Good looks and charm valued over qualifications and experience in fashion retail

19 April 2012

In fashion retail, a pretty face and charm is more important than skills and experience, our researchers have found.
In fashion retail, a pretty face and charm is more important than skills and experience, our researchers have found.

In another win for beautiful people, a University of Sydney study has revealed that fashion retail managers consider good looks and charm to be significantly more important for their staff than qualifications or experience.

Professor Richard Hall and Dr Diane van den Broek of the University of Sydney Business School surveyed 197 fashion retailers in Sydney's CBD, as well as Bondi Junction and Oxford Street in Paddington for the study, published in the journal Economic and Industrial Democracy.

Managers reported looks and personality to be the two most important attributes they took into account when hiring new staff, with 97 percent of managers citing the right personality and 85 percent the right appearance as important or very important when selecting customer service staff. In contrast, just 44 percent recognised the right qualifications, while 78 percent saw previous experience as important or very important.

"While we might suspect that looks and presentation matter, what surprised us was the extent to which those qualities were seen to be more important than qualifications or experience," says Professor Hall.

High-end boutique fashion retailers had the highest preference for looks, with 90 percent of managers in this category reporting that the right appearance was either important or very important in their selection of staff.

"We were also surprised by the level of policy detail in fashion retail related to physical appearance, for example for clothing, personal grooming and make-up, and the rules and requirements around these. Employers in this sector are focussing on training, developing and assessing these attributes and skills in their customer-facing staff," Professor Hall says.

"In policy terms, our research raises the potential of discrimination on the basis of looks in retail, which is one of the largest parts of the labour market in terms of employment - more than one in 10 Australian workers are employed in retail trade. And it is a key point of entry into work for many young Australians.

"In every state except Victoria, appearance is not accepted as grounds for unlawful discrimination. We have unlawful discrimination on the basis of age, gender, race, ethnicity and sexual preference, but not physical appearance. Victoria is one of the few jurisdictions in the world that outlaws discrimination on the basis of physical features," explains Professor Hall.

The research also found that beyond getting a job, there are few benefits for workers with the right looks and personality in the sector.

"We couldn't find any evidence of employers demanding these attributes paying more for their customer service staff - there doesn't appear to be any wage premium associated with having the right look.

"Instead, managers claim that their employees benefit from association with their brand and store image and access to other benefits such as store discounts."

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