Maybe you’re eyeing a department store display when you begin to realize a sales associate is, in turn, eyeing you. Or perhaps you’re the sales associate yourself, trying to decide whether intervening will help make a sale.
Regardless of which position you’re in, the relationship between shoppers and retail employees can have a direct impact on a customer’s decision to make a purchase. Store managers might assume that more interaction is better, and encourage their sales associates to make eye contact, cheerfully greet shoppers, and offer prompt help. But several studies my colleagues and I have conducted over the past six years have found that when clerks interact with customers at the wrong time, sales can drop. Our preliminary findings suggest it may all come down to respecting privacy.
Shoppers want a certain level of privacy in a store — and they want to have control over that privacy. In other words, people generally prefer being left alone, but also want to be able to get help if and when they need it. So when a shopper perceives that an employee is watching them when they don’t require assistance, they’re more inclined to flee the aisle in order to regain control – and is thus less likely to make a purchase. According to one field experiment with shoppers of a mass-merchandise store, if eye contact is made, the shopper is 37% less likely to purchase their intended product during that trip. Similarly, in line with a second field experiment where shoppers’ personal space was invaded, shoppers are 25% less likely to purchase the item in question if they feel another person is too close to them.
Control over privacy becomes even more important when the product expresses a great deal about a person. Items such as nail polish or hair dye are more expressive in comparison to non-expressive products like face wash or cotton balls. Not only do expressive items usually require more focused browsing time, they reveal more information about a shopper. I conducted a field experiment with shoppers at a mass-merchandise store and found that people much more likely to abandon the purchase of nail polish (expressive) when their personal-space was invaded versus when they were shopping for makeup remover (non-expressive). Additional survey research of 221 shoppers helps to explain the phenomenon. Getting close to shoppers when they are eyeing less expressive products can actually increase sales because the product isn’t as telling of their personality. However, if the product says a lot about the shopper, they prefer some distance while they browse. Overall, when you invade someone’s privacy, the abandonment of a purchase is much more likely to occur when the product is expressive.
There’s also the embarrassment factor.