If you're planning a shopping trip and you're not entirely happy with your appearance, seek out retail stores with more private dressing rooms -- otherwise you may leave the mall empty-handed. Consumers who don't feel good about their body image are less likely to purchase something they try on if they see an attractive shopper wearing the same thing, according to a study in the August issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia at Vancouver, the University of Alberta at Edmonton and Arizona State University recruited 69 female college students who thought they were evaluating a store as part of a mystery shopping study. Each was given a sealed envelope with a shopping task. Unbeknownst to the participants, they were all given the same assignment: to ask a salesperson about a specific shirt (a photo was provided), try it on and then fill out a survey evaluating their shopping experience.
When asked, the salesperson indicated where the shirt was located and also pointed to another shopper who was "coincidentally" wearing the product – a highly attractive woman planted by the researchers, who pretended to be looking at another item. A separate control group received the same response, but in this case, the attractive shopper carried the shirt in the retailer's branded shopping bag and the evaluators were told that she had just bought it.
After leaving the store, participants were asked multiple questions about their impressions of the product, mixed in with questions about their age, height, weight, college major, as well as several queries designed to evaluate their body self-esteem (i.e., "I feel satisfied with the way my body looks right now.")
Low-body-esteem participants gave the product a significantly worse rating when the other customer was wearing it versus carrying it, while high-body-esteem shoppers rated the item the same in both conditions.
Of course, not everyone responds the same way. "When I walk out of the dressing room to show a friend what I am wearing and I see someone else trying it on, it is more likely to reassure me when it's someone who is fashionable," 20-something Lisa Auster-Gussman writes in an email. "I saw someone in New York City last week wearing a shirt I own. She was six inches shorter than me, much rounder, and I thought the shirt looked horrible. It made me like my own shirt a little less."
Meanwhile, Hoang Nguyen, a 31-year-old Minnesotan who works in advertising, also has bumped into fellow shoppers trying on the same items -- both as a shopper and a clerk working weekends in a retail store. "For me, as a shopper, when I am trying on clothing and see someone else is trying it on, it doesn't really affect my decision too much because my body is my body and my money is my money," she says. "If it looks good on me and I like it, and it's within my budget, I would buy it." She adds that while "there's always room to improve," she has a positive body image.
In any case, the study's results don't mean that Abercrombie and Fitch (ANF) should change its practice of outfitting their hot-looking sales crew in the company's clothes. In a separate study, the salesperson wore the shirt that the participant was evaluating, which didn't have any impact on the product evaluation. "Negative effects are only realized when the target is another consumer in the retail environment and not when the target is a salesperson," the authors write.
But retailers should be cautious about open dressing rooms and marketing campaigns that invite comparisons, such as ads that feature real customers rather than professional models. "Our work suggests that by highlighting the similarity in identity between consumers and the people in the ads -- who are also 'real' consumers -- the advertisements also increase the likelihood that low-body-esteem consumers will generate negative social comparisons that result in lower product evaluations," the researchers write.
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