Aggressive salespersons beware: In-your-face approach may backfire with some products

June 5, 2021
Up close and personal sales techniques are not driving retail sales. (Shutterstock)

Up close and personal sales techniques are not driving retail sales. (Shutterstock)

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Customers may be less likely to buy certain items when a salesperson has been in close physical proximity to them, as they prefer to keep their distance during interactions with sales associates, according to a recent study involving more than 1,200 participants — the first to show a connection between salesperson proximity and consumer purchasing in a real-world retail setting.

Yet the result only held true when customers were shopping for items that helped them express their identity. Salesperson proximity had no effect on products that shoppers perceived as merely functional. The findings, detailed in a May 29 Psychology and Marketing paper, contradict the long-held belief among sales professionals that a more aggressive style, marked by close physical interaction, always leads to better results in retail settings. The paper also contributes to an area of study known as proxemics, which explores the various ways humans occupy space as well as the cultural norms associated with those surroundings. 

Per Kristensson, a psychology professor at Karlstad University and the third author on the paper, told The Academic Times that the idea for the study came partly from discussions with his colleague, second author Freeman Wu, about their own shopping experiences.

"One thing that we spotted and talked a lot about was, isn't it funny that sales personnel think they need to follow you around every time you are in the store?" Kristensson said. "We said, 'I would much rather buy something when I can make up my decision on my own.'"

Over the course of four experiments, two of which involved field experiments at a sporting goods store, researchers noted a linear relationship between salesperson proximity and sales. The closest proximity was associated with the fewest sales, and purchases appeared to be moderated by shoppers' degrees of psychological discomfort: Shoppers reported experiencing higher levels of anxiety when salespeople were nearby than when they were farther away.

The researchers suggested that future studies could compare salesperson proximity and psychological discomfort in a variety of cultures to see if their results can be replicated more broadly. In regions such as East Asia, Latin America and Southern Europe, where people may prefer closer contact to others, the association between anxiety and proximity may be lessened — or entirely reversed, the authors noted. 

In retail settings, managers commonly encourage their employees to take a hands-on approach. Some of this advice is indeed based on scientific evidence. One 2016 study showed that closer proximity between salespeople and customers may benefit sales by leading customers to feel acceptance, increasing their likelihood of purchasing a product. 

Meanwhile, a 2018 paper first authored by Tobias Otterbring, who was also first author of the new study, indicated that the mere presence of an employee in the shopping environment could make a shopper more willing to return to the store again in the future. Yet, this wasn't true in all cases; when customers purchased an item that they found embarrassing, such as a condom, they became less loyal and less satisfied when employees were present. 

In the first study within their new paper, Kristensson and his colleagues surveyed 183 customers who were exiting a large sporting goods store located in a mid-sized Northern European city. The participants, all of whom had interacted with an employee inside the store, were asked whether their proximity to the employee in question made them feel anxious. The customers who reported that an employees' proximity made them feel anxious said they were less likely to return to the store again in the future.

A subsequent experiment involved 120 participants who interacted with a sales associate at a distance of either two or eight feet. The former is within one's personal space, a zone usually occupied by close friends, while the latter is a distance more frequently used for impersonal interactions, according to the authors. The salesperson asked the participants to try on a jacket and described some of its features, such as its price, material and possible colors. Participants then rated their levels of discomfort using the same criteria as the first experiment. Researchers also tracked the participants' purchases following their interactions with the sales associate.

In results that aligned with the first experiment, the team found that customers who had interacted with the salesperson from a longer distance spent significantly more money than their close-proximity counterparts — an average of $35.19 versus an average of $19.26, respectively. Participants who had interacted from a close distance were also significantly more likely to report discomfort. 

Two follow-up experiments, involving hundreds more participants, used imagined scenarios to simulate the connection between salesperson proximity and customers' responses. In general, the findings aligned with the results from the field experiments. 

Interestingly, though, the researchers saw no differences in proximity and discomfort when consumers were thinking about the functionality of a product — rather than how it could change their own identity. In order to initiate a customers' thoughts about functionality, the researchers primed a control group before the experiment by asking them "to write about products they own that perform a specific function," according to the study.

Kristensson said these results make some amount of intuitive sense: A product that has a specific use may be more technical in nature, and a customer may want to learn more about how it works before making a purchase. This would necessitate closer proximity as a salesperson shows the customer how a particular product works in greater detail. 

Meanwhile, items that help a person express his or her identity may be more personal and private in nature, producing a desire to keep some degree of distance from employees during a shopping experience. Kristensson uses the example of trying on different clothing choices.

"You want to stand in front of the mirror. That's self-presentation. You're wondering, 'Will I impress people? Will I share with [people] who I really am?'" Kristensson said. "So then you want to be a little bit further away, on your own. That's basically the story that we have seen here."

With the results of his team's study in mind, Kristensson advises a more balanced, flexible approach to in-person marketing — one in which an employee asks a customer whether he or she needs help but lays low if that offer is rejected by a shopper.

 "We really need to educate service personnel. So I think that they should identify a person, come up, and say, 'Hey, can I help you? Oh, you want to try that? Maybe on your own?'" Kristensson said. "Realize that [there's] not one perfect answer." 

The study "Too close for comfort? The impact of salesperson-customer proximity on consumers' purchase behavior" published May 29 in Psychology and Marketing, was authored by Tobias Otterbring, University of Agder and Institute of Retail Economics; Freeman Wu, Vanderbilt University; and Per Kristensson, Karlstad University and Hanken School of Economics.