Why we flee those crowded aisles

Dec. 19, 2011 at 7:43 AM ET

Hillery Smith Shay / AP /
Getting accidentally bumped by other shoppers can trigger an urge to get the heck out of a store.

Retailers might want to rethink the seasonal strategy of cramming stores so full that customers can barely squeeze down the aisles.

Researchers have discovered that consumers hate rubbing elbows with other shoppers so much that they’ll cut short shopping missions –- or sometimes just stomp out of the store -– when they’re accidentally bumped.

And, as it turns out, it’s not just women who don’t like to be bumped by strangers while browsing, according to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research. Men don’t like any stranger -– male or female -– to brush up against them.

“Men do not like being bumped into by women they don’t know,” says Brett A.S. Martin, a professor of marketing at the School of Advertising, Marketing and Public Relations at the Queensland University of Technology Business School in Brisbane, Australia. “But if it is a man they don’t know, they’ll leave the store fast.”

Figuring that nobody likes to be crowded, Martin set up an experiment with the help of 144 volunteers to look at the impact of customers brushing up against one another.

Martin sent the 72 men and 72 women into the store and asked them to shop as they normally would. The volunteers were also asked to check out a particular purse that was being displayed in the middle of the store. 

Unbeknownst to the volunteers, Martin also sent in two confederates -- both relatively attractive people in their mid-30s -- to casually brush up against half of the volunteers as they were looking at the purse. Martin made sure his helpers understood they were to blend in with the shoppers in the store and to only lightly brush past the volunteers, touching just the shoulder area.

Martin kept track of how long each of his volunteers was in the store. He also had them fill out a questionnaire that asked what the volunteers thought of the store and how much they thought the purse should cost.

No matter whether volunteers were men or women, the ones who were bumped left the store much more quickly than those who’d shopped unhindered. Bumped people also were more likely to set a lower price for the purse and to give the store a bad rating in their evaluations.

Martin’s advice to store owners is simple: “Managers can be tempted to maximize floor space by narrowing aisles and offering as many products as possible. This research suggests that where customers interfere with each other -– even if accidentally -– it can result in lost sales.”