Alone in the aisle

July 18, 2005

The complex dance between consumer and salesperson is at the core of American consumer culture. Consider the bump in blood pressure at the sight of an approaching salesperson on a car lot or the shiny smile of a stereo selling youngster in an appliance store. Yet, what is the effect of a more subtle, even non-interactive consumer experience? This question is the focus of an article in the September 2005 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research, which found that while interactive experiences are important, non-interactive ones--even the mere presence of another human--are significant, too.

"While the majority of consumer research that has studied social influences has focused on the impact of an interactive social presence, in this research we demonstrate that a non-interactive social presence (i.e., a mere presence) is also influential," explains Jennifer Argo, of the University of Alberta, and her colleagues.

At the heart of the study is Social Impact Theory, or SIT, which states that people are affected by the presence of other people--whether this presence is real or imagined or an interaction with a group or a single person. The research finds that consumers prefer a balance. That is, consumers want to be around others, but that there is a limit at which point the experience becomes uncomfortable.

"The majority of research in this area has focused on how an interactive social influence, such as being greeted by salespeople or debating a group purchase, impacts a consumer," the authors write. "However, social influence situations in consumption are not limited only to interactive situations but also include those that occur without an interaction."
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The Influence of a Mere Social Presence in a Retail Context. Jennifer J. Argo, Darren W. Dahl, and Rajesh V. Manchanda. Journal of Consumer Research. September 2005.

University of Chicago Press Journals

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