New Sauder study: Good-looking people can kill the impulse to shop


A new study co-authored by Sauder marketing professor Darren Dahlfinds that people with low self-esteem are less likely to buy an item of clothing if they compare themselves to a good-looking shopper wearing the same thing.

“Whenever you’re creating the opportunity for comparison, that’s when you have to be a little careful,” said Professor Dahl in an interview with TIME magazine about the research. “You can’t treat every consumer the same. We all come into the shopping environment with different baggage.”

The study, to be published in the February 2012 edition of the Journal of Consumer Research, used a series of three experiments to assess how a sample of female undergrads reacted to this particular form of comparison shopping.

In one experiment, participants were asked to seek out a pair of leggings in a store and try them on.  Actors, pretending to be salespeople, directed participants to the leggings and then surreptitiously pointed to a planted shopper who was “coincidently” wearing the same item. In a variation, salespeople revealed that they were wearing the leggings, rather than the second shopper.

The results of the experiment show that women identified through a questionnaire as having a poor body image were more likely to rate the leggings less favorably than those with higher body esteem. Further, the experiment showed that women with poor body image were more likely to rate an item negatively when seeing it on another shopper, rather than the salesperson.

“People with low self-esteem put salespeople in a different category for comparison,” explains professor Dahl, who teaches in the UBC MBAand BCom programs.  “With sales people, the intensity of the comparison seems to be reduced by the fact that they are there to work, and that looking good is part of their job. Consequently, there is less of a ‘people like me’ comparison driving the reaction.”

Participants with positive body image rated the leggings consistently, whether they had seen the item on another shopper or the salesperson. This affirmed the study’s hypothesis that product evaluations made by high-esteem consumers are not easily swayed by comparisons with other people in the shopping environment.

Based on their findings, Professor Dahl and his co-authors recommend that retailers reduce opportunities for shopper comparison by constructing dressing rooms that maximize privacy.  They also warn against the trend of retailers using “real customers” in their advertising campaigns, as the ads could increase the likelihood that those with low body esteem will have negative responses.

As for in-store ads, the authors caution against the use of imagery on walls featuring models wearing the clothing on sale. They warn that blow-ups of gorgeous people in the space where consumption decisions are being made could potentially kill the impulse to shop for those with low self esteem.