Interviewer: What is the most you have spent?

Consumer: I don't count it out. I give her [the checkout clerk] the money I have in my pocket. I can't read.

Over 20% of the US population consists of functionally illiterate consumers, yet we know very little about their thinking and behavior.

Why should marketers pay attention to a segment that may seem less than economically desirable? Understanding how functionally illiterate consumers think and behave has many implications for businesses, particularly retail chains and service providers with a large proportion of customers with low literacy levels.

What's more, in economies where self-service, packaged products, and computer technology characterize most retail shops, functional illiteracy is a surprisingly significant issue shaping the bottom line.

Understanding Functionally Illiterate Consumer Behavior

Functional illiteracy refers to not having the language and number competencies required to function adequately as adults in day-to-day life.

Referring to functionally illiterate consumers as a homogeneous group glosses over the nuances and variability that successful marketers should be aware of. The coping ingenuity and positive attitudes displayed by many functionally illiterate consumers are a testament to human adaptation.

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Madhubalan Viswanathan is with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Jose Antonio Rosa is at Case Western Reserve University.
James Edwin Harris is affiliated with Saint Norbert College.