The body weight bias in sales

October 25, 2018

Despite today's laws and public attitude against overt discrimination, subtle forms of prejudice are still active in the marketplace--often without our awareness. Previous research has shown that overweight or obese customers can experience less eye contact, friendliness and smiling from sales personnel as well as longer wait times.

Findings from a new study suggest that sales workers may also unwittingly be prone to another form of discrimination toward overweight or obese people: making product recommendations based on someone's body shape.

In a series of studies, the researchers discovered that sales employees were more likely to encourage heavy customers to buy round-shaped products. In one experiment, a trained actress posing as a shopper solicited wristwatch and perfume product recommendations from 37 sales people at a suburban shopping mall. Half of the time she appeared as her natural body size, 4 feet, 11 inches tall and 102 pounds, and the remaining time she wore a professionally constructed prosthesis that made her look obese. As the researchers predicted, the sales personnel recommended rounded watches and perfume bottles when she appeared obese, and they suggested more narrow, rectangular products when she was thin.

They launched a similar experiment online using a digitally manipulated image of a sample consumer who appeared either thin, moderate in weight or obese. The participants selected products they thought the different consumers would prefer, and they chose between angular and round mirrors, lamps, candles and other items. Again, rounded products were chosen more consistently for the obese customers and angular products were more common for the thinner customers.

To see if the effect was similar with obese males, the researchers conducted the same experiment with a digitally manipulated male customer, and the outcomes were consistent.

The researchers were also interested in investigating which stereotype associated with heavy people was underlying the tendency to recommend round products. Previous literature has shown that rounder products are associated with friendliness and warmth, while angular products are associated with toughness and threat. Similarly, heavier people are seen as more friendly than thin people. To test whether this correlation between friendliness, round products and heavy people was driving the product recommendations, the researchers instructed an actress to be a friendly or unfriendly shopper in a short video. She appeared either thin as her own size or obese with a prosthesis.

The researchers found that both body size and the level of friendliness drove the propensity to recommend round products. Participants were most likely to recommend round products when the shopper was obese and friendly, and most likely to suggest angular products when the customer was thin and unfriendly.

"There is no evidence to suggest that people prefer round versus angular products based on their own body size," says Beth Vallen, PhD, one of the authors and an associate professor of marketing at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. "Salespeople are using these inferences to drive recommendations, but this is not aligned to product preferences. This could result in less satisfaction."

For Vallen and her co-authors, the findings suggest that stereotypes based on body size and personality traits are influencing purchase recommendations, which is significant because previous research has shown that recommended products are twice as likely to be purchased as non-recommended products.

"There are many subtle forms of discrimination based on everything from weight to age to the gender of customers. Training the salesforce to elicit more information from consumers rather than making assumptions could increase the chance of providing recommendations that match consumer preferences, which could in turn improve satisfaction with purchases."
The study abstract appeared online in the Journal of Consumer Psychology in June 2018, and the final publication date is scheduled for the April 2019.

To see the abstract, visit:

Study author contact information:

Professor Beth Vallen:

Society for Consumer Psychology

Related Discrimination Articles from Brightsurf:

Muslims, atheists more likely to face religious discrimination in US
A new study led by the University of Washington found that Muslims and atheists in the United States are more likely than those of Christian faiths to experience religious discrimination.

Racial discrimination linked to suicide
New research findings from the University of Houston indicate that racial discrimination is so painful that it is linked to the ability to die by suicide, a presumed prerequisite for being able to take one's own life, and certain mental health tools - like reframing an incident - can help.

Perceived "whiteness" of Middle Eastern Americans correlates with discrimination
The perceived ''whiteness'' of Americans of Middle Eastern and North African descent is indirectly tied to discrimination against them, and may feed a ''negative cycle'' in which public awareness of discrimination leads to more discrimination, according to a Rutgers-led study.

When kids face discrimination, their mothers' health may suffer
A new study is the first to suggest that children's exposure to discrimination can harm their mothers' health.

Racial discrimination in mortgage market persistent over last four decades
A new Northwestern University analysis finds that racial disparities in the mortgage market suggest that discrimination in loan denial and cost has not declined much over the previous 30 to 40 years, yet discrimination in the housing market has decreased during the same time period.

Successful alcohol, drug recovery hampered by discrimination
Even after resolving a problem with alcohol and other drugs, adults in recovery report experiencing both minor or 'micro' forms of discrimination such as personal slights, and major or 'macro' discrimination such as violation of their personal rights.

Sexual minorities continue to face discrimination, despite increasing support
Despite increasing support for the rights of people in the LGBTQ+ community, discrimination remains a critical and ongoing issue for this population, according to researchers.

Fathers may protect their LGB kids from health effects of discrimination
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals who report being discriminated against but who feel close to their fathers have lower levels of C-reactive protein -- a measure of inflammation and cardiovascular risk -- than those without support from their fathers, finds a new study from researchers at NYU College of Global Public Health.

Uncovering the roots of discrimination toward immigrants
Immigrants are often encouraged to assimilate into their new culture as a way of reducing conflict with their host societies, to appear less threatening to the culture and national identity of the host population.

Using artificial intelligence to detect discrimination
A new artificial intelligence (AI) tool for detecting unfair discrimination -- such as on the basis of race or gender -- has been created by researchers at Penn State and Columbia University.

Read More: Discrimination News and Discrimination Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to