Why lousy retail service makes you come back again

Getting rude and snobby service at a high-end retailer doesn't make you boycott the store, and in fact compels you to come back in the future, new research out of the University of British Columbia suggests.

University of B.C. research suggests rejection can be a powerful motivator in buying decisions

Getting shoddy service at a high-end retailer doesn't make you boycott the store, in fact it compels you to come back in the future 2:28

Getting rude and snobby service at a high-end retailer doesn't make you boycott the store, and in fact compels you to come back in the future, new research out of the University of British Columbia suggests.

In a paper soon to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Sauder marketing professor Darren Dahl lays out the findings of his research, where he looked at the correlation between the quality of customer service that a shopper receives in a store with their likelihood to return to make more purchases in the future.

The results were counterintuitive. Broadly, Dahl's research found that the more luxurious a store is perceived to be, the more likely it is to be able to get away with poor customer service. "Rejection by a brand increases consumers' desire to affiliate with it, and they do so by increasing their willingness to purchase, pay for and wear or display items from the rejecting brand," the paper says.

But the effect doesn't work if the brand is perceived to be cheap, or downmarket.

Rejection pays off

The paper cited a former salesman at high-end fashion chain Yves Saint Laurent, who said it is common practice at the retailer to take note of the quality of a customer's watch as they walk into the store. "If the accessories are not expensive, the customer is not worth the effort of even a simple hello," he was quoted as saying.

Dahl's research consisted of a series of tests. In one set, covering a total of 166 people, subjects were asked to respond what their reaction would have been to receiving condescending, neutral or positive services from three high end stores (Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Gucci) and three mass market brands: (American Eagle, Gap, H&M). Other tests involved actual interactions at real stores.

The results were eye-opening, as a majority of respondents said they wouldn't reject outright poor treatment by brands they perceived to be higher end.

"It appears that snobbiness might actually be a qualification worth considering for luxury brands like Louis Vuitton or Gucci," Dahl said. "Our research indicates they can end up having a similar effect to an ‘in-group’ in high school that others aspire to join."

One test consisted of polling 172 women, paid $5 for their time, who thought they were being consulted by a high-end brand for input on the brand's upcoming line of handbags.

"In the rejecting condition, the brand representative appeared skeptical of the participant’s knowledge of the brand and was disapproving of the participant’s appearance and appropriateness for the rating task. In the neutral condition, the brand representative was neutral and friendly," the paper says.

Powerful effects

In that test again, a surprising majority of the those who received the alienating treatment had a positive view of the brand, compared with those who got the neutral reaction. "The desire to belong and have those aspirational brands that are a big part of our society is a powerful force," Dahl said.

One key to the results is that the snobby treatment doesn't work for everybody. “Our study shows you’ve got to be the right kind of snob in the right kind of store for the effect to work," Dahl said.

Indeed, the people on whom the tactic worked best aspired to own those brands in the first place. For people who had no desire to be part of those "brand communities," the paper writes, the marketing tactic of rejection had less effectiveness. "When individuals with ideal self-concepts related to the brand are faced with rejection, they are more likely to elevate their perceptions in an apparent attempt to affiliate with the rejecting brand," the paper reads.

The effect also appears to be time-sensitive — among those who were more open to returning to the store, the effect diminished with time. After two weeks, the impact of their previous poor experience was almost negligible, one way or the other.

The research will be published in full in the October 2014 issue.


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