The Concept of Food Quality

Multidimensional Approach (Garvin Model)

According to the “multidimensional approach,” the quality of a product depends on the combination of a number of characteristics or attributes, which can be classified in a different way.

Economic theory distinguishes between characteristics search, experience, and credence (Darby & Karni, 1973; Nelson, 1970 1974): the search type attributes, such as the color of meat or the size of eggs, can be verified by the consumer before purchasing, through the “direct observation or by consulting sources of information readily available”; the experience type attributes, such as taste or convenience, can be assessed only after trying the product; finally, the credence type attributes, such as product safety or the way in which it was made, cannot be judged independently from buyer, even after the purchase and use of the product, since these are characteristics that the consumer is not able to observe or perceive at a reasonable cost. The credence type attributes, however, could be assessed: for instance, the safety of a product may be judged through accurate laboratory tests, or the production technology could be understood by visiting the production plant where the food product is realized.

Nevertheless, the ordinary consumer does not have the necessary tools to carry out these analyzes, so that those features are not personally judged; the distributor could have such assets, but might not find it economically convenient to do so. These same characteristics can be easily verified by the manufacturing company, but now the verification is no longer qualifiable as credence type. In any case, the distinction between the three types of characteristics is not static, and it is possible to convert credence type attributes in search type attributes, using other product attributes such as price, brand, distribution channel, or advertising.

Indeed, since the credence characteristics can strongly affect the quality perception of some segments of consumers for certain categories of product, it may be appropriate to facilitate their detection, using other attributes, basically search type, as substitutes for product aspects that the consumer is not able to assess independently. For instance, the average consumer does not know how a product was made or its effect on the health or even the impact that its production and distribution has on environment or society, but these characteristics can be deduced from a certification of origin, from the information presented on the label, or from the mark or the name of the retail chain or store where it is sold. Actually, the individual differences play an important role, in the sense that the knowledge, the experiences, and the preferences of each affect the way such information are used and, consequently, the way the product quality is perceived. Of course, there is no certainty about the veracity of this information: the consumer relies on the producer and the producer connects with its target market through communication strategies.

Another product features classification model is the multi-attribute attitude model (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1980; Lutz & Bettman, 1977; Fishbein & Ajzen, 1975; Cohen, Fishbein & Athola, 1972), which fits into the theory psychological, prevalent in the marketing literature.

In the model, product attributes are divided into intrinsic and extrinsic cues (Olson, 1977; Olson & Jacoby, 1972); the first concern the physical composition of the product, are related to its specific techniques and can not be modified without changing the nature of the product itself, while the latter are always related to the product, but are not physical part of it and relate to factors such as the price, the brand, advertising, and promotional activities on the product.

Also in this case, the distinction is not clear since there are characteristics difficult to classify or that may be intrinsic to certain categories of product and extrinsic to the other: for instance, the packaging can be considered a characteristic intrinsic or extrinsic, depending on whether the packaging is an integral part of the product, as in the case of containers in tetra-pak for drinks, or simply a protection of the product itself, also used for promotional purposes, as in the case of cereal boxes. We can also distinguish between intrinsic / extrinsic cues and perceived intrinsic / extrinsic cues, since some product attributes cannot be perceived by consumers as quality indicators; the quality perceived by the consumer at the time of purchase depends only by intrinsic or extrinsic perceived.

Garvin (1984) offers one of the most known multidimensional models used to define the quality of a product, which consists of a theoretical framework, based on eight dimensions of quality.

First the “author describes five approaches to define the quality: (1) the transcendent approach, (2) the product-based approach, (3) the user-based approach, (4) the manufacturing-based approach and, finally, (5) the value- based approach.

According to the transcendent approach, which stems from the philosophy, quality means innate excellence; it is an absolute concept and universally recognized, but it cannot be defined precisely and, like other concepts that philosophers consider primitive, can be recognized only through experience.

The product-based approach considers the quality as a precise and measurable variable: The differences in the amount of attributes possessed and in the level of these attributes are reflected in differences in the relative quality of each product. Consequently, the quality of different products can be measured, and they can be ranked from the best to the worst, based on the “quantity possessed” of the attributes desired, provided that such attributes are considered desirable by virtually all consumers.

This definition comes from the economic literature and has two consequences:

  • 1) Higher quality can be obtained only at a higher cost, since the incorporation of a certain feature in a product implies a greater expenditure of resources.
  • 2) Since the quality reflects the presence or absence of certain attributes, it can be judged in an objective manner, on the basis of the characteristics possessed by the product.

The user-based approach is common to those who deal with economics, marketing, and operations management and is based on the idea that each person has their own preferences and must therefore be considered better-quality products that best meet those needs.

It is an idea of entirely subjective quality, and the problem becomes how to aggregate the various individual preferences in order to get a definition of significant quality. This problem is solved assuming that the high-quality products are those able to meet the needs of the majority of consumers, even if in this way it ignores the relative weight that each associates to each product attribute. Another problem associated with this approach is to distinguish the product attributes that characterize the quality by those that simply maximize customer satisfaction. As related, in fact, the two concepts are not equivalent: A product that maximizes satisfaction is certainly preferable to one that meets fewer consumer needs, but it doesn't mean it is better.

The manufacturing-based approach is typical of those involved in production and defines quality as conformance to specifications: once these have been defined, any deviation from them implies a reduction in quality. The main focus of this approach is internal. It results in an emphasis on product reliability and on process control. The purpose is to reduce the costs: indeed, a quality improvement, which means a reduction of the number of deviations from the standard, allows it to carry the product at a lower cost, given that preventing faults or defects that costs less than repair or rework the product. A company that increases the costs to inspect and test carefully its products, will greatly reduce the number of scrap and rework and, consequently, its costs.

Finally, the value-based approach defines quality in terms of cost and price: a quality product is a product that guarantees certain performance at an acceptable price for the purchaser or some standards compliance at an acceptable cost to the producer. Most definitions of existing quality fall into one of the categories described by Garvin. Despite it may lead to internal conflicts, the existence of different points of view is useful and should be developed: the features that characterize the quality should be first identified through market research (user-based approach) and then converted into product attributes (product-based approach), and finally the process of production should be organized so as to make the products in accordance with the specifications fixed (manufacturing-based approach); this should be done in order to create value for the whole economic system (value-based approach); a process that ignores one of these steps does not allow to obtain quality products.

After describing the five approaches, Garvin proposes a theoretical framework that includes eight dimensions of quality: (1) performance; (2) features; (3) reliability; (4) conformance; (5) durability; (6) serviceability; (7) aesthetics; and (8) perceived quality.

The performance dimension refers to the operational characteristics of a primary product and involves attributes objectively measurable, which allow us to classify the products of different brands in a unique way on the basis of at least one of these characteristics.

In some cases, however, the relationship between quality and performance can be ambiguous: The fact that different performances do perceive different quality depends on individual preferences and the relative weight that each gives to each of the primary characteristics of the product.

The features dimension includes all the secondary features that integrate the basic functionality of the product, even if often the line between the primary characteristics from the secondary is difficult to sign. The reliability dimension reflects the probability that the product presents a defect in a specific time interval: since this definition requires that the product is used for a certain period, this dimension is significant only for durable products. The conformance dimension measures the degree of conformity of the product features to predefined specifications. This definition involves both internal and external elements: in the production process it usually measures the incidence of defects, while in the final market the proxy is used, as the number of customer service calls or the number of warranty repairs, but they are not able to capture noncompliance, for which the customer is directed to the manufacturer. Since defects and failures are undesirable events for everyone, an improvement in reliability or in conformance normally generates a quality improvement; accordingly, compared to the first two dimensions, these are more objective measures of quality, which are less affected by individual preferences. The durability dimension measure the life of the product and can be defined as the “use of a product before it fails and the repair is impossible or less effective than replacement”; such dimension appears closely linked to the reliability, since a product that fails often will probably be replaced first with respect to a more reliable product.

The serviceability dimension refers to the service level, in terms of speed, courtesy, and competence by the offer side. The customer is bothered by the time it takes for the product to be repaired, by the discomfort due to inability to use, by the relationships with the staff, and by the frequency with which customer service cannot solve the problem; some of these variables can be measured objectively, others reflect individual preferences. The aesthetics dimension is totally subjective, since it concerns the sensations associated to visual characteristics of a product—for example, to the design, form, color, consistency, which are clearly a matter of personal judgment. The dimension of perceived quality is also subjective; consumers do not always have complete information about the characteristics of a product. Consequently, the quality is evaluated through indirect measures such as the image or the name of the brand, rather than comparing the objective characteristics, leading in turn to different assessments by different persons. Each of the eight dimensions is important in defining the quality, even if each approach gives emphasis mainly on some of them: the product-based approach focuses on performance, features, and durability, the user-based approach on aesthetics and perceived quality, the manufacturing-based approach on conformance and reliability.

The conflict between the different approaches is therefore inevitable, because each defines quality from a different point of view. However, since it is not possible to attain excellence in each of the eight dimensions, it is essential to apply a segmentation strategy aimed at identifying a product's target market in terms of expected quality.

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