firsova. This is the potential for mastering innovations. And a change in social connections is evidence of an individual experiencing a ‘break up’ with one set of practices and mastering another. This means that the expansion of connections promotes the development of universal abilities to adapt and learn.
However, obtaining new information, such as about online shopping opportunities, through extensive social ties is not enough. This information needs to be processed, and for this purpose individuals need to master new technologies. This activity requires a certain level of cognitive ability. This means that involvement in such practices as reading and studying promotes the mastery of innovative practices, the researcher said.
Shopping in stores and boutiques competes with shopping online, but working people have little time to visit stores. This phenomenon of non-demonstrative consumption is specific to countries with liberal market economies, the research found. This means that free time is also a factor that influences the frequency of online shopping. In addition, online shopping saves time that would be spent travelling to stores, and gives non-affluent consumers opportunities to buy goods at a lower cost after spending time comparing prices and searching for discounts.
Internet shopping is not limited locally, and a knowledge of foreign languages allows shoppers to use more internet stores. Incidentally, the first productsthat could be purchased online as far back as the 1990s were books. Their sale on the internet was established in the USA, which meant that a knowledge of English was necessary.
The prevalence of online shopping is influenced by the external context, such as the developed internet infrastructure and internet availability in public spaces, for example, in cafes, post offices, workplaces and friends’ homes. Also important is the lack of statutory bans or considerable legal limitations placed on e-commerce, the report says. The variety of providers and the low prices that can be found by using the internet can also play a role.
As a result of the research, the key characteristics of the Russian online shopper were determined: professional mobility, higher education, an inclination toward self-education, a love of reading, a knowledge of foreign languages, and living in the capital city.
Age matters: the older the consumer, the more often he or she prefers to shop in conventional stores. Earlier studies showed that internet shopping had a ‘female face’, but the fresh data used by Firsova shows that gender doesn’t play a role in the choice of purchasing methods: both men and women are inclined to shop online with the same frequency. The researcher explains the disappearance of the gender factor in online shopping with the change in the character of shopping: it has become ‘invisible’, non-public, which allowed the procedure of shopping to be released from gender limitations.
Educational and geographical mobility factors (the frequency of their change) also turned out to be statistically unimportant in the calculations. This means that these factors hardly influence the choice of shopping methods.