Perceiving infection risk in shops: a worried clientele



Are you afraid of getting infected when you enter a shop? The process triggered by this fear is often unconscious. Several factors can trigger infection concerns among customers, change their behaviour and influence their experience. Understanding this is crucial for shop managers. Simon Hazée has studied the phenomenon, which has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. His results have interesting management implications.

Avoiding disease is a matter of survival for human beings. Hence we developed a kind of behavioural immune system that pushes us to change our behaviour when we fear being infected. Once triggered, this fear lingers, influences our reactions, leads us to seek a clean and familiar environment or even to avoid certain products and services. This is a source of concern for shop managers, as the customer experience is critical to the overall business performance. ‘Our study aims to understand and identify the signals in the consumer environment that trigger infection fears,’ explains Prof. Hazée, a researcher at the Louvain Research Institute in Management and Organizations (LouRIM). ‘We’ve also studied how this fear influences their perceptions and behaviour and whether individual characteristics can explain a person’s perception of infection risk.’ The psychological mechanisms highlighted in the study conducted with Prof. Yves Van Vaerenbergh of KULeuven and published in the Journal of Service Management, provide managers with information on measures to be taken to prevent customer anxiety.

Trigger signals

By synthesising the scientific literature in marketing and psychology on the subject of infection, Prof. Hazée identified four main sets of signals likely to trigger fear in customers. The first set is social. ‘Persons may, for example, fear or even be repulsed by another individual who has touched a product before them,’ he explains. ‘The nature of the person who has held the goods in their hands can also amplify customer concerns, as can the number of people who may have handled the goods beforehand.’ Second are environmental signals. ‘Shop display organisation will influence individual perception. If a shelf is untidy and dirty, it can trigger customers’ fear of infection.’ The current health crisis makes it even more important to keep the shop environment clean. A third, and subtler, set of signals are those related to brand equity in marketing as well as to brand name and what it represents; a product’s social value can be a source of clichés for some people. The final set are signals relating to the merchandise as such and its characteristics. ‘The closer an item is to the customer, the more likely it provokes fear of contact with pathogens. For example, many shoppers will choose a T-shirt deep in a stack or a vegetable in the bottom of the bin to avoid the risk of infection. In terms of packaging, a simple defect can also cause fears, as it’s a sign that someone else has probably touched it.’

While customers fear infection, they can also feel disgust. This leads to avoiding certain types of brands or shops and opting for online ordering. ‘Individual social tolerance can be reduced. Others are seen as potential threats to our person.’ Are some people be more inclined to feel this kind of anxiety? Is it a question of individual characteristics? ‘Personality traits may explain why some people are more sensitive than others to the risk of infection. The neurotic individual, for example, is more worried, anxious or even depressed, and therefore more prone to such concerns.’ Women are also more affected. ‘Evolutionary psychology holds that women have developed mechanisms to protect their children from illness.’ The cultural dimension also plays a role in the process. In countries where the risk of disease is high, people are more collectivist. These cultures focus on the group rather than the individual. They help to reduce the spread of possible pathogens by adopting responsible actions for collective well-being.

Preventing anxiety

How can we deal with these concerns? What recommendations can be made to managers? What actions can be pursued? Scant research has been done on the subject, Prof. Hazée notes. The most recommended technique is obviously to clean and disinfect the commercial environment impeccably in order to remove all traces of contamination. It’s also important to work on the other triggers. For example, increasing or creating a sense of belonging to a community. ‘In an atmosphere marked by familiarity, others are perceived less as a danger to yourself and your health.’

The pandemic context clearly demands health protection measures for preventing the spread of the virus in shops: hand sanitiser, mask-wearing, social distancing signage, etc. Are all of these provisions effective? Don’t they trigger customers’ concerns? For how long will customers feel this anxiety about being infected? How can they be reassured and informed? Managers and CEOs are faced with many uncertainties and unanswered questions. Prof. Hazée says, ‘We still have a lot to learn in terms of actions to take in order to prepare them for a possible recurrence of the Covid-19 pandemic or any other pandemic.’

Anne Mauclet

Published on November 29, 2020