Rude clerks make rich shoppers spend more

When luxury customers feel like they aren't worthy, they pull out their pocketbooks, a new study shows.

By MSN Money Partner May 14, 2014 3:32PM
By Brenda Cronin, The Wall Street Journal

For luxury-goods retailers, nothing spikes sales like snubbing the customer.

Shoppers pining for a fancy handbag are more likely to pull out their credit cards than turn on their heels after encountering a rude clerk, according to new research. 

That's because indicating that some people don't fit with fancy brands motivates those individuals to prove they do -- by making a purchase.

Yet the tactic only works for high-end goods. The cold shoulder at the Gap (GPS) is likely to drive customers elsewhere, not trigger splurges on jeans and T-shirts.

The findings come in a new study, titled "Should the Devil Sell Prada? Retail Rejection Increases Aspiring Consumers’ Desire for the Brand." The research looks into the perennial yearning to join particular groups and to flaunt that membership with clothes and accessories.

When a retailer signals, “’No, you don’t deserve to be here,’ it makes us want to be a member,” said Darren Dahl, a professor at the Sauder School of Business in Vancouver who conducted the research with Morgan K. Ward, an assistant professor of marketing at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business.Image: Jewelry store © Baerbel Schmidt/Getty Images

For the person eager to own a luxury-brand item, a withering sales clerk is a goad, Mr. Dahl said. Instead of driving a shopper away, the challenge prompts him to think, "I'm going to show you I have a right to be here."

Ms. Ward, who worked in fashion before becoming an academic, said the research stemmed from that puzzling -- but widespread -- response. "You'd think you’d want to be punitive to a brand that rejected you," she said. 

And yet consumers in the experiment punished only mass-market retailers -- or high-end ones where they felt indifferent, and not attracted, to the goods.  The paper will be published in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Neither author is advocating hauteur as a winning formula to move expensive clothes and handbags. "For luxury brands, the best strategy is to give good service," Mr. Dahl said. Long-term, (condescending to the customer) . . . is just not good for your brand or store."

Indeed, the authors found that while an imperious clerk could spark an impulsive purchase, the experience ultimately left customers with a poor impression of the brand.  A chilly reception could spark an aspiring luxury customer to buy something -- only to regret it later.

"In the moment, you take the challenge, to say, 'I belong here,' so you pay the money," Mr. Dahl said. "After, you go home and you're sitting on the couch and you're like, 'They were a—holes to me! I'm not going back.'"

Paco Underhill, founder of Envirosell, a New York consulting firm, cautioned against drawing conclusions from an experiment rather than real life.

Across the financial spectrum, "what we say and what we actually do at retail are very, very different," said Mr. Underhill, author of "What Women Want: The Science of Female Shopping," "Call of the Mall" and "Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping."

"If I interview somebody in the parking lot [of a high-end retailer such as Louis Vuitton or a mass-market one such as Wal-Mart] . . . even if I follow them through the store, what they tell me and what they do are often very, very different things," he said.

Figuring out how to approach customers is a challenge for retailers in a world where one's clothes, age or bearing don’t immediately signal state in life, he said.

In part of the experiment, Professors Ward and Dahl asked more than 350 women what they would do after reading about an encounter with a sales clerk. 

The researchers located the hypothetical scenario in six venues: three high-end stores -- Louis VuittonBurberry (BURBY) and Gucci -- and three mass-market ones -- American Eagle (AEO), Gap and H&M. When the word "condescending' was inserted to describe the manner of the clerk in a high-end shop, women who aspired to wear the brand were more willing to make a purchase than women without such aspirations -- or ones who were treated neutrally.  

And when women read about rude receptions at the lower-end stores, they seemed less inclined, not more, to buy than when greeted neutrally.

In another part of the experiment, the researchers had more than 100 men and women meet individually with a person posing as representative of a car company considering whether to open a dealership of "green" cars in the area. Once again, aspiring consumers and rude representatives spurred the strongest responses. 

Individuals who wanted to be perceived as "eco-conscious" -- and who were treated dismissively -- were the most eager to prove their environmental bona fides to the salesman by buying the cars. Individuals less concerned with perceptions, who met with neutral salesmen -- weren't as motivated to buy.

That raises the question: Do high-end brands train their sales staff to give short shrift to some customers? The answer isn't clear. Retailers declined the authors' requests to conduct in-store experiments.

"I wanted to do that more than anything," Ms. Ward said. "I approached so many retailers . . . and they wouldn't allow it." Luxury brands say "they train their sales staff to be very approachable and friendly," she said, but such boutiques still can intimidate even shoppers favorably disposed to the brand.

More from The Wall Street Journal

May 14, 2014 4:26PM

So people who hunger for high-status products are easy to manipulate.  That's useful to know.

May 14, 2014 4:38PM
Wow. For me, rude customer sevice is an invitation to leave and never come back. I don't have a ton of money to spend, but I insist on good customer service when I spend it.
May 14, 2014 4:44PM
I don't buy this. I've worked at a high-status retail store, and nothing killed a sale quicker than snubbing a customer. In fact, the store made sure we treated everyone nicely by sending in mystery shoppers. The store did this when they started to lose money, and (surprise, surprise) they found out that snobbish sales people were the root of the problem.
May 14, 2014 4:34PM
One of my customers set out to buy a Viper. The first dealership would not even let him go for a test drive. Well he sure enjoyed cruising through their parking lot and waiving after he bought one.
May 14, 2014 4:38PM
They can screw themselves, treat me like an inferior and they NEVER get a Cent from me EVER!
May 14, 2014 5:05PM

Wow, people with low self-esteem try to compensate with over-priced designer duds that say "Look at me, I'm important."  Who knew.*


*Denotes sarcasm.



May 14, 2014 4:43PM
More true of rich that aren't earning the money than rich that earned it i would bet.
May 14, 2014 4:30PM
I think this may be true, depending on the shopper. A friend went into a fancy store in Beverly Hills and paid $800 for a sofa pillow! I thought she was nuts. When she got back she said she shouldn't have bought it but the salesgirl made her feel like she didn't belong there. 
May 14, 2014 5:20PM
I disagree with this. I spend a good deal of money at luxury stores. I am lucky to be able to do that. I can tell you if a clerk is condescending to me I won't buy from them. If it is habitual I will boycott the store. For the record I am not necessarily wearing Gucci when I shop the store.   If you want my money you better treat me right. 
May 14, 2014 7:26PM
Stupid is as Stupid does.  If they were rude to me, I would walk out.  IF I have the money to buy something expensive, I would do it at a store that treated me with respect and not rudeness.  I would then go back to the store of the rude clerk and show her what I bought elsewhere because they were pleasant  and respectful towards me.  So, my thoughts on this article?  BULL PUCKY!
May 14, 2014 7:08PM
Well That's just pathetic!! if a snotty sales person at Prada or Coach or some place like that, treated me like I didn't belong or treated me like garbage, it wouldn't make me want to spend money there. It would instead, make me want to get them written up or leave the store or hope that someone gives them a good smack! People who are "inspired" to spend money or to "prove" themselves after being treated badly, are some very insecure and rather sad human beings. Have some self respect! Tell that sales person how rude they are and leave the store, taking their commission with you!
May 14, 2014 7:02PM
It is called snob appeal and this person did not have to write a paper about it.   It has been going on since Louis the Fourteenth.  
May 14, 2014 6:09PM
I would never buy that over-priced, cheaply-made, outsourced crap.
May 14, 2014 6:01PM
its the opposite for me I don't care how much I like what they have if some one is rude to me ill tell them to go f themselves then go buy it a a place were they treat you well  even if I have cash in hand wanting to by I will walk right out if they pulled that gay snooty **** with me    be careful ya might get socked in the face    shake n bake 
May 14, 2014 4:40PM
Some people will pay dearly for high company is a long know fact.
May 14, 2014 7:37PM
If this survey is true (and somehow I don't think it is), then there are a whole lot of masochists running around just waiting for some ignorant and ill-mannered sales clerk to take their money! When one is rude to me, I turn heel and simply walk away.. Life is too damn short to put up with snobby, little twits who have no business working with the public in the first place....
May 14, 2014 7:44PM
That sounds right bad buyer beware.  Many people buy with their feelings not out of necessity. 

I saw a full high gloss two page add in Ocean Drive magazine for a Miami Condo apartment that read not taking applications, by referral only.
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