Monday, September 1, 2014

Yes, that snobby salesperson is judging you. And it's good for business.

If a salesperson is snooty to you, does it encourage you to buy more? Getty Images

There's a stereotype that luxury stores are full of snooty salespeople who stand ready to inflict withering contempt on their customers. As it turns out, any of those salespeople who actually might be acting like jerks might be doing the right thing. According to a new study to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research, customers who are rebuffed by snobby salespeople are often even more willing to buy afterward.

The premise

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that rejection drives people to strive harder to be a part of an in-group — think of the outsider in high school trying to be one of the cool kids. Researchers applied this theory to retail settings to see if rejection by sales workers changed customers' behaviors or attitudes.

How they tested it

Researchers confronted subjects with a variety of both written and lab-simulated retail situations. Some customers were presented with "mass market" brands (like H&M and Gap), others with "aspirational" brands (Louis Vuitton, Gucci). Customers dealt with either neutral salespeople or salespeople who "rejected" them, for example by disapproving of how the customers looked. Some participants were also asked to indicate before interacting with the salespeople how much they identified themselves with the brand, both actually and ideally. Others were asked to take a quiz about their fashion knowledge.

What they found

Rejection by salespeople raised customers' opinions of the luxury labels, but not the mass-market brands. In addition, rejection boosted people's willingness to pay for the luxury products, but the effects were not the same for everyone. For example, the effect was bigger on people who identified their "ideal" selves more heavily with a brand, but smaller on people who correctly identified brands on the quiz — a condition meant to prime customers to feel like they were already part of the "in-group."

That said, these effects also diminished over time — the longer after being rejected, the more people were likely to see a brand poorly and the less likely they were to want to spend money on it.

The caveat for salespeople seems to be that while condescending to customers might bring in a sale today, it can mean driving people away over the long term.

One big limitation of this study, however, is that the retail situations weren't real; customers didn't "feel the pain of rejection in an actual retail context," as researchers wrote. Further studies could see whether real-world interactions would mean bigger effects, not to mention how much longer-term backlash a store might see from rejecting customers, the authors write. In addition, three of the four cases focused on women only, as well as luxury clothing and accessories stores only. The one case that included men and women together focused on car-buying. It's possible that these results are not generalizable to all types of goods, like electronics or men's clothing.

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