The Skinny on Obesity Discrimination at Retail

Discussion
May 04, 2005
George Anderson

By George Anderson

Research published last month by Rice University suggests that, in some cases, the oft-used expression may need to be amended to: “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you. They just might not realize they’re out to get you.”

According to the study’s authors, obese shoppers often face subtle discrimination from store clerks. The clerks may not even realize what they’re doing.

The study, conducted in three parts in 152 stores at a large shopping mall in Houston, identified acts of discrimination, looked at ways to eliminate or at least reduce it and quantified the financial implications of allowing it to continue.

In the study, 10 average-weight Caucasian female students between 19 and 28 played the part of customers under different circumstances. The shoppers appeared in casual dress in two scenarios and in business attire in another two. The difference between the tests was that, in two (one casual, one business), the women wore an obesity prosthetic that made them appear to be a size 22.

Eden King, who was co-principal investigator of the study while attending Rice University as an undergrad, said, “The results of our research revealed that although customer sales personnel do not formally discriminate against obese customers, they do discriminate in subtle, interpersonal ways.”

The researchers noted the behavior of clerks including “eye contact made with the customer, friendliness, rudeness, smile, premature ending of the interaction, length of interaction time, and negative language and tone.”

Almost three-fourths of the sales clerks were women.

Ms. King said that much of the discrimination seems to arise from a perception that obesity is controllable.

Mikki Hebl, the Radoslav Tsanoff Associate Professor of Psychology and Management at Rice, said, “This is one of the first studies in our field to show the bottom-line consequences for organizations that discriminate against obese individuals. It may be time for organizations to take more proactive approaches toward eliminating discrimination toward groups that are stigmatized but not yet protected.”

Moderator’s Comment: Do you think most store employees are aware when they are treating customers differently based on appearance? Can you eliminate
more subtle forms of discrimination such as those identified by the Rice University study through employee training?

George Anderson – Moderator

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.

Join the Discussion!

8 Comments on "The Skinny on Obesity Discrimination at Retail"


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
Ian Percy
Guest
15 years 10 months ago

Karen’s comments are right on the money. But we ALL discriminate on the basis of appearance…surely this is not a breakthrough discovery. In sales people, we are virtually ‘pre-qualified’ based on appearance. I remember going to a new car dealership while dressed sloppily for an afternoon of yard work. As I looked at a luxury car I was considering, the sales guy said, “Do you realize how much that costs?”

Where this “research” seems to stop short is that it doesn’t appear to factor in how much the shopper actually bought – whether they were discriminated against or not, e.g. I still bought that car, though not from that sales idiot. Logically we’d assume that people who feel discriminated against buy less, but this particular study doesn’t prove that, though it claims to.

M. Jericho Banks PhD
Guest
M. Jericho Banks PhD
15 years 10 months ago

I’m imagining an obesity-friendly training session for a major retailer. In the room are over one-hundred store managers, and statistically over a third of them could be characterized as obese. How does the trainer/moderator address the group and introduce the topic? How will the overweight store managers react to the training? Will there be embarrassment in the group, lessening the impact of the training?

Now, imagine similar training sessions for better service for gays and lesbians (we all know what they look like, don’t we?), racial minorities, and the aged. Members of all those groups will be participating in the training, so how does the trainer address the topic without creating emotional reactions that make the training less efficient?

These meetings will never take place. Instead, training employees to respect ALL shoppers and offer them the same, high level of service will continue. Often, simply bringing to employees’ attention the ways they may be subconsciously discriminating is sufficient.

Karen Kingsley
Guest
Karen Kingsley
15 years 10 months ago
I absolutely believe that retail personnel discriminate – whether consciously or unconsciously – and obesity is only one of the issues. Color, apparent wealth, beauty, age are all factors that play into how one is treated at retail. And frankly, depending on where one is shopping, gender matters too. Home Depot does not speak to me in the same way they speak to a man. Whether store personnel can be trained out of this is another issue. I believe it’s possible. However, in too many stores, they are barely trained to run the register or offer minimal good manners. Are retailers really going to invest in training them not to discriminate? I seriously doubt it. However, the stores that already excel at customer service are likely to step up and take a stab at it, and they might be partially successful. I will continue to wear good clothes and my better jewelry whenever I am shopping in department stores or anywhere else where perceived status or wealth affects treatment – and there are more of… Read more »
Bernice Hurst
Guest
15 years 10 months ago

Discrimination may not be deliberate but I do think that sales people take note of customers’ appearance and act accordingly. Such behaviour can be trained out of them but it would have to be done carefully as making them aware of it may have precisely the opposite effect.

Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
Guest
Rochelle Newman-Carrasco
15 years 10 months ago
When I think of discrimination (which I believe is sometimes conscious and often unconscious), it conjures up the thought process that occurs when you’re on Southwest Airlines and you’re a “C” and there are only middle seats left. Someone should do a study on that. Because, let’s be honest…once you have boarded a Southwest flight and it’s clear that there are only middle seats left, shouldn’t you just take the first middle seat and call it a day? But no…how many of us walk past that first seat and several others because we have used our discretionary radar to determine whether we like or don’t like Mr. or Ms. Aisle and Window. Do they look like talkers? Are they heavyset and therefore spilling into the middle seat? Are they well groomed or smelly looking? Most of the time these things are subconscious, but they exist nonetheless. Can people be trained to be less discriminatory and judgmental. To some degree. Managers can lead by example. Awareness can be heightened. It’s always worth the effort. And maybe,… Read more »
Warren Thayer
Guest
15 years 10 months ago

All great comments. I think leadership by example, and repetition on the training, are key. Things are forgotten so quickly. I’m “qualified” on emergency first aid and CPR, but if I didn’t re-read the books on my own once a month, it’d be long gone. Rochelle’s comments on Southwest had me practically in stitches. I avoid that airline with every fiber, because of its insane seating procedures. And of course I look for non-talker skinny people, too. As someone whose attire routinely ranges from torn jeans and work boots to navy blue suit and wingtips, I get a personal big charge out of how I am treated differently based on the attire. And, true to my blue collar roots, the businesses that treat me well when I look like a farmer are the ones who get my fierce loyalty and big-ticket purchases.

Al McClain
Guest
Al McClain
15 years 10 months ago

Discrimination is often subtle and subconscious, but there is no doubt in my mind that obese people are treated differently at retail and everywhere else. Sometimes, it’s positive, as in someone opening a door or pointing out an elevator to a person who can’t make it up the stairs, etc., but more often than not it is negative, as in comments such as, “Would you look at that!”

Sure retail employees can be trained to not discriminate, and it’s good for business, too. Discriminate based on appearance and you lose not only that person’s business, but their friends and family, as well. And, this training is not complicated. A few short sessions could make a big difference. And, to Karen’s point, keep the cash register training as well.

redmond BROWNE
Guest
redmond BROWNE
15 years 9 months ago

One reason for Chico’s smashing success is their psychographic staffing. Clearly, their sales personnel are selected to mirror their customers, creating an environment where it is virtually impossible to feel fat or uncomfortable about body type/flaws. As a market researcher who has visited Chico’s stores throughout the US, I have been fascinated by the candor and comfort within this cozy retail cocoon. At first, the lack of mirrors inside dressing rooms would seem to be at odds with Boomers self-conscious about the differences in their aging bodies. But no, customers help customers …make suggestions …interact comfortably with saleswomen throughout the store. And the sizing is guaranteed to protect customers’ self-esteem. Anyone, large or small, who has shopped at Chico’s will instantly understand why their stock split last February. Will 4th & Towne hire psychographically empathic staff as well?

wpDiscuz

Take Our Instant Poll

Have you ever felt as though you were treated differently (better or worse) when shopping based on your appearance?

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...