Incidental connection with clerks can tip sales scales

Thursday, October 8th, 2009

Sharing the same birthday or hometown with a salesperson makes consumers more likely to buy or to buy more than they initially intended

Shannon Proudfoot

If your waitress happens to mention her birthday is the same day as yours, or you discover that a clothing store clerk grew up your hometown, chances are you’ll order an extra beer or buy that second pair of jeans.

New Canadian research shows that when consumers share “incidental” traits like a birthday, name or hometown with a salesperson, they’re more likely to open their wallets.

“Those incidental similarities can actually shape the situation in terms of your desire to buy and associate with the product or company, your attitude toward the product,” says Darren Dahl, a marketing professor at the University of B.C.’s Sauder School of Business.

“It overflows onto the purchase experience — even though, rationally, it really shouldn’t.”

The reason is that we’re hardwired to seek social connections with other people, he says, and even though these small similarities have nothing to do with the product or situation at hand, they make us more open to persuasion.

And these connections aren’t as rare as they seem: Previous research shows that the chance that two people share the same birthday is better than 50 per cent in a group as small as 23 people, the researchers write in the paper, published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

Companies seem already to understand this.

Employees at Disney theme parks and Hilton Hotels wear name tags emblazoned with their hometowns, the researchers note, and many fitness centres display detailed biographies of their personal trainers, right down to the high school they attended.

Last winter, Dahl says, he left the equipment rental centre at the Whistler Blackcomb ski resort unreasonably pleased with the unremarkable service he’d received from an employee whose hometown of Sydney, Australia — where Dahl had just spent three months of a sabbatical year — was printed on his name tag.

“Because we’d had this little moment, I was a lot happier when I left,” he says, laughing. “You discount it because you don’t want those things to influence you: ‘Oh, come on! That has nothing to do with my decision!'”

Whistler Blackcomb has been displaying hometowns on name tags of its international staff for more than 20 years, says Dave Brownlie, president and chief operating officer.

“It does create those connections, which ultimately make a difference in how people enjoy your resort,” he says.

But there’s also a risk to building these little connections with consumers, Dahl says.

“The flip side is that it raises the stakes,” he says.

“When you do this as a tactic, if the person does something wrong in the sales situation, they’re judged much harsher than if someone else had done something wrong. It’s a double-edged sword.”

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