Discrimination against the obese may be hurting businesses.
Posted Apr 11, 2005
Sales associates discriminate against overweight female shoppers, and that could mean financial repercussions for certain businesses, according to a Rice University study that will be presented at a psychology conference later this week. Based on data from interactions in 152 stores in a Houston mall, researchers found greater levels of interpersonal discrimination directed toward obese shoppers than toward average-weight customers. The findings were based on reports by the customers and nearby observers on the clerks' eye contact, friendliness, rudeness, smile, premature ending of the interaction, length of interaction time, and negative language and tone.
"I wasn't surprised," says Eden King, a graduate psychology student who was coprincipal investigator of the study with Jenessa Shapiro when they were undergraduates at Rice beginning in 2000. "I was discouraged that we are still facing this kind of discrimination against obese people, and that they have to face those kinds of discrimination every day."
The study was conducted in three phases: The first documented the discrimination; the second evaluated a way to reduce the discrimination; and the third focused on the financial repercussions such discrimination can have on business. The researchers used female shoppers, because they tend to be judged on the basis of their weight more than men, according to King. About 75 percent of the sales associates were women.
In the first phrase, a group of average-weight women ages 19 to 28 played the role of a customer shopping for a birthday gift in four different scenarios: average weight and overweight dressed in casual attire and in professional attire. The secret shoppers followed a script and carried tape recorders.
The sales associates treated overweight shoppers more favorably if they seemed as though they were trying to lose weight. For example, the women who were dressed casually reportedly received more interpersonal discrimination than those who were dressed professionally. Business attire implies these women are attempting to improve their appearance and therefore don't deserve to be prejudged.
In the second phase of the study the shoppers carried either a diet cola or an ice-cream drink. The overweight women toting no-calorie beverages were treated just as well as the average-weight ones. But the women who experienced the most negativity were those opting for the high-calorie, fat-packed frozen delights.
In the third phase of the study women were asked to fill out surveys in which they evaluated their interactions with sales associates; how much money they had planned to spend and the amount they actually spent; and the likelihood they would shop at the store again and recommend it to friends. They did not know the study was about obesity, but their body types were noted. What was revealed, according to King, is the overweight women overwhelmingly reported poorer interpersonal reactions, spent less in the store and were less likely to return in the future. Retail stores train people in diversity, but aren't doing enough sensitively training toward the obese, King says. "This research says they need to be doing something."
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