Bianca Price, 27, a PhD researcher with the University of South Australia has found that female customers were less likely to purchase a product if they believed that a female staff member was more attractive than them.
Inspired by her own negative experiences in the retail environment, Price undertook a study examining the purchase intentions of women aged 18 to 26 when confronted with an attractive or unattractive retail staff member.
Regardless of whether or not the product was related to appearance (for example, a mobile phone compared to mascara) if the female customer perceived the staff member to be better looking than her, she was less likely to purchase the product.
According to Price, these results are reflective of social comparison theory, which suggests that people compare themselves with others to get feedback about their appearance. She says upward social comparison, where individuals compare themselves with people who they believe are socially superior, can create anxiety, lower confidence and create feelings of inadequacy.
"In certain contexts, upward social comparison may result in higher levels of avoidant behaviours. When translated into the retail environment, avoidance means reduced purchases and ultimately, reduced profits," says Price.
Price believes that the increased focus on appearance and body image in young women helps to explain the results.
"Women, especially younger women, consider their appearance to be their CV," she says.
"It's what can determine the number of friends they have, their luck in finding a relationship and their success in their career," she says. "Women are biologically competitive - if they consider that a female is a direct social threat, it may affect their behaviour in that context.
"Retailers often think that beautiful is better. In the same way they use a celebrity to endorse a product; they hire a beautiful girl thinking that it reflects the brand and that other women will want to be like her. It doesn't always work like that - women may not consider celebrities a direct social threat, but they might consider the girl at their local shopping centre to be one."
Price says that hiring only young, beautiful girls may limit your customer base and alienate your target audience, particularly when the majority of stores are targeted towards young women.
"This part of my research is showing quite clearly that for a strong section of the customer market - young women - beautiful is not always better and may not translate into higher sales - indeed quite the opposite may occur."
The lesson for retailers, Price says, is to diversify your staff as much as possible and consider the effect that your staff's appearance may have on your consumers.
"Retailers need to understand that beauty can affect their bottom line. The solution lies in hiring women of all shapes and sizes, someone for each of your potential customers to relate to," she says.
Looking forward, Price is examining how 'types' of beauty may influence customers attitudes and purchase intentions, focussing on the role of the sexualised appearance of female staff, as well as looking at whether the same effects exist with male consumers in a retail environment.