A quick glance at fashionable boutiques, women’s retail outlets, sporting events and motor shows may seem to confirm this proposition; what else explains the presence of ubiquitously alluring sales assistants, the abundance of scantily clad promotional models or the ever-present grid girls at motor racing events?
But this may not always be the case as a recent research paper by UniSA School of Management’s Dr Duncan Murray and Dr Bianca Price suggests.
Sex Sells (Conditions Apply): Perceived Trustworthiness of Sexy Compared to Attractive Female Staff examined how being ‘sexy’, rather than being attractive, influenced the perceived trustworthiness of female salespeople, and the resulting impact on buyers’ behaviour.
Dr Price said her previous research had shown that female shoppers were less likely to buy a product if they considered the salesperson to be more attractive than them, reflecting social comparison theory, and wanted to research this further.
“Sexual strategies theory suggests that men are biologically ‘hard-wired’ if you like, to look for women with a more youthful appearance, who display attractiveness and signs of fertility. This results in women competing with each other in terms of their attractiveness to improve their own mate selection chances. It is the principle of intragender competition,” said Dr Price.
“However, we wanted to know if there were particular features or qualities, rather than just being attractive, that make an attractive female increasingly threatening for other females. We thought that if we looked at different types of beauty, we could find the one that would be the most directly challenging, and in the case of female salespeople, most negatively influence female customers’ behaviours and attitudes.
“It’s not just about a female feeling threatened by an attractive female, perhaps it’s about the way that female looks. It’s the sexually alluring look, the sex kitten look characterised by tight, revealing clothes, tousled hair and heavy make-up, that is particularly threatening for a female customer and that is particularly detrimental in terms of sales.”
Using Ashmore, Solomon and Longo’s six types of beauty as a basis (classic, sensual, cute, girl-next-door, trendy and sex kitten), they surveyed 379 female undergraduates aged 18 to 26 to examine whether female salespeople with a sexualised appearance (sex kittens) created lower levels of trust among customers, resulting in less positive attitudes and reduced purchasing intentions.
They found that female customers displayed significantly lower levels of trustworthiness for the sexually alluring staff person, regardless of whether the product was related to enhancing appearance or not (such as mascara or a mobile phone). Respondents also reported less positive attitudes and reduced purchase intentions when interacting with sexually alluring female staff.
Dr Murray, Senior Lecturer in Sport and Leisure at UniSA’s School of Management, said that companies often believe that you have to have attractive, sexy staff to represent their brand well, but it may not be a successful strategy when the target market is female.
“We’re not suggesting that having sexually alluring or desirable female staff doesn’t work with male customers – it may work very effectively in that context. However, we are interested in the fact that purchasing decisions and behaviour often occur within a couple, usually a male and a female partner,” said Dr Murray.
“The results we saw in our research could be further exacerbated when the sexy staff are not merely a perceived threat, but are a direct threat because the woman’s partner is actually present. It’s about knowing your market and understanding the complete parameters of that market.
“The good news for companies is that the sex kitten look is the most malleable of all the beauty types, because it’s characterised by the type of clothing, how it’s worn, the type of make-up and hairstyle and the demeanour of the person.
“If you’re dealing with an appearance-orientated product such as cosmetics, and you don’t want to scare your female customers off, make sure that in your staff clothing and grooming guidelines you downplay the make-up and tousled hair, and go for a uniform that’s slightly more conservative,” he added.
Dr Price cites US lingerie firm Victoria’s Secret as a business that has struck a good balance by using conservatively-dressed sales staff to sell a sexually-charged product.
“Abercrombie & Fitch are an example of a retail organisation that bases its hiring practices on the premise of employing staff that are attractive, reflecting their popular advertising campaigns, and dress them in ways that are sexually alluring and desirable. In doing so, they are focusing on connecting with a specific target market. However, such a strategy may create barriers that exclude a larger potential market,” said Dr Price
“Victoria’s Secret is also known for its sexy lingerie and ad campaigns with stunning models, but when you go shopping there the staff are dressed in more conservative black outfits, with more subtle make-up. It’s not intimidating for customers and you see women of all shapes and sizes shopping there.
“I think for some women there’s a potential barrier in the types of women that are employed as salespeople. Such barriers may be one factor contributing to a growth in women shopping online.
“It’s a case of letting retail stores know that sexy doesn’t always sell. It can in some contexts such as advertising billboards and celebrity endorsers, this research doesn’t dispute that. What it is suggesting is that as far as female sales staff are concerned, signs of overt sexuality can have a very detrimental effect on your female customers which isn’t good for business.”
Contacts for interview
- Dr Bianca Price mobile 0407 176 807 email [email protected]
- Dr Duncan Murray mobile 0409 482 656 email [email protected]
- Rachel Broadley office (08) 8302 0096 mobile 0434 078 819 email [email protected]