Predicting consumer behaviour is a constant concern for businesses, equally so when it comes to clothing and apparel, where fickle customers and changing fashions are the rule of the day.
Witness a new study from the University of British Columbia which finds that shoppers can get turned off by the too-perfect figures on store mannequins, a result which held especially true for people with low self-esteem.
Market research into people’s preferences is in the midst of grappling with consumer behaviour in the digital age, where people’s purchases are now informed by a new range of inputs, from social media to user reviews and price comparison tools, all of which make can it challenging to predict which products will sell.
But who would have thought that a centuries-old technique like the store display mannequin could be such a tricky variable?
“When that mannequin is an example of perfection, it reminds people who are vulnerable that they don’t measure up,” says Darren Dahl, professor in UBC’s Sauder School of Business and co-author of the new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, in a press release.
“The problem is the beauty ideal that mannequins represent. When people feel they don’t meet that ideal, their view of the product dims as well.”
Study participants were first asked to complete a questionnaire to gauge their appearance self-esteem and then were quizzed on their thoughts about various items modelled by the mannequins. Not only did participants registering with low self-esteem (both men and women) tend to more often give negative judgments on the clothes worn by the perfectly-proportioned models but when in another stage, researchers disfigured the mannequins (by marking up their faces or showing them without heads), the low-self esteem participants were less apt to give negative reviews.
The results showed that far from being mere clothes hangers, mannequins promote a particular ideal of beauty, say the study’s authors, and this makes a difference to people’s choices.
“As mannequins signal the normative standard of beauty and consumers with low self-esteem in regard to their appearance believe they fail to meet this standard, these consumers become threatened by the beauty standard when exposed to a mannequin and in response denigrate the product the mannequin is displaying,” say the study’s authors.
The effect was further reinforced when participants were asked to judge apparel items not worn by the mannequins such as an umbrella — in those cases, the perfect plastic bodies didn’t negatively affect participants’ judgments.
Mannequin shapes and sizes have varied considerably over the past century, reflecting changes in society’s conceptions of health and beauty.
Where the turn of the 20th century female model reflected the full-figured (and corseted) ideal of the Victorian age, for example, the mannequin of the 20’s and 30’s slimmed down to adopt the more androgynous, flapper style of the day. The wartime period of the 40s and 50s ushered in a more voluptuous figure, which was again slimmed down to “Twiggy-like” proportions in the 60s. The North American mannequin of today is taller than the average woman at 5’9’’ and wears a size 6 dress in comparison to the North American average of size 16.