Andrea Morales has carved out a peculiar niche in academia: the study of disgust.
Morales, an assistant professor of marketing at Arizona State University, analyzes the disgust shoppers feel when they believe items in a retail setting have been "contaminated"—that is, fouled by contact with other items or other shoppers. And she has come to this conclusion: We are all pretty much repulsed by one another.
"Even though consumers like to touch products while shopping," Morales says, "they don't want to buy things other shoppers have come in contact with." Recently, she and two colleagues—Jennifer Argo of the University of Alberta and Darren Dahl of the University of British Columbia—asked unwitting shoppers at a University of Alberta campus bookstore to try on a specific T-shirt. When participants asked a sales associate about the shirt, though, they were told only one remained in stock.
That's where the disgust factor came in. While some shoppers were told they could find the shirt on a regular rack, others were directed to the return rack—a sure sign the clothing had been contaminated—or worse, told that the shirt was being tried on, at that moment, by another customer. Eeeww.
It didn't seem to matter that a shirt was clean, without blemish, and, in fact, brand new. If shoppers believed it had been touched, they were less likely to pay full price. Participants were willing to pay $20 for a shirt from a regular sales rack—but just $16.18 when they thought it had been touched by someone else, and $11.72 for one supposedly touched by several others.
Morales says there are ways to limit the damage. She recommends stores put fresh price tags on returned items, keep clothes neatly folded in shelves rather than clumped together in messy bins, and make sure dressing rooms are clear of tried-on apparel. "Do what you can," Morales suggests, "to downplay the contamination cues."
A version of this article appeared in the September 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.