CUHK Business School Reveals Attractive Salespeople May Scare Away Customers

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HONG KONG, CHINA – Media OutReach – April 27, 2016 – We often assume physical attraction will be an advantage in life. The same assumption goes to attractive sales people that they will be able to increase shoppers’ purchase intention and satisfaction. However, a study by The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) Business School suggests that this may not always be true.

There is a common belief that people have more favorable reactions to physically attractive individuals than to physically unattractive ones. So it is assumed that when we go shopping and see a highly attractive salesperson, we will be more willing to spend time interacting with the salesperson and be more likely to buy the products. Past research on consumer behavior also qualified this assumption, as evidenced by consumers’ greater satisfaction with the service and their intentions to purchase the products being sold.

However, an attractive salesperson may actually keep people from wanting to buy his or her products, and consumers may react more negatively to a highly attractive service provider than to an average looking one, according to a new study1 conducted by Lisa Wan, an assistant professor at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management and Director of Center for Hospitality and Real Estate Research at the CUHK Business School and her colleague, Robert Wyer, a visiting professor from the Department of Marketing in CUHK Business School.

In their published paper titled Consumer Reactions to Attractive Service Providers: Approach or Avoid? The researchers study the consumer reactions to physically attractive and average looking salespeople through a pilot study and five experiments.

Self-presentation Concerns
The study reveals that attractive salespeople can sometimes lead consumers to have self-presentation concerns about their ability to make a good impression on others.

“We predicted that when consumers’ self-presentation concerns are heightened, they often avoid interacting with physically attractive salespeople, hence making it relatively ineffective for the salespeople to sell their products,” says Prof. Wan.

According to Prof. Wan, individuals with high social anxiety have stronger self-presentation concerns than those with low social anxiety. So to an extent, consumers with chronically high social anxiety should react less favorably to attractive than to unattractive salespeople in an actual retail environment.

Pilot Study
The research team found such predictions in a pilot study. The study was conducted at a store in a Hong Kong shopping center that specializes in Japanese figures, models and gifts, a popular palace for Otaku to shop. Originated from Japan, Otaku refers to a group of people who have an obsessive interest in online games and amines, who are socially inept in interpersonal interactions. So these individuals are regarded as those who have high social anxiety and self-presentation concerns.

In the study, two female fellows with different levels of attractiveness – one highly attractive and the other average-looking – were posted as salespersons. The highly attractive female wore makeup to accentuate her attractiveness while the average-looking female did not wear any makeup. Then, two observers were asked to stay in the shopping center to collect the data. They recorded the total number of male consumers who stopped to take a look at the window display; the number of consumers who entered the store and took a look at the products; the number of consumers who interacted with the salesperson; the duration of interaction time between the salesperson and consumer interacted; and the amount of consumers’ purchases.

The results of the study show that fewer male consumers entered the store when the salesperson was the attractive one than when she is the average-looking one. Only 40.8 percent of consumers interacted with the attractive salesperson but 59.2 percent of consumers interacted with the average-looking salesperson. Finally, fewer males made a purchase from the attractive salesperson as compared to the average-looking one, and the average cost of the products they purchased was also less than the latter.

Obviously, the pilot study provides evidence when consumers have chronic social anxiety, they are less willing to interact with a highly attractive service provider, according to Prof. Wan.

“Shoppers’ avoidance of attractive salespersons in the pilot study was a result of their chronic social anxiety and how they presented themselves to these attractive persons,” She says.

Embarrassing and Non-embarrassing Consumption Situations
Apart from high social anxiety, these self-presentation concerns can also be induced by the differences in the consumption situations.

According to the research, the consumption of some products or services such as condoms, medical checkups and weight-loss services can generate embarrassment. These embarrassing consumptions are likely to endanger the positive self-image a person is motivated to convey in social situations, particularly when others are attractive and the ones he or she wants to impress. If this is the case, consumers may wish to avoid interacting with attractive providers in an embarrassing consumption situation.

In one of the experiments, a total of 132 female participants were told that a company wanted to receive feedback about their new product, a thermal waist belt, and the likeliness of the sales representative. Each of the participants was placed in a room where she could touch the waist belt and see some advertising posters about the product. But the posters were manipulated to show the waist belt as an embarrassing or a non-embarrassing product. In the embarrassing condition, the posters indicated that the primary function of the waist belt was to reduce weight. In the non-embarrassing condition, the posters showed the waist belt was intended to relax their muscles, improve circulation, and relieve lower back pain.

A physically attractive man served as the salesperson to all the participants; however, he was presented in two different conditions. In the highly attractive condition, the salesman styled his hair and wore a T-shirt that fitted him well. In the average-attractive condition, the same salesman was ungroomed and wore an oversize T-shirt with a pair of glasses to detract his attractive appearance.

All participants had a chance to interact with the salesman. After that, they were asked to complete a questionnaire to rate their purchase intentions, liking for the salesman and the extent to which they felt nervous when interacting with him.

As expected by the researchers, the results show that participants in the embarrassing consumption condition reported less intention to purchase when the salesperson was presented in an attractive way than when he was not; they had a greater concern with the impression they created when the salesman was attractive than when he was ungroomed.

“The study demonstrates that when a consumption situation is likely to be embarrassing, attractive opposite-sex providers can lead consumers to have self-presentation concerns. And when it occurs, it has a detrimental effect on purchase decisions,” says Prof. Wan.

Same-sex Interactions
So, will consumers behave the same way and be less willing to interact with a physically attractive salesperson of the same sex when they are buying embarrassing products? The answer is yes. In same sex interactions, according to the study, embarrassing consumption conditions will increase consumers’ feelings of jealousy and negative mood, and decrease their self-perceptions of attractiveness and liking of the attractive same-sex salesperson. So consumers will be less willing to interact with the salesperson.

“When the provider is of the same sex, self-presentation concerns appear to be driven by social comparison processes, leading consumers to dislike the provider and to avoid interacting for this reason,” explains Prof. Wan.

Implications for Practitioners
Distinguishing two different processes of self-presentation concerns underlying same and opposite sex interactions, the research is the first attempt to examine the conditions in which the physical attractiveness of a service provider can decrease as well as increase consumption behavior.

“Our research not only identifies these conditions but also provides evidence of the mechanisms underlying these effects,” says Prof. Wan.

As such, the study suggests constraints on the desirability of using attractive service providers to increase the sale of products. To be more specific, the strategy to use attractive service providers for the purpose of increasing the sale of products may be effective only when the product being promoted is not embarrassing. When the product is embarrassing, however, the effect can be adverse.

However, Prof. Wan adds that there is an exception and positive use of attractive models or celebrities in advertisements for embarrassing products – online shopping where social interaction is not an issue.