The high-end designer boutique sells aspirational luxury brands. An elegant sales assistant glides over. Her smile is open to interpretation: false, condescending, supercilious or perhaps it is just the surroundings that make it seem so. “Can I help, sir?” I become anxious, flustered, uncool. “Just browsing”, I whisper, not at all sure why I’m speaking in hushed tones. I go through the motions of performing a cursory browse and quickly exit the shop.
One of the items on the Liebowitz Social Anxiety Scale assesses the level of fear associated with "returning goods to a store". Anxiety about speaking to sales assistants, and a tendency to avoid such contacts, is a common manifestation of social phobia (social anxiety disorder). This psychiatric condition is the most common of all the anxiety disorders, and a recent study across 28 nations suggests the complaint afflicts around four per cent of the adult population.
Most people’s in-store anxiety, however, is limited to luxury retail outlets. We rarely get flustered or feel intimidated in a supermarket or an electrical goods store. So what is it about the shops selling prestigious luxury brands that can make them so anxiogenic (anxiety-provoking)?
On a superficial level, it might have something to do with the high price tag attached to some of the items. If we drop some eggs in Carrefour, no biggy. If, however, we drop the six-digit, jewel-encrusted watch on the floor of Piaget or Hublot, we might have an issue – some biggy. But that can’t be the whole story. Anxiety and feelings of intimidation can be present even when we are not handling goods.
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If not price, then perhaps “transfer of affect” is at the root of in-store social anxiety. Transfer of affect is the idea that the qualities attributed to the aspirational brand (high status, wealth, luxury) are somehow transferred onto associated things, such as the shop environment and the people that work there. Even the security guards at high-end retail outlets might seem somehow “classy”. At the heart of social anxiety is a fear of negative evaluation; a fear of being judged negatively, of being ridiculed or rejected. Being negatively appraised by someone we evaluate positively hurts more than being rejected by a “nobody”.
Ironically, however, rejecting people can sometimes make them work harder towards acceptance. To quote Marx – Groucho that is – “I wouldn't want to belong to a club that would have me as a member”. Working harder at acceptance in the context of luxury brands means buying more stuff. In some ways, then, it might pay for stores to cultivate a snobbish and intimidating air of exclusivity, thereby fanning the flames of social anxiety/rejection and selling more goods to the vulnerable.
An article published in the Journal of Consumer Research, "Should the Devil Sell Prada?", found some evidence in support of these ideas. In a series of four clever experiments, the study found that when asipring customers experienced retail rejection it tended to increase their evaluations of, and desire for, the luxury brand in question.
This sense of feeling rejected and intimidated in high-end fashion stores is not all in our heads either. A former employee of the luxury brand YSL went on record with the New York Times, suggesting that it is standard practice to size up customers and evaluate them based on what they are currently wearing. To quote, "If the accessories are not expensive, the customer is not worth the effort of even a simple hello".
When we enter YSL, Gucci, Prada, Dior and so on, are we being checked-out, evaluated and judged? If yes, then that might explain the social anxiety some of us feel.
One luxury retailer that I recently passed by had the lighting up as bright as possible, wall to wall mirrors, and an army of immaculately groomed sales assistants. That’s my idea of hell; I didn’t go in.