Customer Relationships With Retail Salespeople: a Conceptual Model and Propositions

ABSTRACT - The concept of relationship marketing has assumed a significant role in the practice and study of marketing. Relationship marketing has been studied in several contexts. However, the state of knowledge in the area of long-term customer relationships with retail salespeople is very limited. This paper proposes a model of the relationship seeking/maintaining process. In addition, a relationship classification schema, which uses personal needs to classify customers in terms of the types of relationships they have with salespeople in a department store setting, is presented. Research propositions are also offered.


Kristy L. Ellis and Sharon E. Beatty (1995) ,"Customer Relationships With Retail Salespeople: a Conceptual Model and Propositions", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, eds. Frank R. Kardes and Mita Sujan, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 594-598.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22, 1995      Page 594-598


Kristy L. Ellis, University of Alabama

Sharon E. Beatty, University of Alabama


The concept of relationship marketing has assumed a significant role in the practice and study of marketing. Relationship marketing has been studied in several contexts. However, the state of knowledge in the area of long-term customer relationships with retail salespeople is very limited. This paper proposes a model of the relationship seeking/maintaining process. In addition, a relationship classification schema, which uses personal needs to classify customers in terms of the types of relationships they have with salespeople in a department store setting, is presented. Research propositions are also offered.


The emergence of the concept of relationship marketing has had an enormous impact on business practitioners and academicians alike. Under a relationship orientation, the emphasis is on the maintenance of long-term exchange relationships with customers. This implies that firms must consider how their actions, policies, and training procedures will best facilitate long-term relationship development and maintenance with their customers (Czepiel 1990a). In this respect, managing salesperson-customer relationships is vital for retailing and service firms, in that the salesperson is often the company in the customer's eyes, and can significantly add value to the product with the provision of psychological and social utilities (Gummesson 1987; Czepiel 1990a). Thus, how the customer-salesperson relationship should be managed is of utmost importance. In order to do this, managers need more information regarding the customer's view of the customer-salesperson relationship. Thus, our focus in this paper is on the nature and types of customer-salesperson relationships and the reasons for relationships, from a customer perspective.

This issue--how companies can more effectively encourage the development and maintenance of long-term relationships with retail customers-has received some attention (cf. Berry and Gresham 1986). Relationship building processes in the services marketing, channels, and industrial marketing areas have been discussed (cf. Congram 1987; Dwyer, Schurr, and Oh 1987; Gummesson 1987; Hakansson 1982). Although there is a considerable amount of overlap in terms of critical variables, and the issue is controversial, (see, for example, Fern and Brown (1984)), we feel that there are important differences between industrial and channel settings/relationships and consumer settings/ relationships. Heavily studied relationship marketing contexts (industrial markets and channels) share several commonalties, such as the complexity of exchanged assets, a limited number of partners, high switching costs, and contractual arrangements (Hakansson 1982). These structural characteristics do not necessarily apply to retail contexts and other consumer marketing areas.

While the importance of building long-term relationships and relationship strategies and processes have received some attention in consumer marketing contexts, other aspects of long-term buyer-seller relationships have been ignored. The long-term relationship between salespeople and customers in a retail setting as viewed from the customer's perspective is one such area. Several authors have discussed the nature and types of customer expectations in service relationships and how the organization should respond to these expectations (cf. Parasuraman, Zeithaml, and Berry 1991; Webster 1991; Zeithaml, Berry, and Parasuraman 1993). In addition, it has been suggested that customers want relationships with retail sales personnel (Beatty et al. 1993; Parasuraman et al. 1991). For example, Berry and Parasuraman (1991) found that customers want ongoing, close relationships with the salespeople with whom they deal.

Further, the increasing time-related demands felt by the customer of the 1990s and the growing adversity to shopping will likely make relationships with salespeople very popular due to time saving and other benefits they can provide (Solomon 1987; Meyer 1990). Yet, no one has examined customers' reasons for engaging in relationships with sales personnel, the nature of these relationships, or their consequences (Ellis, Lee, and Beatty 1993).

Evidence of distinct types of relationships between customers and retail salespeople exists. Beatty et al. (1993) examined long-term relationships between customers and salespeople in a high-service department store setting using naturalistic inquiry. These researchers discovered that some relationships were mainly functional or economic in nature-the customer valued convenience, time savings, the salesperson's product knowledge, etc.

Other customers, while recognizing the functional benefits of the relationships, valued the social aspects of the relationships more highly. That is, these customers benefitted immensely from the friendship, conversation, company, and other social interactions with the salesperson. A third group of customers revealed that they benefitted from both the functional and the social aspects of their relationships. A series of additional depth interviews with "relationship" customers of the same department store verified these functional, social, and combination functional -social types of relationships. Others have suggested similar relationship types (Turnbull and Wilson 1989; Czepiel 1990a; 1990b; Mummalaneni and Wilson 1991).

Further, there is a vast array of literature in the shopping/ patronage motivations area, in which researchers have sought to identify customers' motivations for shopping and to categorize customers in terms of their shopping orientations. Although comparability of studies in this area is difficult, both economically and socially motivated shopper types have consistently appeared (cf. Stone 1954; Darden and Reynolds 1971; Moschis 1976; Bellenger and Korgaonkar 1980; Westbrook and Black 1985). Although the area of shopping motivations provides an excellent starting point to begin analyzing customers' needs and reasons for relationships, this literature base does not address these ideas from a relationship perspective. Further, shopping motives are not equivalent to relationship motives. However, research in the shopping/patronage motivations area has addressed other issues, including personal characteristics of shoppers, such as demographics, lifestyles, and psychographics, as correlates of different patterns of store patronage (Sheth 1983). Obviously, an important question is, "What personal characteristics or needs cause customers to seek/maintain long-term relationships with salespeople or service providers?" Further, how do these characteristics/needs affect the nature of the relationship established? And, can these relationships be defined by their functional and social dimensions, as suggested by Beatty et al. (1993)?

We are also interested in the extent to which relationships occur across retail/service settings, as well as the potential outcomes of these relationships. Thus, the first objective of this paper is to provide an initial conceptual model of the relationship seeking/ maintaining process. Then, a relationship classification schema, which categorizes customers in terms of the types of salesperson relationships they are most likely to have, is offered. In addition, a series of propositions related to the model and schema are provided. Because the various constructs included in the model and schema emerged from exploratory work conducted in a fashion department store, our interests here are focused primarily on fashion issues, i.e., clothing and accessories. Some driving needs identified may be context specific, but most are likely to be generalizable across broader contexts.

A customer-salesperson relationship exists when there is an ongoing series of interactions between a customer and a salesperson. The parties know each other, trust each other, and the interactions have occurred in the past, are presently occurring, and are expected to occur over an extended period of time in the future, barring unavoidable circumstances. A relationship may vary on such factors as the degree of closeness, the length and frequency of contact, and the amount of commitment, depending on the preferences and situations of the individuals involved.

We are interested in this relationship seeking/maintaining customer segment and use the terms "seeking/maintaining" or "engaging in" relationships to describe what is happening. "Maintaining" is used because many customers currently have relationships with retail salespeople. "Seeking" also applies because customers may also look for relationships in other settings, but may or may not be able to find them. "Engaging in" encompasses both seeking and maintaining.

The following section describes the overall conceptual model the relationship seeking/maintaining process. Next, a relationship classification schema, which depicts relationship types (social, functional, and combination social-functional) in terms of their connection to the personal need variables, is described. Research propositions are also presented within the discussion.


Conceptual Model: The Relationship Seeking(Maintaining Process

The relationship seeking/maintaining process is presented in Figure 1.1. Someone who seeks/maintains relationships with salespeople is likely to be a heavy apparel purchaser (HAP) or there will be little value in maintaining a relationship from either the salesperson's or the customer's perspective. HAPs are likely to spend money on clothing/accessories in three ways: (1) traditional shopping in retail outlets (such as department stores or specialty stores) or outlet stores/malls; (2) shopping through "direct" retail outlets, such as mail order catalogs or television home shopping; and/or (3) buying products through their relationships with salespeople. The customer of interest in this paper is of the third type. This individual acquires a significant portion of his/her clothing/ accessories through relationship(s) with retail sales associates.

Next, several personal needs, categorized as functional and/or social, encourage a HAP to engage in relationships with salespeople or service providers. The different personal needs translate into different perceived benefits and lead to the varying types of relationships. The actual relationship and/or relationship benefits may lead to relationship seeking/maintaining in other settings. Personal needs may also lead to seeking/maintaining other relationships.

Results of having an ongoing relationship with a salesperson are likely to be satisfaction with the relationship, which leads to greater sales person/store loyalty, and behavioral outcomes, such as positive word of mouth and higher levels of purchasing (Berry and Parasuraman 1991). Finally, satisfaction with the current relationship may also lead to customers seeking relationships in other settings.

Relationships and Personal Needs

A relationship classification schema is presented in Figure 1.2. Heavy apparel purchasing is not part of the model in terms of the four cells. Instead, a customer must initially be a heavy apparel purchaser (HAP) to be a potential "relationship customer."

To fully understand why some HAPs choose to engage in relationships to obtain much of their apparel and accessories, we need to examine their personal needs. It is likely that HAPs with different needs will seek different benefits from relationships with salespeople or service providers. We believe four personal needs drive HAPs to value and engage in relationships, and determine the benefits valued and the corresponding nature of the relationship. These variables are now described.

Perception of Time/Role Overload. Many factors have contributed to the rise in the perception of time scarcity among consumers. For example, the increased number of working wives and single parent households has been cited as a possible cause contributing to the perception of time scarcity. Whatever the cause, perceived time shortage is believed to result in perceived role overload (RO), which "occurs when the total prescribed activities of one or more roles are greater than individuals can handle adequately or comfortably" (Voydanoff and Kelly 1984, p. 881). Reilly (1982) describes RO as "conflict that occurs when the sheer volume of behavior demanded ... exceeds available time and energy" (p. 408).

Shopping Enjoyment. Solomon (1987) studied surrogate consumers, or wardrobe consultants, in the apparel area. These individuals serve in roles that are similar to some of the roles fulfilled by sales associates engaging in customer relationships. Solomon (1987) verified that some consumers use a wardrobe consultant primarily because they do not like to shop. Likewise, Forsythe et al. (1990) found that nonusers of professional shoppers enjoy shopping more than users. Thus, the surrogate provides customers the functional benefits of engaging or aiding in the search and selection process, which are greatly valued by individuals who do not enjoy shopping.

Shopping Confidence. Solomon (1986,1987) also discusses the symbolic benefits that are part of the professional shopper's product offering. Symbolically, a surrogate can offer "such subjective benefits as stylistic guidance, reassurance, or status" (Solomon 1987,p.113). These consumers may feel that they lack the expertise to shop wisely for clothing. Therefore, lacking confidence in their shopping capabilities, they consequently turn to a salesperson for guidance and support.

Sociability. It is useful to examine whether variables that affect a person's interpersonal relationships in general also affect a person's relationships with salespeople. One personal need that may affect the nature of a customer-salesperson relationship is sociability. According to Buss and Plomin (1975), the highly sociable person, by definition, seeks relationships. This "temperament ... has a directional component: seeking other persons, preferring their presence, and responding to them" (p. 88). Highly sociable people tend to appreciate friendships and opportunities to engage in relationships.

Description of Cell Members. These needs may be used to classify HAPs in terms of the types of relationships they tend to have: social, functional, and a combination of social and functional. Role overload (RO), lack of shopping enjoyment, and lack of shopping confidence may be translated into functional needs. That is, an individual who is high on one or more of these functional variables is said to have high functional needs for a relationship. Social needs pertain to an individual's level of sociability. Someone who is high on sociability has high social needs. Each cell of the schema is now described as it relates to the personal needs.






Cell I describes HAPs who are low on both social and functional needs. They enjoy shopping, are confident in their own shopping, do not feel that they are significantly pressed for time (that is, do not perceive high RO), and are not highly sociable. This group of customers tends to not engage in relationships because there is no strong need for such relationships.

Cell 2 consists of HAPs who don't like to shop, do not have confidence in their ability to shop, and/or perceive a high amount of RO, but are not highly sociable. Having high functional needs and low social needs, these customers tend to value and seek relationships which are functionally based. Thus, these customers value such services as merchandise selection and coordination, and having merchandise ready for pick up.

Cell 3 is split because social needs alone are not a sufficient antecedent to seeking relationships. The upper half of Cell 3 contains the HAP with high social needs and low functional needs. This person is highly sociable and enjoys shopping, is confident is his/her own shopping, and does not perceive high RO. Although this individual may benefit functionally from the services provided, it is mainly the social aspects of the relationships that s/he values when s/he chooses to engage in a relationship. There are also HAPs in this cell who do not engage in relationships because they have low functional needs (i.e., they like to shop, are confident in their shopping, and do not perceive high RO). These individuals tend to value shopping for themselves more than the social benefits provided by a relationship.

HAPs who are highly sociable and also do not enjoy shopping, are not confident in their shopping abilities, and/or perceive RO fall into Cell 4. These individuals need the functional services provided by salespeople, but also need and desire the social aspects of their relationships.

The following research propositions relate to the schema previously discussed.

H1: HAPs who score low on both functional and social needs:

a) are least likely of all groups to have relationships:

b) do not tend to value relationship benefits; and

c) do not tend to seek additional relationships.

H2: HAPs who score high on functional needs and low on social needs:

a) are most likely of all groups to have functional relationships;

b) value functional benefits more than social bene its;

c) tend to have functional relationships more so than social relationships; and

d) seek additional functional relationships more so than social relationships.

H3: Relationship customers who score high on social needs and low on functional needs:

a) are most likely of all groups to have social relationships;

b) value social benefits more than functional benefits;

c) have social relationships more so than functional relationships; and

d) seek additional social relationships more so than functional relationships.

H4: IMPs who score high on both functional and social needs:

a) are most likely of all groups to have combination functional and social relationships;

b) value both functional and social benefits;

c) have combination functional and social relationships; and

d) seek additional combination relationships.

Relationship Consequences

According to several authors, both the economic and social needs of the exchange partners may be met in buyer-seller relationships (Dwyer et al. 1987; Tumbull and Wilson 1989; Czepiel 1990a; 1990b; Mummalaneni and Wilson 1991). These types of customer-salesperson relationships tend to be very close, with high levels of trust existing between the parties (Beatty et al. 1993). This closeness and trust allow customers' needs, both functional and social, to be met exceedingly well. Thus, satisfaction and loyalty are likely to result (Dwyer, et al. 1987; Berry et al. 1991; Parasuraman et al. 1991). Finally, additional outcomes may follow from satisfaction and loyalty, namely positive word-of-mouth and purchases (Berry et al. 1991). In addition, because of the satisfaction that is likely to result when relationship customers' needs are met, these individuals are likely to seek/maintain relationships with salespeople/ service providers in other settings (Beatty et al. 1993). The above discussion leads to the following research propositions.

H5: HAPs who engage in relationships:

a) are more satisfied with the company than are those who do not engage in relationships.

b) are more loyal to the company than those who do not engage in relationships.

c) have higher purchase levels with the company than those who do not engage in relationships.

d) are more likely to exhibit word of mouth about the company than are those who do not engage in relationships.

H6: Relationship benefits lead to:

a) satisfaction with the relationship/salesperson;

b) satisfaction with the company; and

c) similar relationship seeking/maintaining in other settings.

H7: Relationship/salesperson satisfaction leads to:

a) satisfaction with the company;

b) salesperson loyalty;

c) company loyalty;

d) higher levels of purchasing with the salesperson;

e) higher levels of purchasing with the company;

f) positive word of mouth about the salesperson;

g) positive word of mouth about the company;

h) similar relationship seeking/maintaining in other settings.


In conclusion, relationship marketing has been studied in several areas of marketing. However, research involving the customer-salesperson relationship in retail settings, particularly from a customer perspective, is severely lacking. Studying these types of relationships has several practical and theoretical implications.

First, from a managerial viewpoint, knowing why some customers have relationships and what benefits they value is important. This would allow managers to specifically target the different types of relationship customers. In this era of intense competition between retailers, creating a competitive advantage is essential to survival of retailing firms. Berry and his colleagues talk about creating customer delight and exceeding customer expectations. One way to accomplish this, we believe, is by developing and maintaining customer-salesperson relationships. Since loyalty and satisfaction are likely results of these relationships, retailers should find the practice of relationship development and maintenance an attractive alternative to competing in the marketplace. Studying this issue would enhance our ability to do this.

Finally, theory in this area of marketing is almost non-existent. Hopefully this paper will serve as a beginning in the theory building process and in the study of customer-salesperson relationships in other retail/service settings.


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Kristy L. Ellis, University of Alabama
Sharon E. Beatty, University of Alabama


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 22 | 1995

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