Ideas for Leaders #640

Why Customers Put Up With Rude Luxury Shop Assistants

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Key Concept

Surprisingly, retail rejection (customers greeted with unfriendly sales staff in luxury stores, for example) can increase brand image in the eyes of ‘rejected’ consumers, thus increasing sales in the short term. In the long term, however, consumers will resent the rejection, and the brand pays the price.

Idea Summary

Any consumer who has entered a high-end luxury shop and been treated with disdain by the sales clerks will understand the meaning of ‘retail rejection’. Many luxury companies are trying to change the attitudes of their salespeople, encouraging them to be friendly and welcoming. Previous research on social rejection, however, indicates that retail rejection may not be such a bad idea. The reason is that, unlike Groucho Marx who didn’t want to be part of any club that would accept him, most of us are even more determined to be accepted by those who reject us.

In the retail context, according to new research by Darren Dahl of the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business and Morgan Ward of Emory University’s Goizueta School of Business, this means that disdainful sales clerks only increase the desirability of the brand and the willingness to pay for the brand’s products. This is especially true, the new research shows, when:

  • The brand is aspirational. Aspirational brands are brands that represent an image or status to which people might aspire. Rude clerks in a grocery store are just rude. Rude clerks in a Louis Vuitton store — well, that’s something else.
  • The brand is closely related to our ideal self-concept. People have an actual self-concept (who they are) and ideal self-concept (who they’d like to be). If you belong to the “club” represented by the brand, the brand relates to your actual self-concept. If you want to belong to the “club” represented by the brand, the brand relates to your ideal self-concept. The positive impact of rejection on brand image and willingness to pay is higher for brands related to your ideal self-concept.
  • The consumer did not affirm his or her self-concept before the rejection. If retail rejection damages confidence in your self-concept, is there anything you can do to mitigate this damage? Yes, according to this research. People who “affirm” their self-concept before the rejection — find some way to reinforce their sense of membership in the group — are less affected.
  • The brand representative fits the brand. Finally, whether or not a salesperson (or any other person doing the rejecting) fits the brand makes a difference. A rude but sloppily dressed or poorly coiffed sales clerk in a Gucci store will not have the same effect as a rude but attractive, well-spoken and well-dressed clerk in the same store.

The research conducted by Dahl and Ward (at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business at the time of the research) was based on a series of studies in which participants read retail rejection scenarios and then answered questions about their opinions of the brand in the scenarios (including willingness to pay a higher price). Additional factors were incorporated into the different studies, which led to the various conclusions above. (In one study, for example, certain participants filled out a Fashion Knowledge Questionnaire, thus affirming their self-concept, while others filled out a Personal Information questionnaire that did not affirm their self-concept.)

Business Application

Retailers should not take the results of the research as a green flag for rudeness and rejection. According to the research, treating customers poorly can result in a sale in the short term — the rejection pushes the right emotional buttons for the reasons cited above — but can damage the brand in the long term. The reason is that over time, customers forget the specifics of the transaction and remember the emotions related to that transaction — in this case, the negative emotions.

This research, therefore, offers retail business leaders a key lesson in sales force management: you want to help your sales people to achieve an aspirational social distance, which increases brand image, but without crossing the line and hurting rather than helping your brand. For example, salespeople in luxury stores should be cool and aristocratic but not condescending. 

The bottom line: Short of exceptional one-off transactions — the sale of a yacht, for example — no seller of luxury and other aspirational items should ever believe that rudeness and disdain is an effective selling strategy for the long term.

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Idea conceived

  • October 2012

Idea posted

  • December 2016

DOI number



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