Evolution of Scholars’ Approach to Studying Consumer Loyalty in Recreational Sport and Fitness Businesses

Customer loyalty is of great value to recreational sport agencies in terms of their effectiveness and success. In recent decades, students in the field of recreation and leisure have paid growing attention to the phenomenon of customer loyalty. This paper reviews how exploration of consumer loyalty began, especially in the field of recreation and leisure. There have been three stages of evolution: the one-dimensional approach, two-dimensional approach, and multidimensional approach. The latter two developed out of critiques of an established approach. The authors find the multidimensional approach to be the most comprehensive, and thus the most promising, perspective for future research on consumer loyalty in the field of recreation and leisure.

Evolution of Scholars’ Approach to Studying Consumer Loyalty in Recreational Sport and Fitness Businesses

Because it is much cheaper to serve loyal customers and easier to maintain their support, customer loyalty is of great value to organizations (Seybold, 2001). Rosenberg and Czepiel, whom Park and Kim cite (2000),  claim that attracting a new customer costs 6 times more than retaining an existing customer. To a great extent, the success of a recreational sport and fitness business depends on how the business manages customers’ loyalty (Backman & Crompton, 1991a, 1991b). As Park and Kim note, consumer loyalty is embodied not only in economic transactions with a business but more broadly in general support for the organization (Park & Kim, 2000).

Glimpsing the importance of consumer loyalty to sport-related businesses, in recent decades scholars in the field of recreation and leisure have paid growing attention to the phenomenon of customer loyalty (Gahwiler & Havitz, 1995; Howard, Edginton, & Selin, 1988; Park & Kim, 2000). What has been the result of this increased focus? For one thing, a gradual evolution in how researchers approach the phenomenon of customer loyalty has resulted. Three stages can be roughly identified. In the very beginning, most investigators focused on only one dimension of consumer loyalty, either the behavioral or attitudinal dimension. Next, as a result of criticism of this initial research model, models that approached both behavioral and attitudinal dimensions of customer loyalty were developed. Finally, the latest studies of customer loyalty incorporate multiple attitudinal or psychological facets. This has led to a deeper, better-integrated understanding of loyalty. The following describes in more detail each evolutionary stage of the historical development of customer loyalty research.

]One-Dimensional Approaches to Studying Consumer Loyalty[

Behavioral Approaches

The majority of early studies of consumer loyalty looked only at its behavioral dimension. A customer was viewed as loyal to a product or service if he or she demonstrated “consistent purchase of one brand over time” (Backman & Crompton, 1991b). According to Prichard and colleagues, one-dimensional behavioral approaches were classified in four groups by Jacoby and Chestnut (Prichard, Howard, & Havitz, 1992, pp.156–157). The first group comprises researchers who located loyalty in the customer’s purchasing sequence, for example George N. Brown. The second group comprises researchers such as Ross M. Cunningham who defined loyalty on the basis of the proportion of the customer’s purchases that featured the brand in question. Jacoby and Chestnut’s third group includes the scholars who applied probability models to analyze consumers’ purchasing behavior. To this group belongs Ronald E. Frank, who in the early 1960s investigated repeat-purchase probabilities using a simple chance model. The fourth and last of Jacoby and Chestnut’s groups integrated several behavioral variables to generate its definition of customer loyalty (Prichard et al., 1992). Burford, Enis, and Paul (1971), as an example, put forward an index combining three behavioral measures of customer loyalty: proportion of resources spent on brand or store, amount allocated to switching, and the number of alternative brands or stores.

While operationalizing such behavioral approaches is easy enough, at the same time they may exhibit fatal weaknesses as theoretical frameworks upon which to hang studies of consumer loyalty. Beginning in the late 1960s, some consumer loyalty researchers began to criticize behavioral approaches to their task (Howard et al., 1988, p. 42). They pointed out, for example, that because the associated measures relied on overt, observable behaviors, behavioral conceptualizations of consumer loyalty were doomed to such error as the classification of particular consumers as loyal in one study and nonloyal in the next (Backman & Crompton, 1991b, p. 206). Moreover, failure to identify relations between loyalties measured by different patterns of use brought many researchers to the conclusion that “brand loyalty encompassed more than repeat use” (Backman & Crompton, 1991b, p. 206).

Attitudinal Approaches

Conceptually, behavioral models could not, Day noted (1969), discriminate between true or intentional loyalty and spurious loyalty (Backman & Crompton, 1991b; Prichard et al., 1992). Day (1969) and Jacoby (1971) proposed an attitudinal conceptualization of customer loyalty in order to better understand it. According to Jacoby (as cited in Prichard et al., 1992), a customer who shows brand loyalty by implication “repeat[s] purchase based on cognitive, affective, evaluative and predispositional factors: the classical primary components of an attitude” (1971, p. 26). Prichard et al. (1992) also briefly review those early researchers who looked at psychological aspects of consumer loyalty as well as behavioral. Guest, Monroe, and Guiltinan; Bennett and Kassarijia; and Jain, Pinson, and Malhotra all made an effort to study consumers’ attitudes or intentions.

Just like approaches focused one-dimensionally on consumer behavior, however, approaches focused one-dimensionally on attitudinal loyalty had limitations. According to Prichard et al., the early studies of the attitudinal components in consumer loyalty, when they were reviewed by loyalty theorists, were often found to lack adequate theoretical conceptualization. A result of this was a multitude of measures that confounded research. Examination of the theoretical and empirical rigor underlying the development of various attitudinal measures raised certain questions about construct validity (Prichard et al., 1992).

Overall, then, early definitions of customer loyalty as solely a behavioral construct or solely an attitudinal construct could be accused not only of superficiality but also of insufficiency. In time, a two-dimensional approach would replace these flawed perspectives.

]Consumer Loyalty as a Two-Dimensional Construct[

As noted by Jacoby and Chestnut, neither behaviors nor psychological attachments alone could well explain customer loyalty (Backman & Crompton, 1991a, p. 2). Criticism of the old models (which was most vigorous against the one-dimensional behavioral models) informed the development of a new model integrating behavioral and attitudinal dimensions. Day’s (1969) new two-dimensional definition of consumer loyalty (cited in Selin, Howard, Udd, & Cable, 1988, p. 220) provides an example of the advances at the research’s next evolutionary stage. Day’s results showed his consumer loyalty index combining behavioral and attitudinal dimensions to have twice the predictive power of the behavioral approach.

Olson and Jacoby’s (1971) six-point definition of loyalty followed Day in supporting with empirical evidence the idea that loyalty’s “cognitive” and “behavioral” parts were separate and identifiable (Backman & Crompton, 1991b, p. 207). Olson and Jacoby defined loyalty as “a biased, behavioral response, expressed over time, by some decision making unit, with respect to one or more alternative brands out of a set of such brands, and [moreover] . . . a function of psychological processes” (Prichard et al., 1992, p.159). The definition came to be  “widely accepted as the conceptual basis for loyalty research” (Backman & Crompton, 1991b, p. 207).

After Day (1969) and Jacoby (1971), a consensus developed in the field that loyalty should be treated as a two-dimensional construct, a concept including both behavioral and attitudinal facets. As Backman urged, “to measure loyalty necessitates assessing both affective attachment to an activity as well as measuring behavioral use of the activity” (1991, p. 335).

According to Selin et al. (1988, p. 219), the two-dimensional model offered by Day and Jacoby was improved on in a study Jacoby reported with Kyner (1973). They used a two-dimensional definition of loyalty weighing both repeat purchase and consumers’ attitudes, and their definition became the next “definitive” standard for the measures used in loyalty studies.

Once the two-dimensional model was available, many researchers applied it in investigations of consumer loyalty. Most representative is Backman and Crompton’s operationalization of this approach in loyalty research (1991a), following their review of the conceptualization of loyalty proposed by such earlier researchers such as Pessemier, Day, Olsen and Jacoby, and Howard, Edginton, and Selin. Backman and Crompton studied golf and tennis participants and used attitudinal and behavioral scores to segment the respondents in their study. A semantic differential scale with 13 items was used to measure participants’ “general feelings” about golf and tennis (1991a, p.208); a two-dimensional matrix next was used to distinguish four discrete levels of loyalty. The resulting four-quadrant matrix served to group participants according to their weak versus strong attitudes and their high versus low “behavioral consistency” (Mahoney & Howard, 2000, p. 16).

Backman and Crompton (1991a) divided studied consumers into four groups having different levels of loyalty: low loyalty (weak psychological attachments and weak behavioral consistency); latent loyalty (strong psychological attachment but weak behavioral consistency); spurious loyalty (weak psychological attachment but strong behavioral consistency); and high loyalty (strong psychological attachment and strong behavioral consistency). Mahony and Howard (2000, p. 17) judged Backman and Crompton’s research to offer an improved grasp of consumer loyalty in a context of sport and leisure, because their two-dimensional operationalization “reaffirmed and extended Day’s claim” about loyalty and also “provided important insights into the complexity of the construct” (Mahony, Madrigal, & Howard, 2000).

The two-dimensional approach combining behavioral and psychological facets of consumer loyalty advanced the literature on loyalty by overcoming weaknesses of earlier, one-dimensional approaches. As it turned out, however, most two-dimensional studies of consumer loyalty were themselves deficient, in that it proved very difficult to measure consumers’ psychological attachment to brands. In the end, even the operationalization of Backman and Crompton’s attitudinal loyalty was far from sufficient (Mahony et al., 2000, p.17). In recent years, the further exploration of the attitudinal dimension has led to the conceptualization of consumer loyalty as a dynamic process.

Beyond the Two-Dimensional Model

The complexity of the attitudinal dimension, in particular, has drawn the attention of many recent researchers to the multifacetedness of the concept of consumer loyalty. Park and Kim’s analysis (2000) of attitudinal loyalty within the recreational sport industry indicates three components of attitudinal loyalty: normative loyalty, based on “social expectation or normal pressure”; affective loyalty, based on “affective attachment”; and investment loyalty, based on “accumulation of investments.” Park and Kim further suggest that all of these dimensions are distinct and should be simultaneously taken into consideration to explain attitudinal loyalty.

Prichard et al. (1992) note that in past decades, commitment as a component of attitudinal loyalty attracted much attention from loyalty researchers. They further describe how multidimensional models of commitment based on Buchanan’s work (1985) paralleled the studies of composite loyalty. (Buchanan had defined commitment using three dimensions: behavioral consistency, affective engagement, and degree of investment.) They also argued for Crosby and Taylor’s conceptualization of commitment (1983) as the one to “provide a sound theoretical basis for operationalizing the attitudinal dimension of recreation loyalty.” Crosby and Taylor used both “cognitive consistency” and “position involvement” when conceptualizing commitment.

Acknowledging that consumer loyalty was multidimensional, some scholars went a step farther and began to investigate the relationships between dimensions of loyalty. Applying hierarchical multiple regression analyses, Park (1996) studied the  relationships between involvement and attitudinal loyalty constructs in a fitness program, reporting the two constructs to be “highly intercorrelated” though independent. According to Park, both involvement and attitudinal loyalty are multidimensional.

Gahwiler and Havitz (1995) also sought to understand these relationships. Dissatisfied with how earlier research had investigated in isolation from one another such factors as social subworld, involvement, psychological commitment, and behavioral loyalty, Gahwiler and Havitz studied the four simultaneously (p. 3). Analyzing data from a study of YMCA patrons, they found that a relatively high level of consumer loyalty was positively related to each of the following: relatively greater social-world integration,  relatively greater position involvement, and relatively greater psychological commitment (p. 1).

Iwasaki and Havitz (1998) proposed a path analytic model of the relationships among loyalty’s dimensions (involvement, psychological commitment, and loyalty). They criticized studies by Park (1996) and by Kim, Scott, and Crompton (1997), arguing that the development of consumer loyalty really was a dynamic process. Iwasaki and Havitz outlined the progressive stages consumers went through enroute to becoming loyal customers; these sequential psychological processes included (a) formation of high levels of involvement in an activity, (b) development of psychological commitment to a brand, and (c) maintenance of strong resistance to any change of brand preference (p. 256). In addition, Iwasaki and Havitz believed that variables such as personality and social status “moderate the developmental process” (1998, p. 256).

These relational studies involving multiple dimensions of consumer loyalty facilitated understanding of the loyalty concept and are more comprehensive than the one- and two-dimensional approaches had been. The path analytic model, especially,  in representing a dynamic process, advanced an investigation of the mechanism by which an individual develops consumer loyalty. The model may be less parsimonious than previous models, but it provides an insightful theoretical framework for further study of consumer loyalty.


Reviewing the evolution of the consumer loyalty concept, looking at several decades’ worth of loyalty research, suggests that the concept’s complexity was not adequately acknowledged by the behavioral approach, attitudinal approach, or even composite approach to its study. Only recent multidimensional modeling of consumer loyalty that incorporates relational analyses of loyalty’s dimensions and a path analytic model, as Iwasaki and Havitz did (1998),  is dynamic enough in its approach to psychological processes to offer a useful direction for future research.


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Author Note

Tian-Shiang Kuo; Chia-Ming Chang, D. S. M.; & Kuei-Mei Cheng, D. S. M.