The Devil's in the Details

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In an odd twist of fate, one recent study conducted by the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business concluded that rude retail associates might actually boost sales. The study, which will be published in the October 2014 edition of the Journal of Consumer Research, indicates that customers who encounter snobby salespeople at high-end retail stores often become more willing to purchase these pricey goods in order to gain the associate's approval.
Customer Strategy

In an odd twist of fate, one recent study conducted by the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business concluded that rude retail associates might actually boost sales. The study, which will be published in the October 2014 edition of the Journal of Consumer Research, indicates that customers who encounter snobby salespeople at high-end retail stores often become more willing to purchase these pricey goods in order to gain the associate's approval.The appropriately titled "Should the Devil Sell Prada? Retail Rejection Increases Aspiring Consumers' Desire for the Brand" report builds upon co-author and UBC marketing professor Darren Dahl's "Pretty Woman" theory, which looks to understand the correlation between rude treatment and the consumers' desire to buy.

Flashback to 1990 for just one minute and you will recall the disrespectful saleswomen on Rodeo Drive that shunned Julia Roberts' prostitute persona, ultimately refusing to serve her and pushing her straight into the arms of the competition. Then, in what some may call the feel good moment of the movie--or it is just me?--Roberts returns the following day to flaunt her purchases and highlight their huge mistake. With this in mind, Dahl and his co-author, assistant professor Morgan Ward of the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University, sought to examine how research participants would respond to similar real-life situations.

Participants were asked to partake in or imagine interactions with salespeople, rude or friendly, and then rate their feelings about the given brand and their desire to own said goods. Overall, those who had less than stellar experiences with high-end associates reported an increased desire to own the given brand's products despite the poor treatment. Dahl equates these results with the consumers' latent "high school" wish to be liked and accepted. The more rejected they feel, the harder they work to fit in--or, in this case, the more money they spend. Luxury brands represent the "in crowd" and consumers crave to be part of such an exclusive club, even if those in charge fail to respect their character. (Mean Girls, anyone?)

However, similar effects fail to trickle down to mass-market brands. Therefore, while snobby salespeople may be an ideal strategic component for Gucci and Louis Vuitton, Gap and Old Navy are likely to experience an adverse impact, as their customers are more likely to defect. Thus, while consumers may bow down to the Regina Georges of the retail realm, few are likely to do more than grimace in the direction of their Janis Ian counterparts, for the mean ones make acceptance all the more alluring.

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EXPERT OPINION