The Influence of a Mere Social Presence in a Retail Context
by Jennifer J. Argo, University of Alberta
Darren W. Dahl, University of British Columbia
Rajesh Manchanda, University of Manitoba
Overview of the Research
Fellow shoppers in a grocery aisle, audience members at the theatre, and consumers lined up at the check-out are all examples of a mere social presence. This mere social presence is one which is physically present, but is not involved nor attempts to engage an individual in any way. Given that a mere social presence is often found in a variety of consumption situations it raises the question - does the mere physical presence of another consumer(s) influence how you feel and what you do (e.g., what brand you select) when you are shopping? Further, do characteristics of the mere social presence, such as its size (i.e., number of people) and its proximity to you, determine the extent of the influence? The present research sought to address these questions using two field studies where participants made a small consumer purchase in a retail setting.
Using Social Impact Theory (SIT) as a basis for our predictions, we expected that as the size of a social presence increased and moved physically closer in proximity to a consumer, s/he would experience an increase (decrease) in negative (positive) emotions. Further, a consumer was also expected to be more willing to buy the most expensive brand name alternative under these conditions as there would be heightened impression management concerns. However, when the social presence was located further away, its impact on a consumer’s feelings and behavior was expected to decrease regardless of the number of people present.
The findings of this research provided some support for SIT and the predictions forwarded. When the size of the social presence increased, two distinct patterns arose. Consistent with SIT, when the consumer was alone in the shopping aisle (i.e., a social presence did not exist), s/he spent the least amount of money by buying the cheapest, generic brand alternative. In contrast, when a social presence, comprised of either one or three people, was standing next to the consumer in the aisle, s/he was most likely to spend more by purchasing a more expensive brand. In fact when the social presence consisted of three people, the consumer never once purchased the generic alternative.
In terms of emotions, counter to expectations, consumers felt the least annoyed and frustrated and the most pleased and happy when there was another shopper next to them in the aisle as compared to when they were by themselves (i.e., no social presence existed); however, when the number of people in the aisle increased beyond one, consumers began to feel more annoyance/frustration and less pleasure/happiness. Finally, when the mere social presence was at the far end of the shopping aisle its influence on the consumer’s emotions and brand choice were reduced regardless of how many people were present.
Significance of the Research
Although previous research in marketing has shown that social influences can play an important role in the consumption process, the majority of the work in this area has focused on the impact of an interactive social influence, (e.g., salespeople greeting or persuading consumers, groups of consumers debating over a product choice). However, social influence situations in consumption are not limited only to interactive situations but also include those that occur without an interaction (i.e., a mere social presence). The results of two studies provide evidence that the mere presence of a social influence standing next to a consumer while s/he is selecting a product can have an impact on how s/he feels and which brand s/he will buy. Our research contributes to the existing literature by refining Social Impact Theory through the identification of a situation under which the theory does not hold. At a more general level, we validate the importance of a non-interactive social influence in the consumption context and point to important opportunities for future research.
Implications of the Research
Given the finding that simply the mere presence of another person or group of people is sufficient to elicit emotional and behavioral responses on the part of the consumer, it is important for managers to understand the influence and importance of social presence in a retail context. The findings of this research demonstrate that the ideal situation for managers is to create a situation in which there is some level of social presence within the retail environment as consumers feel the most pleasure/happiness and spend the most money in this situation. However, management should also be careful to avoid situations of overcrowding in shopping aisles and throughout the store as consumers were shown to respond negatively to a heightened level of social presence. Thus, it is critical for management to recognize a balance in creating a comfortable social environment for the consumer.
Argo, Jennifer J., Darren W. Dahl, and Rajesh V. Manchanda (2005), “The Influence of a Mere Social Presence in a Retail Context,” Journal of Consumer Research, 32 (September), forthcoming.