Meet the shoppers who don’t want friendly customer service

By Tom Leslie

Purchasing at self-service checkout in supermarket
When buying certain products, people prefer the self-check out to a human who might judge or make them feel uncomfortable. Photo: iStock

Our robot future has arrived—and people shopping for condoms couldn’t be more relieved.

A study from the UBC Sauder School of Business shows that when people buy items they might be embarrassed about, they choose self-checkout—or failing that, the most robotic human available.

It’s an age-old law of marketing that friendly customer service is a sure way to boost your business, so businesses train staff to welcome shoppers with eye contact, a smile and some small talk. However, the new findings reveal that this isn’t always the best approach.

It all depends on what’s in the basket.

The study, fittingly titled “How Consumers Respond to Embarrassing Service Encounters: A Dehumanization Perspective,” delved into data from actual purchase behaviour in grocery stores, observing whether customers prefer self-checkout or a human cashier when buying items such as condoms or menstrual pads.

Of course, these items are nothing to be embarrassed about, but the data showed that they still make many of us steer clear of the human cashier.

The authors also surveyed participants about their preferences in situations where in-person exchanges are unavoidable, such as taking stained clothing to a drycleaner that has no automated option. When self-checkouts aren’t available and customers must interact with a human, they choose the most robotic person they can find.

“If they have to choose a person, they would prefer a mechanistic person who isn’t known to be particularly friendly,” said UBC Sauder Professor Dr. JoAndrea Hoegg, who co-authored the study with Dr. Yixia Sun of Zhejiang University, Dr. Xuehua Wang of Tongji University, and UBC Sauder School of Business Dean Dr. Darren Dahl.

If we can’t find a robot-like human, we actually start to view the cashier as less human: less social, less emotional and less judgmental. We might tell ourselves, “They don’t care about me or what I’m doing. They’re just doing their job.”

We tell ourselves this to make ourselves feel better, but the researchers found no evidence that it actually works. We still feel embarrassed.

The study also surveyed people on the street about their use of particular products, either embarrassing (condoms) or non-embarrassing (gum). Some of the surveyors cranked up the charisma, while others intentionally avoided eye contact and spoke stiffly.

As it turned out, the less personable the surveyor was, the more information participants gave up!

“We thought that was interesting and potentially important, because if you’re in a medical office or pharmacy and you need to provide information about yourself, you might be too embarrassed if the person is being really friendly and trying to make a connection,” said Hoegg.

So, what’s the moral of the story? If you’re a retail worker dealing with customers buying potentially embarrassing items, it might be best to channel your inner robot.

No small talk, just a quick, efficient transaction.

“When people are buying embarrassing things they don’t seek out conversation. They don’t want that social interaction. They want to get in and get out—and they want someone who isn’t judging them or reacting to them,” said Dr. Hoegg. “There are so many places like 7-Eleven and grocery stores that sell everything, and it’s likely that employees have been told to be friendly and engage their customers. But they should be mindful of the purchases people are making. If the product they are buying is one that might be embarrassing for them, don’t try to create a connection. Just get the person out quickly.”

And if you’re the one making that face-reddening purchase, you might find comfort in knowing that you’re not alone in your preference for a robot-like checkout experience.


Tom Leslie is a writer for the UBC Sauder School of Business. This article was re-published on May 25, 2023, from UBC Media Relations. Read the original article. To republish this article, please refer to the original article and contact UBC Media Relations.

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