Getting to the WHY Behind Consumers’ Decisions: How Qualitative Data Can Help

October 11, 2021 | Letters
ACE Food Pantry volunteers sort donations from Panera Bread in West Lafayette, IN (Photo courtesy of ACE Food Pantry).ACE Food Pantry volunteers sort donations from Panera Bread in West Lafayette, IN (Photo courtesy of ACE Food Pantry).

Author: Brenna Ellison, Associate Professor and Undergraduate Program Coordinator, Purdue University, Department of Agricultural Economics

The world is awash in data, but what is data? Datasets comprised of numeric entries get much of the attention in economics, yet there is more to data than numbers and more than one methodology to be employed. Qualitative data – which are often derived from focus groups and interviews – can be an important complement to more traditional quantitative sources of data like surveys, scanner and sales data, etc.

To illustrate the value of qualitative data, allow me to share an example related to food pantries on college campuses. You may have noticed stories in the news on college students going hungry on campus with some studies estimating nearly 40% of students experience food insecurity (to learn more about how food insecurity is measured and measurement challenges in the college population, check out this article). In response to this, many college campuses have established food pantries on campus for students; however, survey research suggests food pantry use is low relative to the proportion of students who report experiencing food insecurity.

If researchers solely relied on quantitative data from surveys and found that, 1) food insecurity is high on campus, and 2) food pantry use is low, one natural conclusion may be that campuses need to increase awareness of the food pantry among students – in other words, more education, more marketing. However, qualitative inquiry can help us dig deeper to understand WHY food insecure students are not using this resource. In our own research, we found that students believed food pantries were “for real poor people”, even though some were experiencing dire food situations of their own. Other researchers interviewed students and also came to the conclusion that there is a real stigma around using food pantries among college students. Thus, the recommendation to simply improve awareness would likely do little to improve pantry use.

So, what are the takeaways here? First, numeric data can tell us a lot, but rarely do they tell us everything. Qualitative data can serve as an important complement for understanding the WHY behind consumers’ decisions. You might think that we can just ask consumers why they behave in a certain way on surveys, but that assumes, 1) we know the appropriate answer choices to give them, and 2) consumers are able and willing to articulate the reason(s) for their behavior. Human beings’ optimal choices may change depending on the choice set presented or be otherwise context-dependent, making articulation of reasons a challenge in a lot of common settings. Qualitative inquiry allows researchers to have a conversation with consumers and offers space for additional probing when answers are unclear or it feels like something more is there.

Second, words matter. In the food pantry example, more education and marketing are unlikely to remove the stigma of using this resource among college students. But do we have to call it a food pantry? Perhaps a better path forward is to re-frame, or re-name, the resource – which is exactly what happened at my former institution. The University of Illinois launched its Food Assistance and Well-Being Program in 2020 and found much higher rates of use among students compared to a more traditional food pantry on campus.