Why Customers Are Jerks to Retail Workers

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It’s Christmastime, a time of good cheer, of family, of friends, and of being crammed into a Target with the very worst people on the planet who care about nothing except for getting the most consumer goods for the least amount of money.

I’m very interested in the ways that humans dehumanize other humans when certain factors are in play, and some recent research sheds light on how and why we do it to retail workers — researchers at the University of British Columbia found that bargain hunters are less likely to view retail workers as fully human.

I’ve worked quite a lot in the retail world and can state with 100% certainty that there have been customers who saw me not as a fully human individual with my own needs and desire but as a means to an end who could be abused as needed. I once had a man yell at me because my store didn’t stock headphones. It was a magic store. I was like, “unless you want trick headphones that explode or something, you should probably try literally any other store in the city.” A woman once got angry that a lifelike dog I was holding was a puppet that would require her child to demonstrate creativity, as opposed to a robot that required only a few D batteries. It was quite an interesting time in my life.

Little did I know at the time, but I had it quite easy compared with many other retail workers simply because of the type of store I worked at. Sure, it was a magic store so I dealt with a LOT of weird shit, but it was a high-end store where nothing was ever on sale and we mainly catered to tourists who were spending a premium on something fun. According to this research, it would have been much worse if we had been a discount magic store.

The researchers in question had subjects first review airlines, either the high end Lufthansa or the super low-end budget airline Ryanair, where you famously have to pay extra for just about anything. The subjects used fewer “humanizing” words for Ryanair, even when the researchers controlled for the quality difference between the two airlines.

That’s all well and good when talking about a corporation, but this also extended to the airline workers. Subjects were more likely to see a Ryanair employee as less human than Lufthansa or even just a plain person who wasn’t a uniformed employee. When I say “less human,” I mean that the subjects literally thought the Ryanair employee was less likely to experience human emotions. Yeah.

In a final study, researchers found that people were more likely to recommend a rude employee get serious disciplinary action when they were in a “price-conscious” state of mind. And that does ring true for me, personally, as even though I worked in a higher-end store, the very worst, meanest customers were usually the ones who balked at prices and tried to finagle discounts on things, claiming they were damaged, trying to buy floor models, are even just outright haggling like we were at a yardsale.

It’s important to remember that the subjects in this study aren’t bad people per se — anyone who adopted a “budget-conscious” attitude can unconsciously fall into the trap of treating retail workers poorly. So keep that in mind as you finish your Christmas shopping, or as you hit up those sweet after-Christmas sales. If you find yourself getting a little haughty with an overworked, underpaid employee surrounded by discount signs, remind yourself that they’re people, too.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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One Comment

  1. Real problem, sadly, is that companies promote this BS just the same. You are supposed to be a smiling robot, who never has an opinion, unless its the same as the customers, and never, ever, does, says, or acts in a way that might remotely make the customer feel they are not the absolute #1 thing in your whole universe.

    Got chewed out less than a day ago over this BS. Someone thought I, working my ass off at a place that keep cutting back staff, and where we have to now do the work of 3 people each, looked “grumpy” to them – during the busiest part of the freaking day, when everyone, including my coworkers where kind of pissing me off.

    So, might I have looked grumpy and like I didn’t want to be there? Sure. But, nope, not supposed to show human emotion. You are supposed to “act” like you are exactly what the customers expect you to be – incapable of human emotion.

    Only people “in” the company that I know of who pull that off are a) one that has commented she hates *everyone*, but never the less has managed to paste a smile on her face all day long, and b) one chipper young woman who, when she isn’t doing something clueless, reminds me of the squirrelly girlfriend of the “new brain” from the movie Real Genius. Its a jarring experience, one moment thinking, “I liked that character, its funny this person reminds me..”, and the next, “What the F did you do that for?”

    But, I am sure the customers love both of them – one that is probably plotting to stab them all in the back, while smiling away, and one who is likely to mess up their order, while spouting off comments like, “Have a merry Friday!” No, literally…

    Probably the only two people in the entire store that won’t *ever* be called into the office to talk about them doing, saying, or acting in a way that “annoyed” someone.

    So, what do you expect customers to expect retail staff to be like, if not perfect, emotion-limited, robots? Its practically the bloody job description.

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