Even though society has come a long way in terms of public attitude against discrimination and prejudice, new research published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Consumer Psychology suggests that sales employees still tend to discriminate against customers based on their body shape.
Conducted by Beth Vallen, Karthik Sridhar, Dan Rubin, Veronika Ilyuk, Lauren G. Block, and Jennifer J. Argo, “Shape‐ and Trait‐Congruency: Using Appearance‐based Cues as a Basis for Product Recommendations” is a combination of four separate studies conducted in both field and lab settings.
In the first experiment, an actress posed as a shopper looking to buy a wrist watch and perfume. The actress (4 feet, 11 inches tall and 102 pounds) interacted with 37 salespersons total. Half of the time, however, she appeared wearing a professionally-constructed prosthesis designed to make her look obese. The sales staff was more likely to recommend round products when the actress appeared obese. When the actress interacted with them without wearing a disguise, they tended to suggest narrow, rectangular perfume bottles and wrist watches.
The second experiment was conducted online. Study participants were shown digitally-manipulated images of a consumer who appeared either obese, moderate in weight, or thin. The participants were asked to select the products they thought the customers would prefer. Much like in the first experiment, round-shaped products were consistently chosen for obese customers, while narrow, rectangular products – candles, mirrors, lamps – were chosen for thin customers.
In the third experiment, the researchers probed whether the sex of the sample customer would make a difference. It did not; the outcomes were consistent once more.
In the fourth and final experiment, Vallen and her co-authors investigated whether stereotypes associated with obese and overweight individuals played a part in how salespeople treated them. Heavier individuals are usually thought to be warm and friendly. Similarly, rounder products are associated with warmth. In order to test the hypothesis, the researchers instructed the actress to either be friendly or not – appearing as her own size, or obese – and found that both body size and friendliness played a part. Sales staff were more likely to recommend round products to obese and friendly customers.
“We attribute this to a combination of shape‐congruency and trait‐congruency, whereby individuals choose products for others based on shared dimensions of the person and product,” the researchers concluded.
In a press release supplied to ScienceDaily,Vallen noted that “there is no evidence to suggest that people prefer round versus angular products based on their own body size,” adding that “salespeople are using these inferences to drive recommendations, but this is not aligned to product preferences.”
Previous research indicates that recommended products more likely to be purchased than non-recommended products, so assumptions about one’s preference based on their body shape “could result in less satisfaction.”