Professor Fleura Bardhi explains how consumer attitudes are changing and why businesses should take note


Nowadays, consumers have choice not only in terms of the products and brands they use, but also how they acquire them. One can, for example, choose to either own a car or not to own a car, acquiring it instead through car-sharing services. 

Car-sharing companies, such as Zipcar and GoGet, as well as peer-to-peer sharing services such as RelayRides, BlaBlaCar and easyCar Club, are offering consumers alternatives to ownership. They also question the value consumers derive from ownership. These companies are part of an important trend known as the sharing economy, in which people rent or share beds, cars, boats and other assets directly from each other or use them collectively. 

Examples vary from car- or bike-sharing (Zipcar, Barclays Cycle Hire), peer-to-peer car or accommodation rentals (RelayRides, Airbnb), online borrowing for bags, fashion and jewellry (Bag, Borrow or Steal, Rent the Runway, BorrowedBling), to pure sharing and gifting platforms (Couchsurfing, Freecycle, BookCrossing). This trend is also extending to more intimate relationships such as the one with our pets – for less than £8 a year you can borrow a pet from local dog owners through Borrowmydoggy.

Access to goods and skills is increasingly becoming more important than ownership. We have seen a proliferation of consumption models in which access is enabled through sharing or pooling of resources redefined through technology and peer communities. Instead of buying and owning things, consumers are opting for access to goods, paying for the experience of renting or sharing them. 

Such transactions that may be market-mediated where no transfer of ownership takes place constitute access-based consumption. The size of the sharing economy is estimated at about $100bn (€75m), while the car-sharing market alone is estimated to be worth about $12.5bn by 2015. 

Access-based consumption represents unique challenges and opportunities for start-ups as well as traditional businesses. 

What is the consumer perspective of such access-based models when we do not own things but access them through the market? 

Is access-based consumption new?

Historically, in the business-to-consumer (B2C) markets, access has existed in the not-for-profit and public sphere, such as in the use of public art museums, libraries or public transport. Access is also derived through traditional rental in the marketplace, such as car or apartment rentals. 

In most developed economies, ownership is considered the normative ideal and access has been stigmatised. Ownership is perceived to be cheaper, a means to capital accumulation and a way to provide a sense of personal independence and security. 

In contrast, access can be seen as an inferior consumption mode relevant to young or poorer consumers, perhaps during transitory life stages. It can also be seen as wasteful, as it does not lead to accumulation of capital. Ownership is associated with rites of passage as well as a sign of consumer identity. 

Spawned by the rise of digital technologies, social media, the global economic crisis, environmental concerns, re-urbanisation and liquid modernity – sociologist Zygmunt Bauman’s theory that includes the idea that a person can shift from one social position to another in a fluid manner – an entirely new generation of businesses has emerged that enables consumers to rent from each other or share and lend possessions they already own. 

As a result, the market has indicated a shift in the sociocultural politics of access. Access is becoming cool and popular again. Research demonstrates that the mode of acquisition (ownership versus access) shapes consumer-to-object relationships, consumer preferences, values and desires. Ownership and possession practices have been of interest to scholars and the study of access-based consumption is a new emerging area of research. 

A qualitative study with car-sharing Zipcar consumers in the North-East US studied the nature of consumer-to-object, consumer-to-consumer and consumer-to-brand relationships in access and contrast them with ownership. The study argued that access in temporal, anonymous and market-mediated transactions (such as Zipcar), car-sharing displayed four characteristics: lack of identification; dominance of consumer utilitarian motivations; negative reciprocity, resulting in a Big Brother-model of governance; and a deterrence of brand community.

The study challenges the perception that consumers derive the same benefits under access as in ownership and further may experience a sense of shared ownership and responsibility. It found that instead of a perceived sense of ownership, consumers avoid identification with the access objects and do not display a sense of ownership towards them. Although in this study, Zipcar has attempted to encourage a feeling of ownership among its consumers, the study participants do not engage in appropriation practices and avoid being identified with a shared object. Clear boundaries emerge between the distinct relations the consumers form with owned versus accessed objects.

Another assumption that is taken for granted about access-based consumption is that it is driven by pro-social, sustainable and political consumerist motivations. 

Nature of access-based consumption

Access is often described as sharing, collaborative consumption, peer consumption or gifting, and is seen as an alternative to market exchange. However, in the context of market-
mediated access, the study suggests that access-based consumption is driven by purely self-serving, utilitarian motivations and it is not pro-social. 

Study participants testified to using Zipcar because it is more convenient or cheaper than owning a car or other alternative forms of transport; however, participants did not seem to join the ‘green’ marketing ethos of the brand. 

Access-based consumption is often characterised as sharing that represents transactions where consumers share what they own with others, associated with joined ownership and generalised trust and reciprocity among users. In contrast with sharing, the study finds that Zipcar users do not trust one another and engage in negative reciprocity with the objects, each other and the firm. 

The study data illustrates that, for the participants, using an object they do not own is often interpreted as a license to abuse the object. As a result, they expect the company to play the regulatory role of monitoring and regulating the relationships among themselves as well as those with the object (for example, in terms of fines and rewards). 

Finally, counter to the collaborative and community ethos of the sharing economy, the study finds a deterrence of brand community in the context of market-mediated access. In fact, car-sharing participants prefer to remain anonymous and reject Zipcar efforts to build a community. In other words, the market logic dominates in this context rather than that of community. 

As alternative modes of resource acquisition and distribution are emerging, ownership is no longer the ultimate goal of consumer desire. 

Access-based consumption is becoming popular as it frees consumers from the economic, emotional and social obligations of ownership. The freedom, flexibility and mobility facilitated by access are increasingly important values for urban consumers – especially among the so-called Generation Y group. 

Consumers and relationships to objects

Consumer motivations and relationships to objects and each other differ depending on the type of acquisition one engages in. Although non-consumption transactions are framed by businesses and the popular press as a social exchange, instead they also behave as economic, market exchange. 

When consumers engage in occasional rental and shared usage of club cars, as in the case of Zipcar, then the study suggests that they are not engaged in sharing. Rather, consumers are motivated by utilitarian reasons as opposed to community and environmental motives. In other words, when consumers are renting objects from companies for anonymous use, their consumption is not motivated by social or environmental reasons. 

Thus, branding and marketing materials should not emphasise social and moral benefits but rather engage directly with self-interested, utilitarian consumer motivations. Not all access practices involve sharing practices or collaborative consumption and marketers need to become aware of the dominant myths surrounding non-ownership.

Access-based consumption marketplaces represent an important opportunity for marketers, policymakers and urban planners as they are more sustainable consumption models that reduce waste and encourage sharing of resources, especially in cities. However, as the study illustrates, the profitability and successes of such sustainable models should not be delegated to consumers but rather championed by public policy and businesses. 

The Zipcar study examines a unique access context of car sharing via a company as well as a unique group of consumers. Future research is needed to unpack access-based consumption in other systems, such as peer-to-peer renting and borrowing.

Professor Fleura Bardhi is a faculty member at Cass Business School, City University London