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We often assume physical attraction will be an advantage in life.

The same assumption goes for 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 behaviour 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 study.

The study was conducted by Lisa Wan, assistant professor, School of Hotel and Tourism Management and Director of Center for Hospitality and Real Estate Research at the CUHK; with Robert Wyer, visiting professor, Department of Marketing in CUHK Business School.

The paper titled Consumer Reactions to Attractive Service Providers: Approach or Avoid?studied 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 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.

The study worked with two female fellows as salespersons – one highly attractive with make-up and the other average-looking with no make-up. Two observers monitored

  1. total number of male consumers who stopped to take a look at the window display;
  2. the number of consumers who entered the store and took a look at the products;
  3. the number of consumers who interacted with the salesperson;
  4. the duration of interaction time between the salesperson and consumer interacted; and
  5. the amount of consumers’ purchases.

The results showed 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.

Also, fewer males made a purchase from the attractive salesperson as compared to the average-looking one, and the average cost of products purchased was also less than the latter.

The study provides evidence that consumers with chronic social anxiety 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.

Embarrassing and Non-embarrassing Consumption Situations

Apart from high social anxiety, self-presentation concerns can also be induced by consumption of some products or services such as condoms, medical checkups and weight-loss services can generate embarrassment.

According to the research, consumptions which are likely to endanger the positive self-image a person is motivated to convey in social situations, may inhibit consumers to avoid interacting with attractive providers in that situation.

In an experiment of 132 female participants, half were presented a new thermal waist belt as a non-embarrassing product – to relax their muscles, improve circulation, and relieve lower back pain.

The other half were presented with an embarrassing condition – the primary function of the waist belt being, to reduce weight.

All participants were served in two different conditions – a highly attractive salesman with styled hair; and an ungroomed salesman with a pair of glasses.

The study concluded that consumers exhibit great concern with the impression they create with an attractive salesman than when he is ungroomed. 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.

Same-sex Interactions

Similar behaviour is exhibited when consumers interact with a physically attractive salesperson of the same sex, due to jealousy, negative mood, self-perception decrease; especially in an embarrassing consumption scenario.

“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.

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 by businesses 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.

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