Christmas Clerks Beware: Flattery Ploy Won’t Work

Assoc. Prof. Darren Dahl turns a keen eye on marketplace behaviour and consumer patterns - photo by Martin Dee
Assoc. Prof. Darren Dahl turns a keen eye on marketplace behaviour and consumer patterns – photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 52 | No. 12 | Dec. 7, 2006

By Lorraine Chan

“You look great in that jacket!” “Fuchsia is really your colour.” “I bought that exact pair of shoes myself.” Sales pitches like these will be flying fast and furious as retailers ramp up for the year’s busiest shopping season.

However, these ploys do little to clinch a sale and may confirm shoppers’ negative views of the sales game, says Assoc. Prof. Darren Dahl, who teaches marketing and consumer behaviour at UBC’s Sauder School of Business.

“Consumers today are enormously wary of marketing tactics and have an automatic mistrust of flattery from a salesperson,” says Dahl.

He says according to a 2003 Ipsos-Reid survey, only 10 per cent of consumers expressed any degree of trust in sales agents. In comparison, national politicians came in at nine per cent, while reporters earned 27 per cent, lawyers 29 per cent and auto mechanics 33 per cent.

Dahl recently published Deliberative and Automatic Bases of Suspicion: Empirical Evidence of the Sinister Attribution Error in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. His study looks at the reaction of consumers to flattery from store clerks. Along with co-authors Kelley Main at York University and Peter Darke at Florida State University, Dahl explores whether consumers decide a salesperson is untrustworthy through a deliberate or automatic decision-making process.

To gather data, the researchers ran three experiments that involved consumers buying sunglasses at a sales kiosk in UBC’s Student Union Building. The 102 study participants were all university students: 37 males and 65 females.

In the first experiment, sales clerks flattered consumers before their purchase. During the second, sales clerks flattered consumers after their purchase. In both instances, they used three statements, “That’s a great pair of sunglasses. I think they look good on you. They really suit you.” With the third experiment — which acted as a control – sales clerks chatted with consumers but didn’t proffer any flattery.

After buying a pair of sunglasses, participants then completed a questionnaire that asked whether they received any flattery from the sales clerk, when the flattery occurred and how trustworthy they found the salespeople.

“Our findings show that even when it was obvious the compliment didn’t serve any underlying sales motive, the participants didn’t trust what the sales agent had to say,” says Dahl.

“In a way it’s sad that the marketplace has become so suspicious,” adds Dahl, “but it seems that when someone flatters us, we get our back up even if it’s not called for. It’s the consumers’ default position to react negatively to what is perceived as an attempt to manipulate them.”

However, it doesn’t mean that businesses can’t be nice to customers — they have to really mean it, and be more sophisticated.

“A lot of consumers appreciate good customer service, but it becomes negative if businesses cross the line.”

Dahl says when cashiers at Safeway address you by name after each transaction, that’s one approach. Or companies will segment their brand to capture different markets.

“The same company owns Best Buy and Future Shop. You’ll notice Best Buy TV ads stress, ‘No commissions, no hassles.’ So the company is aware that a lot of consumers don’t want salespeople all over them, but they’re offering a choice for those who don’t mind that and may see it as a level of service they want.”

He says an example of real trailblazing would be online bookseller Amazon, which was one of the first websites to build customer profiles, whose pop-ups for suggested books give shoppers a sense their tastes are recognized.

Dahl says with the Internet being used for shopping and researching product information, consumers hold the upper hand. Further, consumers are taking the control away from companies.

“They can create their own markets for products as we’re seeing with YouTube. If they like your product, they’ll make their own commercials about it and put it on the Internet. The power lies with consumers.”

By documenting these trends, Dahl says he and other researchers provide valuable insights for policy makers, government, consumers and businesses.

“We’re chronicling major aspects of society. That’s the fun part of my job as an academic. I can see something interesting at the store that piques my interest and I get to research it.”

Are you a Market Maven or a Bargain Hunter?

Before setting off to the mall with their Christmas shopping list, people may want to pay attention to what psychologists term “heuristic” behaviour.

“Heuristics are the simple rules of thumb that we use to make shopping or other tasks easier,” says Sauder School of Business Prof. Darren Dahl. “It’s the path of least resistance.”

Businesses tailor their storefronts, products and marketing campaigns to tap these entrenched shopping patterns. What are they?

Dahl says a common heuristic for many shoppers is the price. “If it’s expensive, we believe it’s good quality, which may or may not be true.”

And obviously, the power of the brand plays a huge part. “We choose what’s representative of the prototype,” says Dahl. “We want something that’s recognizable, a name we can trust.”

Or there’s the heuristic of guilt. The shoe store clerk trots back and forth, bringing you pair after pair. After trying on about 40 different styles and sizes, you end up not buying a single pair and leave feeling quite guilty.

“Why?” asks Dahl. “After all, that’s what the clerk is there to do.”

But often shoppers do feel guilty because of the “reciprocity norm,” explains Dahl. “When someone does something for us, we feel a need to reciprocate – in this case by buying those shoes.”

“Market mavens” are people who religiously clip coupons. “It doesn’t make sense really when you think of how much effort it takes to clip the coupons, organize them and make sure you take them to the store. But coupons appeal to consumers who love the thrill of the hunt.”

In a similar category are bargain hunters who’ll drive across town if it means savings. “It’s irrational the lengths some people will go to: they’ll burn $2 to $3 gasoline just to save 50 cents.”