Saving - or not - in a world of immediate access opportunities

By Ozgun Atasoy and Baris Depecik
Posted on August 03, 2020

As more and more people prefer access over ownership, there’s a subscription plan for almost anything. Various needs and wishes - from beautiful holiday homes to sleek sports cars - can be fulfilled within just a few clicks, without the need to purchase or own (Belk, 2014; Ozanne & Ballantine, 2010). The lockdown imposed during COVID-19 seems to have accelerated the rise of access-based consumption, especially for digital goods. Netflix alone added nearly 16 million new subscribers in the first three months of 2020 (Swartz, 2020; Lee, 2020).

How does the trend of accessing rather than owning influence our relationship with money? So far, research focused mostly on why people prefer access over possession, from cost considerations and convenience to social signalling and moral concerns (Akbar, Mai & Hoffmann, 2016; Matzler, Veider & Kathan, 2015). We think that it is equally important to figure out the potential effect that the presence of access opportunities may have on other consequential consumer decisions, like spending versus saving. After all, marketplace game changers have a history of sharp mindset shifts or new behavioural tendencies. Consider the introduction of credit cards by banks, in a time when being in debt had a social stigma. They were first adopted as an easy and secure way of payment because they are easily carried around and have no intrinsic value. As credit cards became mainstream, personal debt came along with it. Today, nearly half (47%) of U.S. adults have credit card debt (Horch, 2020).

“If there are potential risks to access opportunities, such as poor management of personal finances, we’d better figure them out sooner rather than later.”

Our study and preliminary results

In June, 2020, we conducted an online pilot study with 200 US residents. They first read a short text describing the recent popularity of access-based services, such as movie or music streaming, and car or electronics rental. We then asked our respondents to indicate how they felt about access-based services such as Netflix, Spotify, and Zipcar. Might these services change their need to save money for the future? They indicated their opinion using a seven point scale: from 1 ('strongly reduce the need to save money') to 7 ('strongly increase the need to save money').

We then presented our respondents with written information about the way people tend to plan, for instance sometimes concentrating on what’s happening now, and at other times on the future, imagining and planning for what will happen in the future. We then asked our respondents to indicate how they thought that the presence of access-based services might help people focus on the present or the future, again with a seven point scale ranging from 1 ('strongly focus on the present') to 7 ('strongly focus on the future').

On average, respondents felt that the presence of access opportunities decreased their need to save money for the future, and that having access to these opportunities makes them focus mainly on the present. Critically, people’s responses to the latter 'time-focus' question statistically predicted their responses to the 'need for savings' question. Specifically, the more strongly someone believed that access-based services help focus on the present, the more strongly they believed that access-based services reduce the need to save (see graph below). This finding is consistent with our hypothesis that people’s tendency to save less comes from a mental shift towards a short-term focus amid the presence of access opportunities.

Figure 1

Since participants in this study responded to our direct questions, it is not clear whether people would spontaneously feel less inclined to save in the absence of prompts that might suggest a possible link between access opportunities and need for saving. To address this concern, we investigated people’s online search activity as an indicator of their spontaneous interest in access-based services and in saving money for the future.

We conducted a cross-metropolitan US area analysis of search engine queries as logged by Google in 2019. The Google Trends service reports comparative interest in search terms by subregions. We initially identified a list of search terms using Google’s list of most popular queries related to “saving money”. Our list includes search terms such as “how to save money”, “ways to save money”, and “money saving tips”. We found the relative popularity of these terms for different metropolitan areas in the US.

To develop a measure for the interest in access-based consumption, we then collected search queries for 10 leading access providers, controlling for a number of demographic and socio-economic variables that may explain geographic variation in interest in saving. We have first analysed these data by regressing the interest in saving on the interest in access-based consumption, both with and without control variables. The results of both models indicate so far that interest in saving is lower in metropolitan areas in which Google users enquire more about access-based consumption. This finding is consistent with our expectation that higher levels of access-based consumption are associated with reduced saving tendencies.

Next steps

While consumers primarily use search engines to look for information, they use social media to convey and exchange information. We are currently examining consumer-generated digital text in social media using computer-assisted text analysis techniques. We already collected a random sample of tweets from different subregions in the US, and independent coders are currently grouping text into predefined categories. Using supervised learning methods for classification, we will develop measures for saving intentions and access-based consumption. Our analysis will further test whether higher levels of access-based consumption relate to lower rates of messages about personal interest in saving.

Great innovations often have unintended consequences, both positive and negative. Shaking the core of the centuries-old possession orientation has a great potential to improve lives when we think about efficient use of resources, instant increase in quality of life, and potential benefits for the planet. If there are potential risks too, such as poor management of personal finances, we’d better figure them out sooner rather than later. Our initial findings indicate that the presence of access opportunities may lead to short-sightedness in the sense of having insufficient concern for personal future outcomes. If we uncover and understand this behaviour, we can begin to address it on a public policy level.

Ozgun Atasoy is Post-doctoral Research Associate at University of Basel

Baris Depecik is Assistant Professor of Marketing at Sabanci University, Istanbul


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