Bargain-hunting Customers see Shop Assistants as Less than Human

Posted on under Today's research

Everyone loves a bargain, but new research suggests some employees may be getting short-changed when it comes to how consumers perceive them when they are being price-conscious.

The study, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, found that bargain-hunters who adopt a “price-conscious mentality”—meaning their main goal is to save money and get the cheapest deal—tend to see employees who they interact with as less human.

What the researchers say: “When shoppers focus only on paying the lowest price, they become less attuned to understanding the human needs of others, or even recognizing them,” said the lead author.

For their research, the team conducted a number of separate studies. The first showed that consumers used fewer humanizing trait words in reviews of the discount carrier Ryanair than in reviews of the higher-end airline Lufthansa, even after accounting for quality differences between brands.

In another experiment, study participants were either shown photos of a flight attendant wearing uniforms from Ryanair, Lufthansa, or one wearing a neutral uniform. The researchers found that respondents saw the flight attendants from Lufthansa and the neutrally-clad attendant as equally human, but the Ryanair employee was seen in a poorer light.

“We simply varied the brand, and found that people ascribed lower capabilities for experiencing emotions and feelings to the Ryanair flight attendant,” he said, adding that this subtle dehumanization can take many forms and is not necessarily intentional.

Another experiment had participants interact in a live chat with a rude customer service representative. They were then given the chance to punish the employee through a complaint. The researchers found participants were 18 percent more likely to give a rating that would lead to disciplinary actions against the employee when shoppers were adopting a price-conscious mentality than when they were not. Ryanair must get a lot of complaints—and not just about striking pilots.

The researchers say the findings could have implications for owners and management of discount stores, as the problem could affect employee retention. Ditto, I suppose, discount airlines.

Previous research (see recent TRs) has found employees who experience rude and inconsiderate customer behaviors report higher levels of emotional exhaustion, job dissatisfaction, and burnout. Potentially, those unhappy employees subsequently might mistreat the next customer, who in turn gets angry and mistreats employees, creating a vicious circle for companies and employees alike.

Since discount-based companies such as Walmart and Ryanair are experiencing unprecedented growth, it’s important to pinpoint what’s going on, said the researchers.

“I think most consumers, myself included, are guilty of this at some point. When you really drill down, you don’t really recognize that someone is fully human anymore,” said the lead researcher. “But it doesn’t take much to be human and to let others know you recognize them as human. Everyone has the right to be considered human.”

So what? One of the unfortunate things about this very valuable research is that it is one of the first to examine the topic. I would be interested to know if this dehumanizing attitude was there 20 or 30 years ago. Certainly, our capacity to interact with other human beings has diminished thanks to smartphones generally (see recent TRs) and, especially in this regard, the advent of online shopping. It may be that these people are simply not used to interacting with shop assistants and see them as a hindrance in their race to get the best deal. What we do know (see the story about harassment in the Merlot sips) is that power of any kind corrupts one’s attitude towards other people. It may be that bargain-hunters see themselves as more powerful shop assistants.

What now? If we are allowed to treat any person as less than human then humanity is in serious trouble. Think Nazi SS in 1930s Germany and the Charlottesville “AltRight” marchers. However, we are allowing this to happen—and not just in the ever-decreasing bricks and mortar shops. We need to teach kindness, manners, politeness and the ability to listen to other people in homes, schools, and workplaces.

By Dr Bob Murray