British Columbia

Bargain-hunters view retail employees as less human: study

A new study from the Sauder School of Business at UBC found that consumers with a price-conscious mentality — that is, whose main goal is to save money — view retail employees as less human than their less thrifty counterparts.

Price-conscious shoppers are less considerate of retail employees' feelings, says UBC study

A new UBC study suggests that shoppers on the hunt for bargains perceive employees as less human compared to their less price-conscious counterparts. (TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

If you work in retail, you know December is a particularly stressful month in the industry, but a new study suggests things are even worse for employees when shoppers are on the hunt for a bargain.

A study from the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia found that consumers with a price-conscious mentality — that is, whose main goal is to save money — view retail employees as less human than less thrifty shoppers.

"That [price-conscious attitude] kind of pushes us away from fully engaging with others as human," said Johannes Boegershausen, a Sauder PhD student and co-author of the study.

"It has this perverse logic to it, that I paid so little for it, so maybe the human associated with it [is] somewhat worth less."

The study was published earlier this month in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Employees judged

Boegershausen and his colleagues conducted several experiments and analyses to gauge shoppers' perceptions of employees while they were on the hunt for bargains.

In one study, they compared online customer reviews for European discount airline RyanAir with reviews for Lufthansa, a higher-end airline.

"Consumers of the low-cost brand — even after accounting for quality differences — use fewer words that signal that they actually perceive the employee as human," Boegershausen said, citing words like "sympathetic," "friendly" and "helpful" as examples.

So, they went a step further. They showed study participants photos of a flight attendant in a RyanAir uniform, a Lufthansa uniform and a neutral uniform. They found that participants tended to rate the RyanAir employee less favourably than the others.

Lower prices, harsher critics

In another experiment, Boegershausen and his colleagues assigned participants to shopping groups that were told to either focus on getting the lowest price, or to focus on having the best overall shopping experience.

They found that the price-conscious shoppers were more likely to give poor feedback regarding the employees they encountered.

Boegershausen notes this finding is interesting given that many "sharing economy" companies such as Uber rely on customer feedback on employees.

"We actually found that, when people were price conscious versus not, they were actually 18 per cent more likely to give the employee a rating that would've gotten him in trouble [under a feedback system like Uber uses]," Boegershausen said.

Boegershausen says that with discount companies on the rise, the findings are a wake up call to treat employees with respect. RyanAir is now the largest airline in Europe by passenger volume, he noted.

"It's important to remember everybody you interact with is human," he said.

"It doesn't take so much, even if you're really trying to score that bargain, trying to score that lowest price, to still treat the employees you interact with consideration."

With files from CBC Radio One's On the Coast.