In order to create brand ambassadors who can sell a certain look, clothing stores have been known to screen prospective employees based on appearance. In addition to creating ethical concerns, this practice may be alienating customers, according to research from the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin.
In a study published in the August online issue of the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, researchers found that customers tend to enjoy the shopping experience less and make fewer purchases when faced with similar-looking store employees.
Researchers say that "aesthetic labor practices" such as hiring homogeneous-looking employees can decrease customers' perceptions of employee empathy the sense that employees are friendly and relatable. The study, based on a survey of 457 female members of a consumer research panel, was authored by Moody College Advertising Assistant Professors Kate Pounders and Angeline Close and Louisiana Tech University Professor Barry Babin.
"Findings from this work suggest that service managers should hire employees that fit together organically and aren't similar based solely on management directives to create a certain look," Pounders said.
Aesthetic labor practices have become common in image-oriented sectors related to fashion, beauty and other industries.
Retailers have gone as far as sending mug shots of prospective employees to company headquarters for approval. Store "look policies" have dictated how customer-facing staffers can wear their hair, makeup and nails. And fashion retailers have been accused of discriminating based on religious attire, race and weight.
The study also examined other aesthetic labor practices, including consumers' perceptions of how airline employees seemed to belong together beyond physical appearance. Researchers found that airline service providers who look alike are also perceived as belonging together, sharing similar personalities and values. When customers sense that employees belong together, this improves perceptions of employee empathy, customer experience and sales, researchers found.
"In a context closely related to self-concept, such as fashion retailing, customers are more likely to compare their own appearances with employees' appearances," Pounders said. "If employees have a similar look, customers may feel self-conscious. But in a context less associated with self-concept, such as an airline, similar-looking employees have a more positive effect."
Researchers also gauged consumer perceptions of uniformed employees across multiple service categories a clothing store, airline and home-goods store. They found that when employees already look alike, uniforms could negatively affect customer perception. Researchers say this could lead consumers to feel the environment is overly contrived, questioning whether the common appearance is natural. However, when employees do not look alike, researchers found that uniforms increase consumers' perceptions of employee belonging.
While this study addressed customers' perceptions of aesthetic labor practices, Pounders said future studies could focus on the ethical implications.
"How both service employees and customers view the ethicality of aesthetic labor practices is a critical issue that should be examined," Pounders said. "We've seen companies like Abercrombie and Fitch come under intense scrutiny and criticism for some of their policies, and I believe it has had a negative effect on their brand image and played a role in declining sales. From an organizational perspective, if employees see the policies as unethical, it could also damage the morale of employees."