[Image of: RetailWire Logo and Tagline (for print)]

Study finds rude associates sell more in luxury stores

May 12, 2014

At least at luxury stores, the ruder the sales staff, the better for sales, according to new research from the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business. The study found snobby associates reinforce the reputation of high-end, posh labels as privileged for the social elite.

"It appears that snobbiness might actually be a qualification worth considering for luxury brands like Louis Vuitton or Gucci," said Sauder Marketing Professor and Co-Author Darren Dahl in a press release. "Our research indicates they can end up having a similar effect to an 'in-group' in high school that others aspire to join."

The researchers labeled the phenomenon the "Pretty Woman effect" after a scene in the movie in which Julia Roberts' character is insulted at a posh boutique. The research was inspired by a similar situation in which a rude employee brushed off Mr. Dahl and he wound up buying two bottles of cologne instead of one.

For the study, participants imagined or had interactions with sales representatives — rude or not. They then rated their feelings about associated brands and their desire to own them. After being treated poorly, participants who expressed an aspiration to be associated with high-end brands reported an increased desire to own the luxury products.

The study also found that staff rudeness did not improve impressions of mass-market brands.

"This only worked for brands and stores that customers would aspire to, truly luxury brands like Burberry or Gucci," Mr. Dahl told CTV Vancouver. "For lower-end, mainstream retailers — Gap and American Eagle, these types of stores — this type of effect doesn't happen."

The study had some caveats. The effect only held true if the salesperson appeared to be an authentic representative of the brand. If not, the consumer was turned off.

"Our study shows you've got to be the right kind of snob in the right kind of store for the effect to work," said Ms. Dahl in the statement.

Rude treatment also fades over time. Customers who expressed increased desire to purchase the products reported significantly diminished desire two weeks later.

The study, "Should the Devil Sell Prada? Retail Rejection Increases Aspiring Consumers' Desire for the Brand," will appear in the October 2014 edition of the Journal of Consumer Research.


Discussion Questions:

Do you think the approach and attitudes of associates at luxury stores should differ from those at mainstream stores? Do you see being snooty as beneficial when it comes to selling luxury?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

Is it more or less common to find rude sales associates in luxury stores than in mainstream locations?


In countless surveys, we've discovered what people say they do and what they actually do are many times quite the opposite. Ask how many of your friends eat at McDonald's and then try to figure out how they feed 70 million people a day.

There are a lot of assumptions in this "study" including that "participants imagined or had interactions" and the salesperson had to "appear to be an authentic representative of the brand."

Try training for whatever that is. Try hiring for whatever that is.

Nothing much here...move along.

[Image of: View Braintrust Panelist button]
Bob Phibbs, President/CEO, The Retail Doctor

Am I delusional to believe this article? There is no substitute for a well informed, and yes, pleasant sales person in any type of store including luxury goods. I'm just not buying this theory, and if I encountered a rude sales person in one of these stores, I would walk out. This goes against everything I was taught, and I'll stick with the training I was given by some incredible people.

[Image of: View Braintrust Panelist button]
Tony Orlando, Owner, Tony O's Supermarket & Catering


These studies make my head hurt.

Authenticity sells. So if one argues that what is most authentic about luxury brands is their inherit snob appeal, I guess this study makes sense.

Here's another interpretation of the facts in evidence.

A financially strapped and personally insecure college professor is (correctly by the way) identified by a sales associate in a luxury store as not being part of the target demographic, and is treated poorly. Now -- partially out of guilt and partially out of defiance -- our professor "shows them" by buying more than they had intended or could afford and then launches a study to justify his or her response.

Now, let's substitute Larry Ellison or Donald Trump or a sheik from some oil rich nation for our struggling college professor.

If the salesperson treated them poorly the result would be quite different and it's extremely likely the salesperson wouldn't have a job.

So, no, it's not snootiness per se that sells -- it's (again) authenticity and living the brand.

Of course, knowing your customer doesn't hurt either.

[Image of: View Braintrust Panelist button]
Ryan Mathews, Founder, ceo, Black Monk Consulting

"The right kind of snob." Another secret to ultimate success in retail.

I know UBC having lived in Vancouver, but have never heard of the Sauder School of Business. Now I know why; but I digress. There are "snobby" sales people for sure - and they have attitude because for the most part they can't afford the stuff they're selling either. In other words, "snobbery" is another form of anger at oneself. Want your store energized by anger and self-loathing? Go for it, make snobbery a qualification. Come to think of it, anger might be part of luxury brand DNA.

Now that's something the Sauder School of Business could study.

[Image of: View Braintrust Panelist button]
Ian Percy, President, The Ian Percy Corporation

Let me see, we're dealing with high-end luxury goods. With imagined and real interactions by the study subjects. With brand-authentic yet rude salespersons that have to be the "right kind" of snob, at the right kind of time, with the right kind of customer.

Seems that for all of these to align just right, we'd be dealing with a minuscule percent of the business. And even if you can somehow train to develop these "authentically rude" salespeople to prey on lux-wannabe's (as Ryan points out this would backfire otherwise), the "rude" effect dissipates significantly over time according to the research. What happens when these customers regain control of their faculties?

Bottom line, for sustained growth and long-term health of the business, the delivery of consistent and positive in-store and online experience - even for luxury brands - will provide better returns than running roughshod over customers and adding one more reason to avoid the store and shop online.

[Image of: View Braintrust Panelist button]
Mohamed Amer, Global Head of Strategic Communications, Consumer Industries, SAP

So many things just don't make sense on Mondays ... and this study is one of them.
I was out shopping with my wife last week in a trendy area. Lots of "snobby" staff who were either too rude or too oblivious to actually try to sell us anything. They got none of our money.

Shockingly (not really) in the few stores where we met staff who were friendly, knowledgeable, and skilled at selling ... we bought lots!

I'm always shocked at the poor salesmanship and service in a lot of high-end fashion and furniture stores. Never shocked though when I see them go out of business.

[Image of: View Braintrust Panelist button]
Kevin Graff, President, Graff Retail

I have been to stores and restaurants with snobby associates. I have no problem walking out of them. They may have found a guy who bought 2 bottles of cologne instead of one, but my guess is, he will buy his cologne elsewhere next time. I simply do not believe rudeness sells...not even in high-end establishments.

[Image of: View Braintrust Panelist button]
Janet Dorenkott, VP & Co-owner, Relational Solutions, Inc.

Bob seemed to have this one nailed. I agree with him. But then I have to ask you why we would even accept rudeness as a training method to increase sales? I for one am showing that salesperson the back of me as I leave the store, after having told him what I think rudeness brings to the table.

[Image of: View Braintrust Panelist button]
Ed Rosenbaum, CEO, The Customer Service Rainmaker, Rainmaker Solutions

Absolutely, positively not true.

Luxury brands are diligently working to ensure their sales associates are never rude. I know because they're hiring me to ensure their colleagues on the sales floor understand how to serve their clients.

Entitlement and/or snobbiness are dead.

[Image of: View Braintrust Panelist button]
Christopher P. Ramey, President, Affluent Insights

When I was an art dealer from 1987-1990, I worked in a highly intimidating space that required buyers to be buzzed in. Marble floors, chandeliers, French doors dividing off spaces, antique furniture everywhere. To think I could have sold $80,000 and $100,000 items as I did by being rude or uninformed is laughable. And if you've ever shopped at Hermes, their service is the complete opposite of snooty. Why would anyone ever come back if they were badly treated?

Hugh Kennedy, EVP Planning, PJA

Some snootiness offers credibility to the luxury brand and helps justify the upscale price. And as the article suggests, there is a fine line between rudeness and being snooty in a nice and embracing way.

Being snooty is how sales people can align themselves with the brand. They are trying to appear as though they are worthy of receiving invitations to the same party. The alternative is to have a sales person who is overwhelmed at the thought of possibly owning "one of these" and fawns over the customer.

Snooty has a solid track record. But only for those who can traverse that fine line and not offend the customer. Isn't that always the case?

[Image of: View Braintrust Panelist button]
Joan Treistman, President, The Treistman Group LLC

Wait a minute. If I walk into my neighborhood luxury retailer, and the sales associate notes that the shoes I'm wearing look like crap, I'll buy more? Really?

The customer is always right, people.

[Image of: View Braintrust Panelist button]
Cathy Hotka, Principal, Cathy Hotka & Associates

Indeed! Such hubbub being made about a study that has yet to be released. Nothing was said about who the shoppers were in the study. However, as in high school, some will aspire to be part of the elite clique while others will pay them no heed.

What I find most interesting is that the effect is short-lived. Then shoppers have the ability to avoid such rude encounters by shopping online. Certainly, lack of courtesy and true customer service is a driving influence to avoid engaging in repeat offensiveness - no matter what quality the goods.

Truly, why take the time to be snubbed when I can buy my coveted item online?


There are two troubling issues with this study. First, the subjects appeared to be people who wanted to purchase from luxury stores not necessarily people who did purchase at those stores. The study did not appear to have a group of very wealthy people like Donald Trump or Julia Roberts as subjects. Those are the customers, not people who might want to purchase at the luxury store or the people who might occasionally shop at the luxury store.

Second, the study measured whether they intend purchase, not whether they purchased. Those are not the same thing. A store manager who asks employees to be rude, based upon this study, as a way to increase sales is not likely to get the desired result.

[Image of: View Braintrust Panelist button]
Camille P. Schuster, Ph.D., President, Global Collaborations, Inc.

No, I am sorry, I don't buy the study. Rich or poor, snooty and unpleasant store associates are a turn-off. Here is San Francisco and Silicon Valley, you can't tell the disposable income from clothing and behavior. People are mixing Chanel with H&M, and with social media, any snooty service is instantly amplified.

This research makes for entertaining reading, but any retailer who thinks they need to train snooty associates is in for a rude surprise.

[Image of: View Braintrust Panelist button]
Kenneth Leung, Retail and Customer Experience Expert, Independent

Sure, who doesn't want something they can't have? Aspiration is at the very heart of being an American. An by definition, aspiration means that you are not accustomed to shopping in a luxury store. Additionally, if you are elite, you have to look the part.

I am 65 years old, have grey/white hair, am not overweight and my wife of the same age looks 20 years younger than she is. I have been amazed that when we go places we have never been before (a church in a different town, an upscale car dealership, shopping in New York or Beverly Hills) that people treat us like we are somebody. I can recall going to church with my daughter in a large college town. Probably 500 people at the service but after it was over, the minister made his way through the crowd to speak to my wife and I before he assumed the greeting station outside the church doors. He quickly determined we weren't anyone and left us alone, but he made a decision to approach us totally on what he saw from the pulpit.

Lesson - if you want attention in a luxury boutique, go to the effort to look the part. Or, go shabby sheik (very clean and well groomed in old worn quality clothing). You must still maintain your bearing and act with a purpose (never just stand and gape), move to a product and quickly find fault with it (wrong color, too small, etc.). Never defer to the help, ignore them; if they try to help, firmly dismiss them. When they persist make fleeting eye contact and immediately look them over (eyes move down from their face to their feet and back up, but not back to their eyes). Now turn and look at something else. About this time the snooty clerk will be going crazy. It helps immensely if you were raised in the Hamptons or in Charleston SC (south of Broad) or your last name is Hilton or Vanderbilt. Lastly, NEVER BUY ANYTHING! After teasing them for 20 minutes or so, look at your Rolex and say, oh my gosh we are running late; Constance will be furious!

Ed Dennis, Sales, Dennis Enterprises

Customer: I don't know if I should take the blue one or the red one.

Salesperson: Why not take both? (Meaning: "Oh, you can't afford both?")

[Image of: View Braintrust Panelist button]
Gene Detroyer, Professor, Independent

Hilarious. Have we really become this?! Sorry, however, I would have to buck the trend and be friendly. I have purchased luxury goods and always a appreciate a friendly sales person demeanor.

[Image of: View Braintrust Panelist button]
Ralph Jacobson, Global Retail Industry Analytics Marketing Executive, IBM

Be it luxury or mainstream stores, the best salespeople practice "adaptability." Adapting to the different customers' personalities is an art form that is practiced by the top salespeople in any type of organization.

As for "snobby" sales people, this may be as much a function and culture of the store they work in as anything else. If you walk into a high-end store, expect to be treated as if you can afford what they are selling. If you can't, you may not enjoy the experience. You might find the sales people to be "off putting" or "snobby."

If you can afford what the store offers, you'll find that good sales people, who might appear to be snobby toward others, will adapt to whatever personality you have; outgoing, conservative, etc.

[Image of: View Braintrust Panelist button]
Shep Hyken, Chief Amazement Officer, Shepard Presentations, LLC

"In order dine with the classes you must sell to the masses." 99.9% of people hate it when they are treated poorly. Over and over again, studies show that the number one reason why people will quit doing business with your company and go to a competitor is because they get the feeling you or your staff just don't care. Case closed.

Tom Borg, Business Expert, Tom Borg Consulting, LLC

"No" and "No" to the two questions. It seems while Rip Van Winkle and I were asleep, some luxury stores have decided that being snooty and rude are better than any other sales argument in selling luxury. That's hogwash for most people.

Perhaps a few high-end consumers may like being put down because it makes them feel uniquely special. But most folks liked to be pleased by store clerks.

Gene Hoffman, President/CEO, Corporate Strategies International

When the researchers labeled the phenomenon the "Pretty Woman effect" after Julia Roberts is snubbed by clerks in the movie, it's perfectly contradictory. Their snobbery did not cause her to buy more, but served to push her out of the store.

Instead, when she returned with the wealthy Richard Gere, the clerk staff was very helpful and many things were purchased. This is the exact opposite of what the Sauder School of Business contends in their "study."

Here are the exact lines from the movie: Richard Gere speaks to the store manager - "You know what we're gonna need here? We're going to need a few more people helping us out. I'll tell you why. We are going to be spending an obscene amount of money in here. So we're going to need a lot more help sucking up to us, 'cause that's what we really like."

And later from Gere, "I think we need some major sucking up."

M. Jericho Banks PhD, President, CEO, Forensic Marketing LLC

Snootiness is a hallmark of insecurity. Who wants advice from a clerk who is covering for his or her shortcomings with a condescending attitude? Only an even less secure person, I reckon.

Luxury products should be sold primarily on their merits - brand, quality, performance, design, even high-priced exclusivity if that's a persuasive factor. The total experience should leave the shopper feeling well cared for in proportion to the prices paid.

[Image of: View Braintrust Panelist button]
James Tenser, Principal, VSN Strategies

I'm not sure if this item deserves a serious response or one that is humor driven.

If the study is accurate, it doesn't speak well of those luxury customers who respond like school children seeking acceptance by the in-crowd. Further, if the luxury brands mentioned were inclined to embrace the "technique" of contemplated rudeness to drive sales, it would say something about their own brands in the longer term.

Say it ain't so!

[Image of: View Braintrust Panelist button]
Bill Hanifin, CEO, Hanifin Loyalty LLC

I think the approach and attitudes of associates at luxury stores is different - and from my experience it is much more respectful, helpful when asked, and intruding on my shopping only when needed. They appear to be better trained and probably better compensated for good customer service. I wouldn't describe it as "snooty," but certainly restrained. And yes, I think it works.

Donna Brockway, President, FutureRetail

Search RetailWire
Follow Us...
[Image of:  Twitter Icon] [Image of:  Facebook Icon] [Image of:  LinkedIn Icon] [Image of:  RSS Icon]

Getting Started video!

View this quick tutorial and learn all the essentials...

RetailWire Newsletters