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Rude Salespeople Make You Buy Fancy Things

• April 30, 2014 • 4:53 PM

(Photo: Karkas/Shutterstock)

Being snubbed by a luxury store only increases your desire for its goods, according to a new study.

If you venture into high-end stores like Gucci or Burberry on shopping trips, you probably know their salespeople aren’t famous for their kindness.

“When I went to Louis Vuitton … the salesgirls were so [unfriendly]—I could not believe it,” writes a commenter on The Fashion Spot. “I was just dressed normally … and when I walked in they stopped talking and stared at me. It was like walking into a freezer, they were so cold towards me.”

“Social rejection motivates individuals to conform, obey, change their attitudes, work harder and generally try to present themselves in a favorable manner in order to gain acceptance.”

In a forthcoming study in the Journal of Consumer Research, Morgan Ward of Southern Methodist University and Darren Dahl of the Sauder School of Business use this quote to highlight an unsettling discrepancy between how we want salespeople to act and what actually gets us to buy things.

It’s no secret that salespeople at upscale shops can be a little snobbish, if not outright rude, the researchers note. Consumer complaints recently have pressured some luxury retailers to train their staffs to be more approachable; Louis Vuitton even went as far as decorating the entrance of its Beverly Hills store with a smiling cartoon apple in 2007. But if luxury retailers want to continue to rake in the dough, they actually should do the exact opposite, the study found. The ruder the salesperson the better.

In four online surveys, Ward and Dahl had participants imagine interactions with different types of salespeople under a bunch of different conditions. Variables included the imagined store’s level of luxury, the extent of the salesperson’s haughtiness, how well the salesperson represented the store’s brand, and how closely participants themselves related with the brand. The results:

  • Rejection makes people want to buy luxury goods. A salesperson’s condescending attitude has little effect on consumers’ desire to buy more affordable brands like Gap and American Eagle, though.
  • Rejection is stronger when salespeople convincingly embody brands in the way they act and dress. Sloppy salespeople aren’t as intimidating. 
  • People who really want to own a particular brand are even more influenced by rejection. Instead of switching their loyalties, customers just become more attached.
  • Rejection works best in the short term. While great at pressuring people into buying something in the moment, dismissive staff may still alienate customers in the long run.

The results fall into a long line of research that demonstrates the extent to which rejection can jar our fragile self-conceptions. “People have an innate need to belong to social groups that define and affirm their identities,” the researchers write. “Social rejection motivates individuals to conform, obey, change their attitudes, work harder and generally try to present themselves in a favorable manner in order to gain acceptance.”

The next time you’re snubbed, maybe wait a day or two before any big purchase. Or just shop online, Ward and Dahl recommend. “While many customers may purchase online for convenience, shopping online also may enable customers to avoid threatening encounters with intimidating salespeople,” they conclude.

Paul Bisceglio
Editorial Fellow Paul Bisceglio was previously an editorial intern at Smithsonian magazine and a staff reporter at Manhattan Media. He is a graduate of Haverford College and completed a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Warwick in Coventry, United Kingdom. Follow him on Twitter @PaulBisceglio.

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