The current study explored whether perceptions of CSR reduces negative responses to service failures among consumers. The negative responses involve spreading negative word-of-mouth and reducing dependence on platforms. As we predicted, when consumers had higher perceptions of CSR of e-commerce, they attributed less responsibility to the platform for service failures. Nevertheless, when consumers attributed more responsibility to platforms for service failures, they felt less guilty but more regretful in this case. Results also supported the prediction that the chain mediating effect of attributions of responsibility, guilt, and regret on the relationship between perceptions of CSR and negative responses.
This study makes three contributions to the literature streams on CSR and consumer responses. Although many extant studies have examined and confirmed the impact CSR on consumer responses, the majority of studies focused on an offline environment (Bolton & Mattila, 2015; Joireman et al., 2015; Klein & Dawar, 2004; Lichtenstein et al., 2004), little attention has been given to such a relationship in the context of e-commerce. Since most e-commerce platforms do not sell goods directly to consumers, but rather provides services, research on consumer perceptions of and responses to service failures can enable us to enhance the social responsibility of the e-commerce industry from the consumer perspective. To date, this is the first study that goes from consumers’ perceptions of CSR to exploring consumers’ attributions, emotions and coping strategies to e-commerce service failures. In doing so, we linked the studies with the transactional theory of stress and coping and argued that consumers’ perceptions of CSR of e-commerce can be viewed as an effective concept for reducing consumers’ negative responses and highlighted the role of attributions of responsibility. From this perspective, our findings provide further evidence supporting that CSR is a more effective buffer when it comes to the consumer’s point of view (Joireman et al., 2015; Kim & Park, 2020; Lii et al., 2018).
Second, this study shed light on negative emotions and response chains of consumer reactions to CSR regarding on services failures, illustrating the complexities of service failures on e-commerce platforms. This study identifies e-commerce service failures as situations where suppliers on e-commerce platforms engage in misconduct, such as avoiding remedying self-caused failures, failing to fulfil after-sales obligations, and deliberately delaying refunds, and where problems with the monitoring mechanism of e-commerce platforms lead to consumer dissatisfaction with the process or outcome of the rights protection. Through in-depth interviews with consumers experiencing e-commerce service failures, we found that regret and guilt are the main emotions that are activated when experiencing e-commerce service failures. While anger is considered to be the most common emotional response in tradition service failures (Bougie et al., 2003; Joireman et al., 2015), the participants in this study did not suggest so, reflecting the specificity of service failures on e-commerce platforms. Most existing research considers the service failure experience as a negative outcome appraisal that would activate anger, indicating that anger would increase the likelihood of revengeful behaviour, such as spreading negative word-of-mouth (Bougie et al., 2003; Grégoire et al., 2010; Joireman et al., 2015; Kim & Park, 2020; Le & Ho, 2020). This study may offer an additional perspective taking into account the context of e-commerce. Consumers are less likely to experience anger than regret and guilt due to the low prices offered by e-commerce platforms, frequent trading transactions, and lower switching costs. In the case of perceived CSR, consumers’ attributions of responsibility may lead to misbehaviours (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984; Smith & Lazarus, 1990). Since little attention has been given to the corresponding emotional experience that might be activated in e-commerce service failures, the current study therefore contributes to an expanding understanding of the cognitive-emotional linkages that explain consumers’ reactions to CSR.
Third, our study broadens the scope of application of the transactional theory of stress and coping. To the best of our knowledge, the current study is the first research that applies the transactional theory of stress and coping to explain the impact of CSR on negative responses of consumers experiencing service failures. In contrast to other studies that typically explains the relationship from cognitive dissonance theory (Joireman et al., 2015), stakeholder theory (Stanaland et al., 2011), or communication theory (Du et al., 2010), the current study establishes attributions of responsibility and negative emotions as additional mechanisms that can explain the impact of perceptions of CSR. In the Chinese social-cultural context, CSR tends to influence consumers’ perceptions of causes of service failures, which in turn influence their guilt and regret, as well as subsequent misbehaviours. For example, for those e-commerce enterprises that have a good reputation or actively practise their CSR, consumers tend to believe that platforms should be held less accountable for service failures and thus may be less likely to have negative responses.
The current study also offers several managerial implications. Given the findings of this study indicate that CSR of e-commerce can reduce negative consumer responses, i.e., spreading negative word-of-mouth and reducing dependence. Therefore, in line with the need to prevent the loss of existing and potential customers, managers should focus on the role of CSR activities and take a proactive mindset in implementing CSR strategies. Furthermore, they should also be aware that the impact of e-commerce enterprises on society is much deeper and broader than that of traditional enterprises in the past and should not be limited to a common framework for CSR. Traditional CSR research which considers CSR as including bottom-line requirements and reasonable expectations, i.e., economic, legal, ethical, and philanthropic responsibilities (Bolton & Mattila, 2015; Grégoire & Fisher, 2006; Klein & Dawar, 2004; Lichtenstein et al., 2004; Mondal et al., 2021; Stanaland et al., 2011), but for most e-commerce enterprises, these responsibilities are not enough. On the one hand, e-commerce enterprises need to use their redundant resources, namely, big data system, information technology and marketing channels, to innovatively engage in social responsibility activities. They also need to help the public develop a sense of social responsibility to build a great social reputation. On the other hand, e-commerce enterprises also need to take into account the interests of a wider group of people, especially those whose interests have been compromised by the innovation and transformation of business models, such as self-employed and small-scale entrepreneurs.
Second, our results reveals that consumers who have weak perceptions of CSR are more likely to reduce dependence and spread negative word-of-mouth if consumers have strong attributions of responsibility to others. In light of this, we suggest that managers of e-commerce enterprises make consumers aware of the corporate commitment to social responsibility on their platforms. For example, information can be delivered to consumers about the platform’s social responsibility to deal with unscrupulous suppliers and fake products.
Third, our results also suggest that regret has a greater impact on consumers than guilt in e-commerce services failures. Regret, as a cognitive emotion (Le & Ho, 2020), plays a more critical role in determining negative consumer responses (Li et al., 2021; Wu & Wang, 2017). Regret, in particular other-blame regret, when it occurs, can be seen as an almost unavoidable negative impact on e-commerce enterprises (Wu & Wang, 2017). Although this finding is preliminary and in need of replication, the role of CSR in buffering consumers from the negative impact of service failures may depend on boundary conditions such as consumer perceptions, values, or perceived motivations, which means that the finding may not be effective for all consumers. Therefore, managers should also establish effective consumer protection mechanisms to avoid and reduce the likelihood of negative feelings such as regret. Specifically, for improving e-commerce services, we suggest the following strategies. Firstly, the enterprises should provide precautions to reduce the likelihood of service failures. The enterprises should not only conduct initial audits (i.e., eligibility reviews), but on an annual basis. It is also important that they should develop suppliers’ awareness of sustainability in business. Besides, there is a need to provide measures during service failures to avoid consumers’ regret. Where it is known that there has been an evasion behaviour of a supplier, the enterprises should take prompt and proactive remedial action against it. The post-event measures should be developed to improve the services. Not only should enterprises punish unscrupulous suppliers for behaviours of intentional evasion, but they should also give consumers the right to evaluate and complain about the suppliers, staff, or services.
Several limitations should be kept in mind when interpreting the current results. The sample in this study is highly representative, but relatively homogenous. Thus, future research is encouraged to collect the data by including population from other groups to improve external validity. Secondly, this study only considers the absolute level of impacts. Although this is a common method in prior literature on the impacts of CSR on consumer responses, the relative level is in essence more influential on consumer responses. Upon comparison would promote positive responses to those with higher levels of CSR and aggravate negative responses to those with lower levels of CSR. Future research could further analyse the impact of relative levels of CSR on e-commerce consumers. This study does not take into account whether there are differences in the impact of types of CSR on consumer emotions and behaviours neither, which could also be explored in the future. Finally, given that the variables such as consumer personality traits, price level, CSR competence, consumer support, consumer trust, and consumer perceived motivation, identity, and image of enterprises, may influence the relationship between CSR and consumer responses, future research could also focus on the influence of these variables and, in particular, to identify moderating and mediating variables that are relevant to the context of e-commerce.