Should the Devil Sell Prada? Retail Rejection Increases Aspiring Consumers’ Desire for the Brand, is a new study that will appear in the October 2014 Journal of Consumer Research. The study (co-authored by Dr. Darren Dahl, a marketing professor at the Sauder School of Business and Prof. Morgan Ward of the Cox School of Business) found customers who receive poor treatment from sales associates in a luxury retail environment are more likely to make a purchase.
The study hasn’t been published yet, so I’m basing my summary on articles I’ve read. In short, participants rated their desire to purchase from a luxury brand retailer after receiving either rude or neutral treatment from the sales staff. The interactions were either imaginary or simulated with actors. It’s important to note that none of these interactions took place in any actual luxury brand stores. It seems the participants’ “willingness to purchase” increased when they were treated rudely by the luxury sales associates. No similar effect was found for downmarket brands.
This has generated a slew of articles sporting taglines such as “Snobby staff boost luxury sales.” They’re referring to what Dr. Dahl calls the “Pretty Woman Effect” (recall the film Pretty Woman where Julia Roberts’ character is snubbed by rude salespeople). No one points out Roberts returns to the store where she was snubbed not to purchase her wardrobe, but to flaunt her dozens of shopping bags and to let them know they had made a “big mistake!”
So while these articles are touting the benefit of a snobby sales team, most have missed the key point of the study. That “willingness to purchase” shrinks significantly over time – within two weeks. Snubbed customers “want to buy more in the moment, but a couple weeks later they were very negative” about the experience, Dahl said. They ended up regretting the experience and wanted to return the item they purchased.
As Dr. Dahl explains, “It’s only people who want to be part of the club, who are aspiring to the brand and who want to buy your product.” People who are already brand loyal won’t be impressed by the snobbish attitude of store clerks; they’re likely to think the staff is acting like jerks. Long-term, the strategy will fail, Dahl cautions.
Still in a recent interview, Dr. Dahl went on to say, “It appears that snobbiness might actually be a qualification worth considering for luxury brands like Louis Vuitton or Gucci.” I question why Dr. Dahl suggests this when in the long run they will lose customers?
For me, luxury is ultimately about service. How many cars will Lexus sell if they continually rebuff customers? How many Tiffany diamonds will remain unworn by women who are slighted by their sales associates? How may empty rooms will you find at the Ritz-Carlton if their gold standard of service suddenly tarnishes?
Most luxury brands are in it for the long term. That’s one reason they’re luxury brands. They have a history and heritage to honor. Giving your customers the cold shoulder now may end up burning you in the long run.