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Obese Shoppers Are Discriminated in Stores: Study
Do store sales clerks discriminate against obese customers? The short answer, and one that most plus-sized shoppers will verify, is yes.
While sales personnel did not overtly discriminate against obese shoppers, they did discriminate in more subtle interpersonal ways. Sales people treat overweight customers with more respect if they think they are trying to control their weight.
A study by Rice University researchers showed that while sales personnel did not overtly discriminate against obese shoppers, they did discriminate in more subtle interpersonal ways, such as avoiding eye contact, rudeness, or hurrying the sale.
However, the researchers found that those attitudes were mitigated by whether sales personnel thought the customer was concerned about her size and working to lose weight. "Sales clerks expressed less prejudice when women who appeared obese were attempting to control their weight through diet and exercise than when they did not,” said Eden King, a doctoral candidate in industrial and organizational psychology at Rice.
They also found a bottom line effect to this kind of biased behavior that should grab the attention of sales organizations: overweight shoppers who feel they have been the victims of discrimination tend to spend less money and, in many cases, are unlikely to shop at those stores again.
King and her fellow researchers, Jenessa Shapiro, Sarah Singletary, Stacey Turner and adviser Dr. Mikki Hebl, an associate professor of psychology at Rice, tested their theories in a major Houston shopping mall.
They will be presenting their research findings at the annual conference of the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology April 15-17 in Los Angeles. The study has won SIOP’s John C. Flanagan Award as the most outstanding student contribution to the conference.
The researchers used average-weight women who in some cases carried out sales transactions as they normally appeared; at other times they wore padding that made them look to be overweight. Observers accompanied the shoppers and evaluated the interactions with the sales clerks.
The subjects also had tape recorders running in their purses, which King says is legal in Texas. "We taped the encounters because we wanted to study the tone and inflections of the sales clerks, which can indicate signs of discrimination in addition to the ones that can be observed," she said.
In addition, the shoppers were professionally dressed when they entered some stores and at other times wore casual clothing. The treatment of obese-appearing professionally dressed women did not differ from the average-weight women but the reaction towards overweight casually dressed shoppers was noticeable. "They definitely received the greatest amount of interpersonal discrimination," said King.
In another phase of the study, the researchers introduced the element of controllability. In half the interactions, the customers carried an ice cream drink into the store and while talking to salespeople made it clear they were not trying to lose weight. In other transactions, the shoppers had a diet drink and mentioned they were on a diet and were exercising to lose weight.
"We wanted to see if there was any difference in the way overweight shoppers were treated based upon the perception that they were trying to control their weight," King explained.
And indeed there was. The obese customers with the diet drinks were treated more respectfully. "One explanation," noted King, "is that perhaps the sales representatives blamed the ice-cream eating shoppers, who claimed to have no interest in losing weight, for their obesity."
To determine the potential financial impact of interpersonal discrimination, they surveyed nearly 200 shoppers, being sure to include obese as well as average sized women.
The results were quite clear, King noted. “Shoppers who felt they were slighted by sales personnel indicated they spent less money in the store. Also, the greater the extent to which customers perceived they were the victims of interpersonal discrimination, which included a general sense of hostility and unfriendliness, the less likely they were to plan to return to that store.”
While organizations have paid attention to the formal signs of discrimination of all types, the undertones of biased thinking do exist, especially for obese people, and can result in a loss of business.
“So there are financial reasons for salespeople and their supervisors to limit the expression of prejudice in customer service interactions. Given the increasing incidence of obesity in American culture and the associated buying power of such individuals, it is critical for sales organizations to react,” said King.
“These organizations need to not only train their sales people to avoid blatant discrimination, but also the subtle forms which are not easily seen or documented, but which are noticeable to obese customers and may affect their patronage of those businesses,” she added.
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