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Shy Buyers

Consumption Habits for Socially Stigmatized Goods

Robert Pepper
The University of Memphis
Spring 1997

This research paper is a partial requirement
for the completion of Econ 4920 Senior Seminar under the supervision of

Dr. K. K. Fung


        Research was undertaken throughout various stores in the Memphis area to see if any relationships can be drawn for socially stigmatized goods. The data collected proved that the buying habits for stigmatized goods are different than the buying habits for non-stigmatized goods. Individual buyers will either choose to purchase less stigmatized goods, or they will attempt to decrease the visibility and traceability of the purchase, in an attempt to limit the potential loss of respectability. This tendency is more pronounced among higher-income buyers who presumably have more respectability on the line.

Motivation- Adult Entertainment

        The issue of adult entertainment, be it magazines, videos, strip clubs or prostitution has always provided a strong reaction from an image conscious society. It is always interesting when in a convenience store or bookshop to see a person tentatively ask for an adult magazine. To see the reaction of the other people in line as the bemused assistant hands over the magazine is a sight for sore eyes.

        What must be going through the buyer's mind, knowing full well that most in the store view him as some sort of sexual pervert? How much pride has to be swallowed to buy the pleasurable magazine, and what habits are changed to distract or avoid the attention of an image conscious public?

        All these questions are very interesting. Does society really hold that much of an influence to send a man out past midnight to buy a magazine, just to avoid the busy periods in the stores? Does a street hustler in the inner city care about his image as much as a top executive in the suburbs? All these questions intrigue the mind, and provide the motivation for this paper.

Socially Stigmatized Goods

        Certain goods in the economy carry some form of social stigma. Individual consumption and buying patterns are often changed in an effort to internalize the negative effect of purchasing stigmatized goods. Goods of social stigma are classified as such by the way they are perceived as being unhealthy and unnecessary for society. Individuals who derive utility from their consumption are aware of the stigma attached to such materials.

        Adult magazines are goods that carry with them some social stigma. Individuals vary in the degree to which they are prepared to sacrifice the goods or limit its visibility and traceability. Should socially stigmatized goods be sacrificed for something of greater respectability, or should the purchase of the goods be disguised and covered up to limit the social consequences of such a consumption?

        Facing this dilemma, the individual is often able to save face and avoid the embarrassment of purchasing goods of social stigma by masking his buying habits. Certainly the income of the consumer and his social status must be considered when determining how an individual masks his consumption.

Indifference Curve Analysis Using the Dual Constraints of Income and Respectability

        An important tool to use in looking at individual behavior is indifference curves. The income constraint is commonly used in indifference curve analysis. If individual demand for 2 goods is analyzed, the income constraint will show exactly how much of each goods the individual is able to consume, given his income and the prices of goods. The individual is able to operate on the line, but beyond it any indifference curve would be unreachable.

        In this paper a second constraint will be used, the respectability constraint. The respectability constraint will act as a limit on the amount of each type of goods an individual is able to consume, given the respectability of the goods. The constraint represents the maximum amount of socially stigmatized goods or other goods that can be purchased with the stock of respectability that the consumer has. Unlike the income constraint which allows the consumer to buy more of both goods when income increases, the respectability constraint prevents the consumer from buying more stigmatized goods when the stock of respectability increases. Just like income, anywhere beyond the respectability constraint is unattainable, as the individual is not willing to sacrifice any more respectability for additional consumption. The individual will choose to operate on a point on the constraint line, so as to gain maximum utility given the limitation.

Figure 1- Indifference curves for other goods and stigmatized goods,with the dual constraints of income and respectability.


        In Figure 1, individual consumption is viewed for two goods - stigmatized goods and other goods. The individual is faced with an income constraint and a respectability constraint. The income constraint is shaped to consider consumption limits based purely on personal income and the price of the two goods.

        In contrast, the slope of the respectability constraint is steeper than the slope of the income constraint,as the respectability constraint limits the consumption of stigmatized goods over other goods more than the income constraint. A large stock of respectability is lost when consuming stigmatized goods. In contrast, the individual will be willing to consume more amounts of other goods before reaching his respectability limit, as other goods carry with them less of a social stigma. Hence the steepness of the curve.

        Where the income and respectability constraints meet ( point B ), the individual will choose to consume O2, S2 of the two goods. If the income constraint is just considered, the individual would consume S1. However, when respectability is also considered, the consumer will choose to sacrifice a quantity of stigmatized goods for other goods. Thus respectability will force the individual to reduce his quantity demanded of the stigmatized goods.

Figure 2- An increase/shift in the income constraint, and a resulting change in the respectability constraint.

        When an individual experiences a rise in income, the income constraint will shift outwards from Income Constraint 1 to Income Constraint 2 (Figure 2). If the individual is a very liberal person, then, regardless of social status the consumer will only look at income as a constraint. Here the respectability constraint is effectively absent. The individual will locate at point C on the graph.Both other goods and stigmatized goods will increase in quantity demanded. To the liberal individual, he is simply purchasing two goods as if neither of them has any stigma attached.

        More commonly, the individual will be under a respectability constraint for stigmatized goods (see Respectability Constraint 1). Thus, with the increase in income the individual will now choose to locate at point D, consuming less of the stigmatized goods and more of other goods compared to before the income increase (i.e., point B).  But with the increase in income, the individual will no doubt increase the importance he places on respectability. Thus the respectability constraint will swing inwards (to Respectability Constraint 2) as the individual increases his awareness of the stigma attached to certain goods. In this case, the individual will locate at point E. Here even more stigmatized goods will be sacrificed for the other goods.

        In summary in considering respectability, stigmatized goods will experience a significant decrease in quantity demanded. With no respectability constraint, a considerably larger amount of stigmatized goods is consumed. Respectability alters individual behavior considerably for goods of social stigma. The effect is further heightened with an increase in income.

Figure 3- A disproportionate shift in the income constraint and a resulting change in the respectability constraint.

Overcoming the Respectability Constraint

        If the individual witnesses an increase in income, he will no doubt witness an increase in social status and responsibility. He will therefore be more aware of disguising the visibility and traceability of stigmatized goods. This may be done by purchasing other goods to hide the single purchase, thus effectively raising the price of the stigmatized goods. Alternatively the individual may choose to buy from more expensive places (i.e., news stands) where the individual's identity can be greater protected, in comparison to consumption by subscriptions,where the price is cheaper but the traceability of the purchase is increased.

        Graphically, this means that the outward shift of the income constraint will not be parallel. Specifically, an equivalent increase in income will shift the income constraint from Income Constraint 1 to Income Constraints 3 instead of to Income Constraint 2 (see Figure 3).  Because the price of the stigmatized goods (when bundled with other non-stigmatized goods) has effectively increased,the same income increase will buy the same amount of other goods (whose price has not increased) but fewer of the stigmatized goods. This trade-off between higher effective price and less visibility allows the buyer to purchase more stigmatized goods.  Comparing point D with point G in Figure 3, we can see that point G indicates a larger purchase of stigmatized goods than point D.

Data Collection

        The economics behind stigmatized goods is extremely interesting. The observed changes in individual consumption on the theoretical graphs seem logical and acceptable, but without data to support the analysis, the economic theory is worthless. Research is thus necessary to see if goods of social stigma (in this paper, adult magazines) actually correlate to the theory given.

        Data needed to test the theoretical framework was collected through four different avenues.
A. Field observation:   The main research carried out was the collection of data at 30 different stores in the Memphis area. 3 types of stores were focused upon:  adult stores, convenience stores and book stores. Within each type of stores, the samples are listed by their proximity to the inner city. All the adult stores are located primarily in the central part of the city. The convenience stores are listed in such a way that the first stores are closest to the inner city, while the last stores are furthest away from the city center, in the affluent suburbs. The book stores are also ranked in a similar way, however they are located primarily further away from the city center and closer to the suburbs.The exception to this rule is the Airport Bookstore, which will act as an exception to the relationships and trends found in the research. These stores provided the majority of the field data.
B. Questionnaires:  Two separate perception surveys were done on the general public. They were primarily used to help support the main research data.
C. Lexis-Nexis database: The Lexis-Nexis database provided some interesting data on magazine subscription rates.
D. Government income data:  The City Treasury Department provided average income data by neighborhood.

Data Analysis

A.  Survey data:   The first part of the research was intended to find out just how poorly adult magazines are perceived in the public eye. 30 people were questioned regarding the respectability of 10 magazines: People, G, The Star, The National Enquirer, U.S. News and World Report, Allure, Time, Newsweek, Penthouse, and Playboy.

        When questioned, none of the 30 people respected Playboy or Penthouse the most. In contrast, 28 of the 30 people regarded Playboy or Penthouse as the least respected magazine.When asked to place the magazines in order of decency and class, Penthouse was ranked 10th and Playboy 7th. The figures illustrate the poor perception of adult magazines in the public eye.

B.  Field observation: The next part of the research involved the collection of data at 30 different locations.

Adult Stores Convenience Stores  Book Stores
1. Paris Adult Entertainment Circle K- Getwell A Novel Idea
2. Getwell Video and Books - Highland Bookstar
3. Cherokee Video Mart - Madison Borders
4. Fantasy Warehouse IV - Poplar  Little Professor
5. Fantasy World  - Winchester Bookstop Plus Inc.
6. Tammys Bookstore (Brooks Rd) - Park Airport Bookstore
7. Tammys Bookstore (Getwell Rd) - E. Shelby Drive Davis Kidd
8. Tammys Bookstore (Highway 70)  - HW 64 Burkes Bookstore
9. Blue Movies West  - Ral La Grange Bookstar (Poplar)
10.Airport Video and Book  - Stage Springs of Life

Table 1- Locations used in the research

        All 30 stores were visited to view the buying habits for goods of social stigma. First the payment methods were observed over the last 10 sales of adult materials in each store.

Fig 4.1

Fig 4.2

Fig 4.3

        The data collected shows the dominance of cash payments over credit card and check book. This trend applies to all the stores in all the locations. The missing data for 4 of the book stores, notably numbers 7, 8, 9,and 10 indicate that the bookstores do not sell adult materials. The predominance of cash payments illustrated here is not enough alone to indicate a change in buying habit for the adult magazines. The reason for cash payments might be due to the small amounts spent.

        It is necessary now to look at the average purchases made for adult materials, to justify the reasoning that small amounts are spent. For this study, an average price was taken over 10 adult purchases from each store. The averages were then put together for each type of store.

Adult Store $4.50
Convenience Store $5.75
Book Store $6.58

Table 2  Average Purchase Per Transaction

        The prices include any items bought along with the adult material. As the figures indicate, it is evident that small amounts are spent when purchasing adult materials. It is now necessary to question people on the means of payment they would choose to purchase items of $6.50 or less.

        Out of the 30 people questioned,everyone said that cash would be used for their purchases of goods at or below this price.

        It is therefore inadequate to state that cash is used only to purchase adult materials to protect the identity of the buyer. This might be the case, however the low amounts involved require further research to determine whether people's buying habits change for the consumption of adult materials.

        The next research was carried out to see if people purchase other items along with the adult material.Any additional purchases might indicate an effort to cover up the single objective of the buyer. Data was collected from the same stores to observe the buying trends. 10 purchases were noted for each store and the average was then taken.

Fig 5.1

Fig 5.2

Fig 5.3

        Taking into consideration the 4 book stores that don't sell adult magazines, the results show quite an interesting trend. It appears that in the adult stores and the convenience stores in the city center there is less of an emphasis on covering up the purchase with additional non adult materials. However in the book stores further away from the city, and in the convenience stores located in the more affluent suburbs, there is a greater tendency to cover up the purchase of the adult material. Notably these areas are also the areas of higher income, where saving face would seem to be more important.

        To follow on this study,the times when the stores were least busy was noted, and this was then compared to the times when adult materials were purchased most frequently in the stores. The data was gained with the help of the store manager sand assistants, who were able to estimate the following times.

Adult Store Quiet Hours Hours of Most Frequent Purchases
1 Varies 10am-10pm
2 in morning All day
3 Varies 12pm-12am
4 Varies 6pm-2am
5 Before 12am All day
6 in morning All day
7 8am-11am 8pm-2am
8 Up to 1pm 4pm-10pm
9 Varies 10pm-2am
10 in morning  All day

  Table 3.1- A comparison of quiet hours to most frequentadult purchases in adult stores.

Convenience Store Quiet Hours Hours of Most Frequent Purchases
1 2am-5am All day
2 1am-5am 12pm-12am
3 After 2am All day
4 2am-5am 7pm-1am
5 After 11pm 6pm-2am
6 11am-3am 8pm-12am
7 1am-5am 10pm-3am
8 12am-5am 1am-2am
9 1am-5am 1am-5am
10 2am-5am 2am-4am

Table 3.2 - A comparison of quiet hours to most frequent adult purchase sin convenience stores

Book Store Quiet Hours Hours of Most Frequent Purchases
1 10pm-11pm 10.30pm-11pm
2 10pm-11pm 8pm-11pm
3 10.30pm-11pm 10pm-11pm
4 9.30pm-11pm 10pm-11pm
5 10pm-11pm 9pm-11pm
6 Varies All day
7 - -
8 - -
9 - -
10 - -

Table 3.3 - A comparison of quiet hours to most frequent adult purchase sin book stores

        With exception drawn to the airport, which is an exception to the trend in the sense that it is not dealing with the everyday Memphis public on a regular basis, the results again show a certain relationship. It appears that, for the stores in the richer, more affluent suburban areas of town, the quiet hours correlate most closely to the hours of most frequent adult material purchases. It seems that in these areas the buyers are prepared to alter their buying habits in such a way to purchase these goods of social stigma when there are the least amount of people around.

        Data was then collected regarding the sales of Penthouse and Playboy, to see which type of magazine is most commonly purchased. Playboy magazine is deemed as more socially acceptable, with interesting articles and star interviews. In comparison, Penthouse magazine is looked upon as more perverse, with more graphical pictorial sand sexual acts outlined. Data was collected from the 30 stores and the ratio of magazine sales was noted.

Adult Store Convenience Store Book Store
  Playboy/Penthouse   Playboy/Penthouse    Playboy/Penthouse 
2 I / II I / II II / I
3 I / II I / II I / I
4 I / IIII I / IIII II / I
5 I / III I / I III / I
6 I / III II / I I / II
7 I / II I / I -
8 I / I IIII / I -
9 I / II III / I -
10 I / IIII IIII / I -

Table 4 - A look at purchases of Playboy in comparison to Penthouse

        Again it is clear to seea difference between what is bought in the different income and class areas of the city. More Penthouse magazines are consumed in the city in the more diverse areas, while Playboy is more popular in the classier suburban areas.With exception to the airport, the data gives more strength to the claim that social perception is higher in the areas of higher income.

C.  Lexis-Nexis Data
        The next part of my research was undertaken using the Nexis Lexis system at the University of Memphis.The top 15 magazines by circulation revenues were tracked down for 1989.The revenues were split up into subscription revenues and newsstand revenues.Both Playboy and Penthouse were in the top 15, so comparisons could be made.

Subscription Revenue Newsstand Revenue
Playboy 54.7 42.9
Penthouse 11.2 82.0
(figures in $million)

Table 5 - 1989 subscription and newsstand revenues for Playboy and Penthouse

        The figures prove a number of points. Subscriptions are cheaper than newsstand purchases, however they are easily traceable. Newsstand purchases are more expensive, although cash payments and no record of the purchaser make them less visible and traceable. Interestingly enough, the more respected magazine, Playboy, has more subscriptions, as the material is a more respected adult material.In contrast, the more explicit magazine, Penthouse, has more newsstand sales, as the material is less respectable. Here the buyer seems quite happy to greater internalize the purchase.

D.  Government Income Data
        Following the Nexis Lexis data, information was gathered to try and determine the income status of different areas in the Memphis catchment. Here the City Treasury Department was contacted regarding the average income of the different areas in the study. The following estimates were received.

Memphis $35,000  Germantown $50-60,000
Bartlett     $50,000 Collierville     $65,000

Table 6 - Annual average income figures for Memphis districts

        The figures complement the statements made regarding the different regions in the area. Granted, the Memphis income area is a lot larger and more diverse than the other areas. However the average figure is still behind that of the more attractive and affluent suburban areas. What is interesting to note is that all the adult stores are located in the Memphis income area. In contrast, the bookstores that refuse to sell adult materials are in the Bartlett, Germantown and Collierville income areas. The higher income areas it seems have a greater social perception of the sale of adult materials, and the areas appear more sensitive to the purchasing of any such materials.

        Additionally for research it is interesting to look at adult videos in similar detail as adult magazines.A brief research led to the same conclusions. Blockbuster, Cinemagic and Hollywood Video are the 3 main video rental units, and none carry adult materials. All serve the affluent suburban areas. In contrast, the adult stores and the few independent video rental stores that rent adult videos are all located in the city, where income is lower, class status is lower and diversity is more common.

Conclusion- Normal Purchase or Shy Buy?

        From the research I have done and the information I have collected, the following conclusions can be drawn. There is a difference in buying habits of consumers for adult materials compared to regular purchases. Although cash payments are used more regularly for adult material purchases, it is hard to draw any firm conclusions from this due to the low amounts spent.

        It is evident however that people do often try to change their purchasing of such materials by either sacrificing the stigmatized goods, or changing their buying habits. Often other goods are purchased to mask the single objective of the buyer. Often adult materials are purchased when the store is least busy, to give the buyer greater anonymity from the public. Often subscriptions are sacrificed for newsstand consumption, to internalize the individual purchase.

        What seems most prevalent in the research is some sort of respectability constraint compelling the individual to reduce consumption for stigmatized goods in favor of a more respectable goods. Significantly, changes in income and income areas seem to change the behavior of individuals. Individual respectability seems to increase with income, and this constraint results in either a larger reduction in the consumption of the stigmatized goods or a greater change in the buying habits of the individual.

        Along with bigger incomes and more affluent neighborhoods, the visibility and traceability of the purchase seem all the more important to consider for the individual buyer. The materials purchased, the time of purchase, the nature of the purchase and the purchase payment can clearly influence the visibility and traceability of the purchase, and hence the respectability of the buyer. Clearly some form of respectability constraint is important to consider when viewing the individual consumption of adult materials.

Works Cited

Research Log - The Making of "Shy Buyers"

        The actual idea for researching goods of social stigma came quite easily. Having discarded the idea of researching the wasteful advertisements and promotional cards in everyday magazines, class discussion brought up the topic of adult magazines. Because I originally stimulated the discussion, the idea was mine to develop.

        The thought of researching pornography for my senior paper seemed rather bizarre. I was actually quite embarrassed when talking to my peers about the subject of my paper. The thought of going into sleazy adult stores to observe purchases was very daunting and unsettling, but at the same time the originality of the topic made it seem worthwhile.

        After much deliberation,a focus for my paper was created. My aim was to view different types of stores in different neighborhoods, to see if there is a change in people's buying habits for goods of social stigma.

        My first trip to an adult store was quite frightening. On entering the shop I realized I was the only customer in there, as 2 large middle aged women looked me over from behind the counter. I immediately blushed, and felt like making a run for the exit. What was I doing in an adult store? I finally plucked up the courage to ask a few questions. Although the women were abrupt, and quite lacking in intelligence, I managed to gain some information. After that experience, the following trips to other adult stores didn't seem so bad,with exception to the time when a close friend saw me entering Tammys Adult Bookstore on Getwell. The resulting explanation took a bit of convincing!

        Midway through the semester Teresa decided to join me in researching the topic. On the few occasions went to different stores, she amazed me. Teresa would be as up front and open in her questioning, without feeling at all guilty or embarrassed.I just nodded my head at the questions like a little schoolboy. However, after a couple of outings, Teresa's paper took a different direction to mine.

        So more long hours at bookstores, convenience stores and adult stores followed. I got used to people looking at me as if to say, "What's this guy doing?" After telling several people why I was observing people buying pornography, I got sick of repeating myself and didn't care really what people thought.

        Having collected all the data, my first economic analysis seemed to fit in quite easily. However after playing around with the demand function, and a newly created social perception function, it was clear that the theory lacked the strength to support the data. My theory was even described by Dr K. K. Fung as, "Like using a cleaver to perform a precision surgical operation."

        After stubborn resentment gave in to logic and practicality, I searched for another economic tool to illustrate my findings. In class discussion, Dr. K. K. Fung suggested to Teresa that she use indifference curve analysis with dual constraints.Although I felt guilty using the same tool, The dual constraints of income and respectability seemed to fit my paper perfectly. Having previously had my 6th draft torn apart on economic grounds, it appeared that I had at last found a suitable economic framework. This was as much a breath of fresh air as coming up for air after swimming the length of a pool under water!

        Still there was more work to be done. I experienced problems intersecting different indifference curves on my graphs, then I had trouble describing the respectability constraint.My paper was also still missing a methodology section, and a more concise abstract.

        After several more drafts,my paper started to glue together.  Lexis-Nexis data was added to my research, by way of a demonstration in class on how to use the system.Little sub headings, graphs and the works cited page were polished off,and at last, at least in my opinion, my paper seemed worthy of a solid grade. Graduation then became a realistic date, and the Holy Grail search around the sleazy stores of Memphis was at last over.

        The paper certainly broadened my horizons. I am now more open minded about the endless applications of economics in everyday life, and my experience will certainly remain with me for the rest of my life.

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