Zipcar may have 730,000 members, but most don't feel part of a community, reports a new study. (Photo courtesy of Zipcar) 

In many cities, cars carrying a Zipcar logo have become a familiar sight. The company, based in Cambridge, Mass., maintains a fleet of more than 11,000 vehicles in 19 cities and on 250 college campuses that members can rent by the hour for short, local trips. For many of Zipcar’s 730,000 members, the service’s low cost and convenience have made it an attractive alternative to owning a car.

The popularity of Zipcar caught the attention of Boston-based marketing professors Fleura Bardhi of Northeastern University and Giana Eckhardt of Suffolk University, who would discuss the company over coffee. “Finally we said, ‘There really has not been that much research on how consumer behavior differs when people are accessing things compared to owning them,’” Eckhardt says. The pair realized that their casual observations could spark an interesting project.

Bardhi and Eckhardt recruited a group of 40 Zipcar customers in the Boston area who represented the company’s customer base, primarily students and young professionals. The researchers interviewed them and even rode around with the study participants to see how they behaved when using the service.

“When we first started, we thought people would act the way that they do when they share things with other people—in other words, that there was going to be a large sense of community surrounding using Zipcar,” Eckhardt says. “We found almost the opposite of that.”

In fact, the Zipcar customers felt indifferent toward the cars and their fellow Zipcar members. They didn’t care whether they left trash in the car or parked it in places where it might get damaged. They didn’t feel any sense of ownership or any connection to other Zipcar users. Nevertheless, they did appreciate the rules and oversight from the company that ensures that cars are returned on time, full of gas, and in acceptable condition.

The results surprised them, but Eckhardt says the results illustrated an economic principle known as the “tragedy of the commons,” the idea that people act in their self-interest, even if their actions might harm property that is communally owned.

Although Zipcar is known as a car-sharing service, it’s not a true sharing situation because the company owns the cars. “It’s not sharing that occurs among consumers,” Bardhi says. “We would argue that maybe this sense of community would not emerge because of this market mediation.”

Many such access-based services have popped up in recent years. Companies like Netflix, Bag Borrow or Steal, and Hubway rent out DVDs, designer handbags, and bicycles, respectively. Russell Belk, professor of marketing at York University in Toronto, compares the Zipcar case to a smaller, cooperative car-sharing service in Sweden, where the members do feel responsibility for the cars and toward the other users. “How big can we get with that sense of community before it begins to break down?” he says. “This is a good start, and we hope it will provoke more research.”

Fleura Bardhi & Giana M. Eckhardt, “Access-Based Consumption: The Case of Car Sharing,” Journal of Consumer Research, December 2012.

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