Moody College researchers find clothing stores’ ‘look-alike’ policy alienates customers

Aimée Santillán

Clothing stores that hire similar-looking employees may alienate customers, according to a study conducted by professors from the Moody College of Communication.

Advertising faculty — assistant professor Kate Pounders, associate professor Angeline Close and Barry Babin, a Louisiana Tech University professor — published their research on an August online issue of the “Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science.”

According to Pounders, clothing store Abercrombie & Fitch’s specific “look policy” initially inspired the research. She and her team wondered if this had a positive or negative impact on their sales and if their customers felt comfortable when visiting their stores.

“We found that this is not a good strategy,” Pounders said. “If customers see that they don’t fit, they feel uncomfortable, and there’s not a lot of purchase attention.”

However, Babin said this look policy has both positive and negative effects. He said, if the service provider, such as the store or restaurant, seemed as if it was forcing people to look a certain way, they would have bad feedback, but, if the employees were genuine and looked happy altogether, they would have positive feedback.

“A lot of different places have some policies that requires their employees to have a certain look,” Pounders said. “Even store headquarters ask for mug shots of prospective employees to see if they are a good fit.”

Despite having the research based on Abercrombie & Fitch, Pounders said they also found there were other companies following this look-policy, such as some airlines and restaurants.

Researchers found there should be a certain awareness to the practice of aesthetic labor, which is when workers are employed by a company for their appearance. Pounders said the appearance stores want includes not only clothing style, but also physical features such as height, hair and eye color.

“We found that the policy was created to reinforce a brand,” Pounders said. “However, stores such as Abercrombie & Fitch are not doing very well on the market.”

Pounders said the research is the first piece of marketing literature, and the researchers have been recently contacted by MarketWatch. 

Babin said the team discovered consumers tend to compare themselves to employees, and, if they cannot relate to them, they start to feel inferior.

“I hope this research would get service providers thinking on the issue because some people can see the look policy as discrimination,” Babin said.