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.

As part of our research, we conducted interviews and observed the shopping habits of people enrolled in adult education centers roughly categorized into 0-4, 5-8, and 9-12 grade-equivalent levels based on math and reading scores.

Our findings were an eye-opener regarding what the literate take for granted. Functionally illiterate consumers, for example, spend much effort on basic tasks such as locating a product, reading its price, or computing the price of multiple units. As a result, many select a product as soon as they locate it.

Others find it difficult to compute basic prices and percent- or fraction-off discounts, with some even avoiding such items because of their inability to calculate the price. Due to difficulties in totaling their shopping basket, they often hand all the money they have to the cashier, or approach recurring purchases (such as fast-food meals) by always keeping the same specific denomination bill (e.g., $5) handy.

Perhaps the most striking facet of functionally illiterate consumers' cognitive predilections is their difficulty in engaging in abstract thinking. They are able to perceive one piece of information, such as price, but may have difficulty relating that data to other information, such as package size.

One woman we asked how she decides on which size of loaf of bread to buy said, "I just look at the tag and see what's cheapest. I don't look by their sizes."

This tendency toward concrete thinking makes it difficult for illiterate consumers to make trade-offs between attributes, or between price and size. Linked to concrete thinking is thinking in pictures, viewing brand names and prices as images in a scene rather than meaningful symbols, and visualizing amounts of products to buy by picturing them rather than using available symbolic information.

When asked how he stayed away from a brand he did not want to buy, one low-literate consumer said, "When you go back to the store, you look and see, 'Oh, this is the brand I bought before—I ain't gonna get this, I'm gonna get that other one...Ain't nothing wrong with my eyes."

Another person explained, "I am more sight-reading. If I want a can of Spam, I know it when I see it."

Decision making is often random or habitual, or based on a single attribute, usually price. In making decisions, functionally illiterate consumers also factor in emotional considerations and strive to maintain self-esteem in their shopping encounters, in light of negative experiences due to their literacy levels.

For example, they attach great significance to seemingly trivial occurrences, such as celebrating when having enough money at the checkout counter or despairing when running over. A typical response is, "You don't have enough money to pay for your stuff, you went over. That's embarrassing, in front of all them peoples looking at you."

Whereas the model of a cognitive miser who economizes on resources has been prevalent in business and psychology, these consumers often behave as something else entirely: cognitive "survivors." In other words, their decision making for even for so-called "low involvement" products often involves high effort and low accuracy.

Functionally illiterate consumers use coping mechanisms such as dependence on others, self-esteem maintenance, and rudimentary defensive practices to negotiate the marketplace. They seek out familiar contexts and are often dependent on spouses, relatives, friends or children.

One woman said, "My daughter does all the shopping...when I was a mom did a lot of shopping."

They negotiate shopping situations using rudimentary rules such as ordering one item from a menu at a time to avoid running short of money, overpaying to avoid being "caught" unable to count, and carrying a fixed, small amount of money to avoid being cheated out of large sums,

Marketing to Functionally Illiterate Consumers

Understanding how functionally illiterate consumers think and behave has many implications for retail chains and service providers with a large proportion of customers who have low literacy levels.

Here are a few examples of what marketers can do to make the retail environment more friendly to illiterate customers (and for many others as well):

  • Clear, obvious presentation. Clear presentation of bottom-line prices for all items in a consistent color would enhance the information environment for low-literate consumers. The final price should be plainly presented, in addition to the original price and the discount. Moreover, the use of dollars and cents off rather than fraction or percentage off can make the final price concrete and obvious. Retail outlets should also consider simple computational aids for their customers, such as devices attached to shopping carts that scan product labels and keep running totals.

  • Consumer-friendly store layouts. Easy store layouts that minimize clutter and confusion are important for all consumers. But the layout takes on even greater significance for functionally illiterate consumers. Of particular significance are changes to layout that take away from the experience of shopping in a familiar environment. Prominent store signs should be supplemented with visual representations of product categories. Similarly, shelf and other in-store displays can communicate product information and make comparisons easier. Graphical representations of size, ingredients, and other information needed for comparisons would also be very helpful.

  • Helpful staffing. In light of the life experiences of low-literate consumers and issues of self-esteem and dependence, friendliness and trustworthiness are vital in building customer relationships. Their customer loyalty seems to follow from friendly encounters that engender trust. Like many of us, they want to feel understood and appreciated. Specialized training for employees should sensitize them to the unique characteristics of low-literate customers. Such an investment may well lead to a sustainable competitive advantage stemming from strong customer loyalty.

The solutions marketers devise for illiterate consumers may well coincide with solutions for a variety of other groups such as novice consumers, time-constrained consumers, consumers in developing countries, and consumers shopping in different environments, such as a foreign country.

In short, marketing to functionally illiterate consumers requires a fundamental and challenging shift in thinking that goes beyond common and implicit assumptions about one's own ability as a literate manager.

Being sensitive to functionally illiterate consumers in the design and execution of marketing practices can be economically and socially beneficial. Herein lies an important opportunity for businesses to practice the essence of socially aware marketing.

Note: This article originally appeared as "Decision-Making and Coping by Functionally Illiterate Consumers and Some Implications for Marketing Management" in the Journal of Marketing, 69(1), 15-31, and is reprinted with permission from the Association for Consumer Research (

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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.