Bargain-Hunting Shoppers Treat Customer Service Workers As "Less Human", Study Finds

Case in point: 'Black Friday' sales. MA1216/Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Anyone who has served time working in retail can tell you this: people are assholes, especially if there’s a cheap deal up for grabs.

Researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) have recently looked into how shoppers behave towards customer service workers, comparing how the interactions changed if they were shopping at a bargain-oriented retailer offering cheaper deals. The study was recently published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Their findings suggest that bargain-hungry shoppers in discount retailers actually view customer service workers as “less human” than staff working for less thrifty retailers. The researchers call this behavior a “price-conscious mentality”. It is defined as “a singular focus on saving money and getting the cheapest deal, [which] can lead consumers to discount the human qualities of employees and treat them more inconsiderately as a result.”

“When shoppers focus only on paying the lowest price, they become less attuned to understanding the human needs of others, or even recognizing them,” study co-author Johannes Boegershausen, a UBC Sauder PhD student, said in a statement.

They reached these conclusions through a series of separate studies. First up, they had participants interact in a live-chat with a rude employee who they could punish through a complaint. 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.

Another part of the research found considerably fewer "humanizing" words in reviews of the discount airline Ryanair than in reviews of the higher-end airline Lufthansa when describing people, even after accounting for quality differences between brands. In a similar vein, they showed participants photos of a flight attendant either in a Ryanair uniform, a Lufthansa uniform, or a neutral uniform. Respondents showed remarkably less humanity to the Ryanair employee than the Lufthansa staff member.

At the study authors’ own admission, “the subtle nature of employee dehumanization can make it particularly difficult to identify.” Their string of studies attempted to control or account for external factors as much as possible, such as the quality of service provided; however, there were certain things not controlled for.

Nevertheless, there certainly seems to be a very relatable truth about human behavior within these findings.

“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 Boegershausen. “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, if you’re hitting the shops for last-minute deals or post-Christmas sales, make sure you remember your humanity.

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