It’s a common sight in any retail store: a mother with her adolescent daughter, arguing over a piece of clothing. Whether it’s the price or the style of the clothing that they disagree upon, a new study says these arguments are an important part of mother-daughter bonding—and presents an opportunity for retailers. 

Research at Texas Christian University reveals that mother-daughter shopping trips consist of three developmental stages: conflict and struggle, education and influence, and bonding between mother and daughter. The first stage, conflict, can be about budget, conflicting shopping styles or disagreements over what mothers might see as revealing clothing, but in the end, it’s really about identity.

“The conflict indicates the struggle that the daughter is going through in her efforts to separate from her mother and form her own identity, as displayed through her clothing,” says Julie Baker, professor of Marketing at the Texas Christian University Neeley School of Business and co-author of the study. “The conflict is complicated, though. Daughters need to feel support and love from their mothers, but they also need to feel a sense of self, distinct from their mothers.”

The second stage, education and influence, gives mothers and daughters a chance to exchange shopping-related information and learn from one another, the study finds. Lessons about spending money wisely and understanding quality are among lessons mothers teach their daughters during shopping trips. Daughters, too, influence their mothers by showing them new styles of clothing.  

The last stage, bonding, is a strengthening of the mother-daughter relationship through the shopping experience. 

So why does this matter to retailers?

“We found that the benefit of bonding mostly will occur when mothers and daughters experience no conflict, or when the conflict is easily resolved,” says Baker. “Bonding can also lead to both mother and daughter experiencing positive emotions during the shopping experience, causing them to shop longer and spend more money.”  

Young people represent a large and growing segment of consumers in the U.S., and since adolescents do not usually shop alone, the dynamics between them and their shopping partners influence spending habits, length of time spent shopping, choice of store and purchases made. Less conflict over these elements results in happier experiences, which may result in more purchases. 

Because of this, stores are turning their attention to the mother-daughter shopping experience, making it easier for the pair to shop together. The paper suggests that retailers can, for instance, use major sources of conflict—style and price—to help employees ease conflict by recommending more suitable alternatives to the items in question.

“Retailers targeting younger adolescents should focus on identifying what mothers will allow their daughters to purchase and offer merchandise that appeals to both parties,” says Baker. “By better accommodating both mothers’ and daughters’ desires, conflict may be reduced, which can increase sales and potentially improve the mother-daughter relationship.”

In order to conduct this study, researchers conducted 28 interviews with mother-daughter pairs about their shopping habits and experiences, as well as some retail employees. The paper, titled “Mother-Adolescent Daughter Identity Interplay Processes,” will be published in The Journal of Consumer Marketing and was co-authored by Stephanie T. Gillian, University of Tennessee; Alexa M. Givan, Sharon E. Beatty, Kyoungmi Kim, and Kristy E. Reynolds, University of Alabama.  

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