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Slave to luxury

You may remember Oprah Winfrey causing a bit of an international incident when she alleged that a clerk at luxury retailer Trois Pommes in Zurich discriminated against her because of her race, saying the worker refused to show her a Tom Ford bag believing she couldn't afford it. After asking repeatedly to see the $38,000 handbag, Oprah eventually left the store saying, "Okay, thank you so much. You're probably right. I can't afford it."

She may have left that day, but a new study out of the University of British Columbia says it's likely Oprah will be back.

Research conducted by the Sauder School of Business marketing professor Darren Dahl and Southern Methodist University assistant professor Morgan Ward reveals that rude treatment from high-end retailers, such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Burberry, doesn't cause customers to boycott the store. It actually results in them being more likely to make a purchase.

The in-crowd
The research was made up of a number of tests. One polled 166 people about what they thought their reaction would be if they received positive, negative or neutral treatment from three high-end brands, compared with three mass-market brands. In another, 172 people were treated as such by an actual store clerk at a high-end retailer (under the pretense the participants were there to provide feedback on a new line of handbags).

In both cases, the majority of the people who were treated negatively said they wouldn't have a lesser opinion of the brand or they had a more positive view of the brand, than those who received neutral treatment.

"People like to belong to exclusive groups. When we feel excluded from or rejected by these groups, we work hard to re-affiliate and hopefully re-establish our status in the group," says Ward, whose research also suggests people want products that represent that rejection and consuming these products gives them a way to establish a position in a desirable group that also rejects them.

You are not immune
For those who think that luxury is dead and that we now have other ways to determine status or that they would not still buy from a retailer that treated them rudely, Ward says think again. "What we find is that this effect can happen in any product category or exclusive group that people aspire to."

She says that even if consumers shun luxury, they are still vulnerable to these effects. "I am reminded that we as consumers are largely unaware of what drives us and that oftentimes we feel like we are making 'rational' decisions and really we are simply purchasing to fulfill our ego-based needs and our need to belong."

Ward herself was once treated badly by employees at Chanel, but still she owns two Chanel purses and a dress. Although even she can't avoid this phenomenon, she does have advice for the rest of us. "I think self-awareness and introspection can temper some of these effects. I would tell consumers to shop in places where these sorts of issues may not occur (online). Shoppers might think of honouring or shopping at the stores that appear to value them as people rather than the ones that reject them for their own piece of mind and in order to prevent themselves from purchasing over-priced or unneeded products."

Aaron Broverman is a freelance writer in Toronto

-- Posted June 9, 2014
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