Pretty Woman Effect

Should The Devil Sell Prada? Study Finds Snobby Salespeople Boost Sales

Julia Robert's treatment in 'Pretty Woman' may not have been as outrageous as it seemed. A new study finds that customers are more likely to buy when dealing with snobby salespeople.

Remember when the Rodeo Drive saleswomen wouldn't help Julia Roberts purchase some conservative, high-fashion clothes in the 1990 hit Pretty Woman? And remember when her character returns to the store later, shoving a plethora of shopping bags in their snobby faces, telling them what a 'huge mistake' they made not taking her business?

Well, a new study—aptly named Should the Devil Sell Prada? Retail Rejection Increases Aspiring Consumers' Desire for the Brand—from the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business has found that customers who receive poor treatment from sales associates are more likely to make a purchase.

"It appears that snobbiness might actually be a qualification worth considering for luxury brands like Louis Vuitton or Gucci," Darren Dahl, a marketing professor at the university said. "Our research indicates they can end up having a similar effect to an 'in-group' in high school that others aspire to join."

Inspired by a situation Dahl refers to as "The Pretty Woman Effect," he sought to understand the correlation between rude treatment and the desire to buy something. By having participants either experience or simulate a variety of store interactions and rate their feelings, Dahl found that consumers have an increased desire to purchase luxury, high-end goods (and not mass-produced ones) when treated badly.

“This only worked for brands and stores that customers would aspire to, truly luxury brands like Burberry or Gucci,” he explained. “For lower-end, mainstream retailers—Gap and American Eagle, these types of stores—this type of effect doesn’t happen...Our study shows you've got to be the right kind of snob in the right kind of store for the effect to work."

The complete study will appear in the October 2014 edition of the Journal of Consumer Research.