Why Do Zipcar Users Abuse the Cars? 4 Lessons For the Access Economy

A ZipCar Min Cooper in ManhattanThe access economy could easily become a theme for a new season of In Treatment with its ongoing trust and behavioral issues. This week it lay on the couch while two researchers tried to figure out why consumers don’t take good care of their Zipcars. Ultimately Prof. Fleura Bardhi and Prof. Giana Eckhardt hoped to learn how consumer-object and consumer-to-consumer relationships work in the sharing economy overall. For starters, they found that although Zipcar attempts to build a brand community, consumers currently do not want this type of engagement.

“Our study represents the first look at how consumers think, feel, and act when they are accessing rather than purchasing products, and we discovered that the nature of access-based consumption is inherently different from ownership,” the researchers write. So what is exactly the nature of access consumption and what does it mean for the future of the access economy?

The study, Sharing Isn’t Always Caring: Why Don’t Consumers Take Care of Their Zipcars?, will be published in December in the Journal of Consumer Research provides an interesting academic perspective on the access economy. The researchers identified six dimensions or types of access – temporality, anonymity, market mediation, consumer involvement, type of accessed object and political consumerism.

The study focuses on market-mediated access-based consumption and more specifically on car sharing, conducting it  with Zipcar users.  The researchers not only interviewed Zipcar users (40 in total), but also rode in Zipcars with them to gain a firsthand understanding of how consumers use Zipcars, conduct transactions, follow company regulation and so on. Their analysis generated four main findings that might be specific to Zipcar, but also provide valuable lessons to the rest of the access economy, including both peer-to-peer and market-mediated services:

1. Lack of identification with the accessed objects (or: Zipcar equals a hotel room): The researchers show how three of the dimensions of access – specifically short-term temporal duration, anonymity, and market mediation, inhibit a sense of identification with the item used. As Ashley, one of the interviewees said, “Zipcars are sort of like hotel rooms: they’re clean, anonymous, and comfortable but not really cozy. It’s like a hotel room kind of experience, where you’re in some place that’s really not yours; you’re never going to be really comfortable.”  The conclusion was that the relationship to the shared cars is one of instrumental utility rather than connection.

Lesson for the access economy: A sense of identification with your service is the Holy Grail but it doesn’t mean you can’t do well without it.

2. Varying significance of use and sign value: The researchers explain that interviews mostly discuss consumption motivations such as reducing expenses and increasing convenience as the primary reasons for their participation in the car-sharing program. This is what the researchers call use value. At the same time their data also suggests that “although the Zipcars themselves are valued because of their use value, the practice of access is gaining sign value, with the sign value being a more economically savvy and more flexible form of consumption than ownership.”

Lesson for the access economy: It’s important not only to emphasize the benefits users actually care about, but also make sure you brand your service accordingly.

3. Market’s norms of negative reciprocity and a big-brother governance model – Negative reciprocity means here that Zipcar users act in their own self-interest when they use cars and assume others were doing the same. As one of the interviewees put it: “You can just beat the hell out of it; it’s not your car… So if I destroy the suspension, so be it! Somebody will fix it. Not me.” It’s not too surprising to learn that the interviewees see the monitoring and regulatory role of Zipcar as what is needed to ensure the system works. In other words, they welcome a big-brother system that will control and monitor users behavior, fining them for leaving the cars dirty or with almost no gas in the tank.

Lesson for the access economy: Don’t trust people’s kindness and apply the most effective system to disincentivize misbehavior.

4. The deterrence of brand community, despite the company’s efforts to build one – The researchers found that there is a distinct lack of community among Zipcar users, even though the company is attempting to build one. The reality is that “Informants see Zipcar as a service provider as well as the enforcer and governing body, rather than as a facilitator of a brand that helps them to connect to like-minded people.” The researchers note that Zipcar failed in its attempts to create rituals among users like waving to each other on the road, as well in rallying them around the green advantages of using car sharing. Apparently, users are not too interested in such rituals and don’t really find the green theme so convincing or exciting.

Lesson for the access economy: If you want to create a sense of community within your users, check with them first and see how many of them actually want it. If not, just leave it.

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris, a green company working to green up the book industry in the digital age. He is an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and the New School, teaching courses in green business and new product development.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at Parsons The New School for Design. His research interests include the convergence of innovation, sustainability, business and design strategies, as well as the sharing economy, sustainable business models and design thinking. Currently he is involved in projects focusing on the impact of the sharing economy on traditional business, resilience and the sharing economy, future of design thinking, and whether Millennials can integrate sustainability into their lifestyles.Raz is the co-founder of two green startups (Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris) and a contributor writer to Triple Pundit.