Conventional wisdom suggests that salespeople should maintain close physical proximity to customers to demonstrate attentiveness, offer personal service and close sales. A survey of retail salespeople suggests that they feel the same. However, new Vanderbilt-led research challenges these assumptions. Freeman Wu, assistant professor of marketing at Owen Graduate School of Management, and a team of researchers, found across four studies that store loyalty, purchase intentions and spending behavior are negatively affected when consumers encounter a salesperson who is standing close by.
“We found that close proximity resulted in greater feelings of psychological discomfort among consumers, which, in turn, decreased spending,” Wu said. He said that this phenomenon is even more pronounced with products that are closely tied to the consumer’s identity expression. “When shoppers are purchasing something that is closely tied to their personal identity—an article of clothing, for example—a salesperson in close proximity elicits a self-preservation response in the shopper, reducing the likelihood of a sale.”
Why it matters
These findings have significant implications for the retail industry, as they diverge from beliefs commonly held by retail management. “There is a growing body of literature that refutes intuition-driven management decisions in the retail space,” Wu said. The researchers suggest that salespeople should be trained on how much personal space to provide shoppers, as “too little personal space may inadvertently repel sales.” The study also demonstrates that salespeople in industries closely tied to a shopper’s personal identity should be extra sensitive to proximity and focus on creating a comfortable shopping experience.
According to Wu, the findings from these studies prompt additional research questions. First, most of the studies were conducted before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has drastically increased shopper sensitivity to physical proximity. This may mean that the results reported here represent a conservative test. “The pandemic has normalized social distancing,” Wu said. “So it will be interesting to see whether distanced interactions between consumers and salespeople continue as people return to brick-and-mortar stores.”
The researchers also note that the studies took place in individualistic, non-contact cultures in North America and Western Europe, where personal space is valued. It is not yet known whether the negative impact of salesperson-consumer proximity would be lessened in collectivistic cultures.
The article, “Too close for comfort? The impact of salesperson customer proximity on consumers’ purchase behavior,” was published in the May 2021 edition of Psychology and Marketing. Other researchers on the project include Tobias Otterbring, professor of management at the University of Agder in Norway, and Per Kristensson, professor of psychology at Karlstad University in Sweden.