It’s generally considered good practice in the retail world to hire the most attractive salespeople possible. Some stores have taken this strategy to the extreme, basing their hiring practice on the idea that hot sales staffers equate to hot sales totals at the register. In the past, Abercrombie & Fitch has admitted that it went after the “cool kids” when it came to hiring store employees, who were referred to as “models.”
An anonymous former American Apparel worker wrote on XO Jane a while back that her store refused to hire people who “just didn’t quite look the part – that is, thin, well groomed and conventionally attractive.” And here’s the reason why:
Yet a new report in the Journal of Consumer Research indicates that sometimes, attractive salespeople can be bad for business—and not only because they may have been hired due to their appearance rather than their competence.
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In a series of studies, the report’s authors found that many shoppers feel unhappy with their own appearances after walking into a store full of hotties. In these situations, the shoppers are much less likely to make purchases considered “embarrassing,” such as feminine hygiene or weight-loss products.
“This is especially true when the [store employee] is the opposite sex,” the authors, Lisa C. Wan and Robert S. Wyer Jr., both from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, wrote. “Even when the attractive salesperson is the same sex, consumers may feel a sense of inadequacy through self-comparison. In either case, the shopper may avoid interacting with physically attractive providers, rendering the salespeople ineffective.”
Previous research indicates the potential downside of attractive salespeople isn’t limited to so-called “embarrassing” purchases. According to a 2009 study from the University of South Australia, women ages 19 to 26 were less likely to purchase a wide range of goods—from smartphones to makeup—when they deemed the sales associate to be more attractive.
“Retailers often think that beautiful is better,” University of South Australia research Bianca Price explained of her study. “In the same way they use a celebrity to endorse a product; they hire a beautiful girl thinking that it reflects the brand and that other women will want to be like her. It doesn’t always work like that – women may not consider celebrities a direct social threat, but they might consider the girl at their local shopping centre to be one.”
The authors of the new Journal of Consumer Research study seem to be mostly on the same page, writing of attractive salespeople: “In many contexts, there are certain settings in which they intimidate shoppers and may ultimately decrease sales.”