Salesperson Snobbery Pays Off, Says a New Study

But only in branded designer fashion stores

A study scheduled to be released in the October 2014 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research found that the snootier a salesperson is, the more likely shoppers will aspire to buying a luxury brand’s merchandise—and the better the sales.

In “Should the Devil Sell Prada?” a team of Canadian and American researchers delved into how social psychology influences the bottom line in luxury stores.

According to a press release, participants in the study “imagined or had interactions with sales representatives” who were, in turn, rude or polite. Then they rated their feelings about the brands and how much (or little) they coveted the merchandise.

Snobbery got these saleswomen nowhere with Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman (courtesy of Touchstone). 

Sadly, “participants who expressed an aspiration to be associated with high-end brands also reported an increased desire to own the luxury products after being treated poorly.”

But rudeness scored big with consumers only “if the salesperson appeared to be an authentic representative of the brand.” If his or her attitude didn’t match the brand and its vibe, shoppers were turned off. The researchers also discovered that staff snobbery didn’t boost sales for mass-market brands.

“Our study shows you’ve got to be the right kind of snob in the right kind of store for the effect to work,” said Darren Dahl, a marketing professor who helmed the study, in the release.

The tactic reflects the old high school in-crowd mentality, where teens equate exclusionary attitudes and language with prestige. Said Dahl, “It appears that snobbiness might actually be a qualification worth considering for luxury brands like Louis Vuitton or Gucci.”

But would it work in fine jewelry retailing? Probably not.

I know when a salesperson gives me attitude, no matter the retail environment, I fly out the door with the swiftness of a falcon. And there’s simply too much competition to risk alienating consumers. Not to mention the general negativity you could potentially inject into your ranks by adopting rude sales tactics. 

As JCK’s retail editor for the past two years, I’ve spoken with hundreds of jewelry shop owners—and the most successful among them always cite warm-and-attentive customer service as a crucial component of their winning formula.

Of course, the study is interesting because it underscores a perplexing truth about the human condition: As a culture, we really, really want what we feel we can’t have.

But Dahl concurs that sales snobbery is not a strategy thats likely to work for many. “The problem with this strategy is it just works in the moment,” he said. “It’s a challenge: ‘You want to be in this group? You have to buy to be in the group.’ ” But, ultimately, you’ll lose points with consumers as a retailer and brand. “The individual isn’t going to be excited about your brand—it’s a boomerang effect.”

Still, I think one aspect of perceived salesperson snobbiness—an ultra-polished appearance—is worth adopting (or maintaining, if your sales staff already looks super snazzy). At least in geographical locations where that makes sense; if you’re selling diamonds at the beach, a clean and casual look jibes perfectly.

Dress the way your consumers aspire to, and youre broadcasting that your brand and merchandise is worth coveting. But, by all means, maintain that sunny smile.

JCK Magazine Editor