Friends of the Nonverbal Communication Blog, this week we present the paper “Too close for confort? The impact of salesperson-customer proximity on consumers’ purchase behavior”, by Otterbring, T.; Wu, F. and Kristensson, P. (2020), in which authors investigate how different distances between the salesperson and the customer affect the customers’ behavior. 

One of the areas in which the domain of non-verbal communication interests the most is in sales and commerce. We know well that, if we master it, it can be a great help to increase the profits of a business.

One aspect that has been discussed and about which there are different theories is proxemics with respect to direct store service.

Conventional wisdom suggests that salespeople must maintain close physical proximity to customers to demonstrate their care, offer personalized service, and close sales.

However, does this strategy always bring positive results? This is the question from which authors start to carry out the different experiments.

The existing literature suggests that marketers intuit that greater proximity to consumers is desirable, even in the absence of verbal interactions.

In line with this idea, other research shows that greater physical proximity between sellers and customers can improve feelings of acceptance with respect to the store and, therefore, purchase intentions.

Authors hypothesize that this would only occur in contexts of non-expressive consumption.

But what is expressive and non-expressive consumption?

Non-expressive products would be those utilitarian ones, such as personal hygiene products, food, etcetera. However, people buy and consume products for other non-functional purposes, for symbolic reasons, such as the creation and expression of their identity. The latter would be the expressive products.

Authors therefore argue that when products reflect one’s identity, which occurs in contexts of expressive consumption, people will be more prone to self-presentation concerns.

In fact, there is previous research mentioned in the article, which suggests that when clients are motivated to express their own identities, they generally distance themselves from others to assert their distinction.

Other authors point out that consumers tend to distrust when they perceive a hidden persuasion intention in sellers, and see them as social entities separate from them, with different objectives.

In addition, the simple sensation of being watched can reduce the perception of privacy, with subsequent negative consequences for consumption and customer satisfaction.

Regarding research on proxemics, it is known that the invasion of personal space can generate feelings of discomfort and psychological discomfort, especially if the physical distance between two people is less than one meter.

To examine these questions in expressive consumer settings, the authors conducted four studies with a total sample of more than 1,200 participants.

They showed that the close presence of a seller significantly decreases loyalty, purchase intentions, and actual spending in the aforementioned contexts.

Even intermediate levels of proximity could produce negative consumer responses compared to greater interpersonal distances.

The results reveal that there is an underlying psychological distress, an effect moderated by the relevance of identity.

In other words, and to summarize, consumers experience greater discomfort and respond in a way to the seller who is nearby.

The results contribute to the growing body of literature that highlights discrepancies between general intuition-based beliefs and actual consumer reactions.

Authors suggest that sellers should receive adequate training on how much personal space to provide buyers, as offering too little space can lead to the opposite effect.

As a limitation, the authors note that they conducted the studies in individualistic cultures with less interpersonal contact, such as North America and Northern Europe. Therefore, they suggest that in cultures such as Latin America or southern Europe, different results could be obtained.

Regarding future research, they suggest studying when and why consumers experience discomfort as a result of the proximity of the seller, and what psychological processes could potentially explain this state of aversion.

NonVerbal Communication Blog