Are over-attentive associates creeping shoppers out?

Photo: Getty Images/Eva-Katalin
Aug 17, 2021

A new university study finds store loyalty, purchase intentions and spending behavior are negatively affected when consumers encounter a salesperson who is standing nearby.

The close proximity resulted in greater feelings of psychological discomfort among consumers, which, in turn, decreased spending, according to the study. The phenomenon was found to be even more pronounced with products that are closely tied to the consumer’s identity expression.

Freeman Wu, co-author and marketing professor at Vanderbilt, said in a statement, “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.”

The studies were conducted before the pandemic and the researchers said further studies could explore whether social distancing had made people more sensitive to physical proximity.

Researchers noted that the studies took place in individualistic cultures in North America and Western Europe “where personal space is valued” and that the findings might be different in collectivistic cultures, embraced by many Eastern countries, where community and relationships with others is emphasized.

The researchers suggest that salespeople could be trained on how much personal space to provide shoppers, as “too little personal space may inadvertently repel sales.”

Another university study that appeared in 2019 in the Journal of International Marketing found Western consumers were less suspicious of store associates they didn’t know versus Eastern consumers as long as the reason behind the extra attention was evident.

The researchers wrote, “Our empirical studies indicate that any single element of high attentiveness, be it frequent contact, intensive warmth, unsolicited care and information, or their resulting combinations, is sufficient to induce negative responses due to suspicion of ulterior motive among such consumers. Nonetheless, our results suggest that this response may be overcome if employees mitigate consumers’ suspicion of ulterior motive, such as by revealing to customers that their income is not commission-based, or by showing high attentiveness out of genuine concern.”

The findings comes despite the complaint of not being able to find a salesperson regularly ranking as the top pet peeve in studies of in-store shopping.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: What channels or types of stores may be guilty of associates sometimes being too attentive for in-store shoppers? What advice would you have for finding the right balance between being attentive versus suffocating?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Knowing when to give shoppers helpful attentiveness vs. respectful distance is both art and science."
"This data gives credence to a theory that I’ve always suspected. I don’t think that advanced interpersonal training is feasible for every retail sales associate..."
"I wish I had a sign that said either “shopping with intent” or “browsing for fun” to indicate how much help I want."

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22 Comments on "Are over-attentive associates creeping shoppers out?"

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Ray Riley

The headline could read: “Stores that don’t comprehensively invest in developing their teams risk creeping shoppers out.” The skills of deep listening, tonality, accurately reading the customer’s body language, and being aware of *our own* body language go a long way towards ensuring that the needs of the customer are met when they are in our store. Irrespective of store format or channel.

Liza Amlani

Beauty has a reputation of overly attentive in-store associates but it is warranted in many cases.

Sales associates need to be brand ambassadors and product experts but many are not and it comes down to proper training. On product and in selling.

Some may be crossing the line to “creepy” but I think these sales associates just need to have deeper training on “reading the room.”

Mark Ryski

It’s a delicate balance of delivering the “right” amount of service. Too much and customers are creeped out; too little and customers feel ignored. Since the definition of too much/too little service is exclusively in the eyes of the shopper, it’s impossible to generalize about what the right amount of service is. It will also be greatly dependent on the type of store — luxury vs. warehouse. Ultimately, store associates need to learn to be situational and deliver the best service they can. Be earnest, honest and helpful.

Bob Amster

“Too attentive” is a subjective description. As the foreword states, proximity and distance are cultural preferences. If this question is asked in the context of the continental U.S., attentiveness is uncomfortable to most. As to advice to retailers, that is a lesson in sociology. Every associate has to read the customer.

Neil Saunders

Good salespeople should be able to judge the appropriate level of proximity and interaction. Showing a customer you are present and willing to help is good. Standing over them and breathing down their neck is clearly not. This is just common sense.

Melissa Minkow

The ulterior motive is the key here. When you can tell a sales associate is motivated by the sale itself versus a genuine desire to help you, it feels like you’re being preyed upon. Victoria’s Secret used to be really bad about having sales associates constantly hovering. Now that we’re facing labor shortages and retailers are pulling back on associates being available though, it can be extremely frustrating trying to find help. The best way to navigate the balance is by making sure enough associates are visibly available to help without following individual shoppers around proactively. Shoppers just need to be able to easily find associates when they’re needed.

Bob Phibbs
Boy does this study have holes in it. How many feet away? What was the behavior observed? Was the employee standing next to them as they browsed a rack without engaging? Were these people who could actually buy and wanted to buy or did they have an assumption and then find behaviors to support it? Saying “I don’t work on commission so you can trust me” makes it so? Give me a break. They can mitigate it by “showing high attentiveness out of genuine concern”? What does that look like exactly? So much grey to unpack in this article yet it will be used by those who say, “I don’t like to be bothered when I shop either.” I can tell you from experience and from my clients, that attitude when distributed across a group of stores allows for rotten service, lower sales, and higher theft. I’ll give you that this study points to training employees how to sell, appropriate distance, etc. It’s what I do for the best retailers around the world. But this… Read more »
DeAnn Campbell
Knowing when to give shoppers helpful attentiveness vs. respectful distance is both art and science, which is why a gifted sales person who intuitively knows how to navigate this balance is worth their weight in gold. Shoe stores are an obvious example, where most stores keep their stock in the back room, forcing customers to ask for a size. I find it uncomfortable to shop a small shoe store where you feel the eyes of the sales person watching you — it makes me feel hesitant to touch a shoe for fear the sales person will rush over to offer help. Stores who impose quotas or pay by commission are not in tune with today’s shopper mindset. Access to digital channels has given the shopper unprecedented power over their shopping journey, thus the store experience needs to support a strong browsing experience, since retailers don’t know where the actual purchase will be made in the store, or later online. Retailers would be wise to staff their brick-and-mortar stores with highly trained employees who are good… Read more »
Paula Rosenblum

Commission-only sales associates are most likely to be intrusive. Furniture is the worst.

Kevin Graff

What’s the most important step when selling? Rapport! We always say that as much as 70 percent of your sales success is tied to your ability to establish rapport and a connection to your customer. So if you lack rapport, it doesn’t matter how close or how far away you stand from the customer. Contrast that to when, as a customer, you have a good rapport with the sales representative: You trust them. You listen to them. You don’t care if they are standing close to you.

You could have just as many customers who are frustrated by not being able to get waited on in stores. That’s an even bigger problem. Give the store teams the training and support they need — finally.

Jenn McMillen

I wish I had a sign that said either “shopping with intent” or “browsing for fun” to indicate how much help I want. If I’m shopping, that means please check in a few times. If I’m browsing, that means I’ll find you if I need you.

Dick Seesel

Nordstrom seems to do the most consistent training of its sales associates to find the balance between acknowledging, offering help, and hovering. As other panelists have pointed out, it depends on “reading the room” — does the customer display body language suggesting that he/she is looking for help, or would rather be left alone?

It also depends on the store and the category. Does the self-service customer buying shoes at Target expect the Nordstrom treatment? Of course not, but stores at all price points could benefit from simply acknowledging the customer.

Gary Sankary
Walking in a clothing store and having a sales person ask me what I might be looking for and then providing me with some options, not creepy at all. Walking into my neighborhood co-op and having the butcher I’ve known for years tell me about a summer sale on brisket, a welcome interaction. Walking into a shoe store and having a sales person I’ve never met look at a tablet and then recommend something based on my previous purchase? Creepy. Having a message pop up in my phone when I walk into CVS with a welcome and, based on my history, push some special offers? I’m deleting the app and putting my phone in a Faraday bag. The difference between creepy and welcome interaction in my experience has to do with authenticity. This is true in interpersonal and digital interactions. The car salesperson who is constantly upselling and pushing add-ons on me is as unwelcome as a daily email from a retailer that I can’t seem to opt out of no matter what I click… Read more »
David Spear
This is the proverbial fine line all retailers walk. Assist or allow the shopper to make up her own mind. Let’s face it, we’re all shoppers, right? There are times when I don’t want help and when someone does get too close, it can be a turn off. However at other times, I do appreciate the effort of an associate. This is where training becomes SO IMPORTANT. A key element for successful shopper-associate interactions is knowing what to say, leveraging the right tone, exuding positive body language, using friendly facial expressions (masks have complicated this), understanding spatial norms, and asking the right questions. As a shopper you know when someone has been trained well, and should certainly appreciate their professionalism. In fact, many times this engenders robust conversation and a sense of comfort, which correlates into a higher probability of sale. I’ll leave you with this — when a customer says thank you after an associate interaction at one of the most successful chicken QSRs in the U.S., the associate has been trained to respond… Read more »
Brian Cluster

The most important starting point is the greeting when a customer enters the door or passes by the associate. This can set the tone for the rest of the interaction. I’m surprised how frequently that I am not greeted at retail.

Secondly, the associate needs to make some human connection, not a sales connection with the customer. This could be a comment based on the familiarity of the customer or what area of the store they are shopping. It has to be authentic.

Checking back too many times, dwelling nearby, and constantly watching customers can creep customers out and I think it is an indicator of lack of training. Fortunately, this is easily reachable online and can be modeled in person to do it the right way. It takes great store leadership.

Mel Kleiman

I would love to be in a situation where I had an associate trying to give me more attention. In today’s marketplace it is hard to find an associate that will give me any attention. It is easy enough to train a sales associate to identify how much help a customer would like to have. All it takes is a couple of well-worded questions. It does not start with may I help you. It starts with either giving them a piece of information about something like, are you aware of the sale we are having or are you looking for something in particular? Open the conversation but don’t ask them a closed-ended question.

Steve Montgomery

For myself I would agree that an overattentive sales associate is something that would not only creep me out but likely motivate me to shop somewhere else. The line between being helpful and creepy is different for everyone and as the article states will vary depending on what the person is buying. What the article does point out is that being a good salesmen is a difficult job that requires the ability to read people not only before approaching them but during the conversation as well. It is definitely an underrated skill.

Mary Pietsch
1 year 1 day ago

I believe it is all about training the sales associates on what level of interaction is appropriate and how to read the customer. Even at higher-end stores, I see wide variation in the astuteness of sales associates. Knowing immediately where to go across an entire department to show me items that might suit my need is very helpful. It’s not helpful for the associate to take over for me when I already am going through a stack of jeans looking for my size to do that same task for me while I just stand there watching. Unfortunately, even in high-end stores, my experiences skew more to the latter example.

Jeff Hall

Given the high level of staff turnover in most retailers, coupled with reductions in customer interaction and sales training, most brands are simply unable to find that sweet spot of being attentive, but not overly so. I would bet revisiting this study now would unfortunately show an even higher percentage of consumers who are quick to feel uneasy with salesperson interactions, as everyone has become accustomed to contactless shopping. I do agree with fellow panelist comments that initiating rapport with “Is there anything in particular you’re looking for…” can go a long way and is generally a welcomed greeting.

Jasmine Glasheen

This data gives credence to a theory that I’ve always suspected. I don’t think that advanced interpersonal training is feasible for every retail sales associate, many of which work part-time and/or are also in school. Retailers that enable digital training may be able to impart some wisdom in terms of reading body language, comments, when to approach, etc. But much of a customer’s response to a store associate has to do with the customer themselves, who is unpredictable.

Craig Sundstrom

Day-in-and-day-out we hear – and often make ourselves — complaints about the lack of service, and now this … who’d have thought?

Still, there’s some truth in it. Logic would suggest luxury goods are the main offender — only they are likely to have the staffing levels that permit this to even be a possibility — but my experience is it’s not the type of merchandise that determines the behavior as much as the type of management: small, typically owner-operated shops where the role of sales person and security guard are all too-often mixed together (with the latter often winning out).

But wherever it is, the lesson is the same: assistance should be there, if needed, but not RIGHT THERE (if it isn’t).

Heather B
The sales person’s role is to help a customer get what they want or need. I believe there should be an initial connection between sales person and customer that allows the customer to make the decision about the level of assistance, rather than assuming one way or the other. It can be as simple as, “Hi. My name is Heather. I’m a staff member here at XYZ. If you need anything, I would be happy to help you. And if you’re just browsing, welcome, and please enjoy our store. All of our staff members wear red shirts, so we are pretty easy to spot. Is there anything I can do for you at this time?” If the answer is “No, I’m just browsing,” the response could be, “That’s great. I hope you enjoy our store. Just look for the red shirt if you need anything. And have a great day!” If the answer is “Yes, I’m look for X,” the response could be, “Great. Let me help you find what you are looking for.” Training… Read more »
"Knowing when to give shoppers helpful attentiveness vs. respectful distance is both art and science."
"This data gives credence to a theory that I’ve always suspected. I don’t think that advanced interpersonal training is feasible for every retail sales associate..."
"I wish I had a sign that said either “shopping with intent” or “browsing for fun” to indicate how much help I want."

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