HONG KONG — It’s a common assumption that physical attraction is an advantage in life. It should follow, then, that attractive salespeople 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.
Past research on consumer behavior has qualified this assumption, as evidenced by consumers’ greater satisfaction with service and their intentions to purchase, according to a statement from the school. 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.
This is according to a new study by Lisa Wan, an assistant professor at the School of Hotel and Tourism Management at the CUHK Business School and her colleague, Robert Wyer, a visiting professor from the Department of Marketing.
For their paper, “Consumer Reactions to Attractive Service Providers: Approach or Avoid?” the researchers studied consumer reactions to physically attractive and average-looking salespeople through a pilot study and five experiments.
The study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, revealed 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,” said Prof. Wan, who is also director of the school’s Center for Hospitality and Real Estate Research.
She said 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 salespeople.
The research team tested these predictions in a pilot study, at a store in a Hong Kong shopping center that specializes in Japanese figures, models and gifts, a popular palace for otaku to shop.
Otaku is a Japanese colloquial term for people who have an obsessive interest in online games and animé and are socially inept. So, they are regarded as having high social anxiety and self-presentation concerns.
In the study, two females 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.
Two observers recorded the number of male consumers who stopped to look at the window display, the number who entered the store and looked at the products, the number who interacted with the salespersons, the duration of those interactions, and the amount consumers spent.
The results showed that fewer male consumers entered the store when the salesperson was the attractive one. Only 40.8% of consumers interacted with the attractive salesperson, but 59.2% of consumers interacted with the average-looking salesperson. Finally, fewer males bought from the attractive salesperson, and the average cost of their purchases was also lower.
The pilot study showed that 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 said.
Apart from high social anxiety, these self-presentation concerns can also be induced by how embarrassing it might feel to buy something.
Research has shown that consuming products or services such as condoms, medical checkups and weight-loss services can be embarrassing. These “embarrassing consumptions” are likely to endanger the positive self-image a person is motivated to convey in social situations, particularly when he or she wants to impress someone attractive. In such situations, consumers may wish to avoid interacting with attractive providers.
In another experiment, 132 female participants were told that a company wanted to receive feedback about their new product, a thermal waist belt, and the likability 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 depicted the waist belt as either weight-reducing (embarrassing) or for relaxation and pain relief (non-embarrassing).
Meanwhile, a physically attractive man served as the salesperson for all participants. However, he was presented in two different conditions: either he styled his hair and wore a fitting T-shirt, or he was ungroomed and wore an oversized T-shirt and eyeglasses.
After interacting with him, the participants were asked to rate their purchase intentions, liking for the salesman, and how nervous they felt with him.
As the researchers expected, participants in the embarrassing condition reported less intention to purchase when the salesperson was “attractive”; they had a greater concern with the impression they created 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.
Would consumers behave the same way with a salesperson of the same sex? Based on the study, yes: In same-sex interactions, embarrassing consumption conditions will increase consumers’ jealousy and negative mood, decrease their self-perceptions of attractiveness, and decrease their liking for an attractive same-sex 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,” explained Prof. Wan.
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, according to the school.
“Our research not only identifies these conditions but also provides evidence of the mechanisms underlying these effects,” said Prof. Wan.
However, Prof. Wan noted an exception in the positive use of attractive models or celebrities in advertisements for embarrassing products — online shopping, where social interaction is not an issue.