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A person acting as a server, without and wearing an obesity, is part of a Sauder School of Business study on how social influence affects consumption. (University of British Columbia)
A person acting as a server, without and wearing an obesity, is part of a Sauder School of Business study on how social influence affects consumption. (University of British Columbia)

Report on Business Education, Spring 2011

Business Research: Beware the hand that feeds you Add to ...

Looking to stick to your healthy eating plan while dining out? You may want to be picky about not just the restaurant, but also the hired help. This finding and others form some of the latest research by Canada's business schools.

Here are just a few of those studies:

THE HAND THAT FEEDS YOU

Sauder School of Business, University of British Columbia

Food can evoke a range of feelings, and now there's evidence that a prime source of emotional eating can be the person who serves your meals.

Many studies have shown the amount of food a person eats can be influenced by what others are ingesting, notes an investigation led by Darren Dahl, a professor in applied marketing research.

But in their latest research, Dr. Dahl and his colleagues assessed the relationship between the body type of a waitress and the food choices people make.

As part of the research involving dozens of female consumers, a female server who was naturally 105 pounds was outfitted with an obesity prosthesis that made her appear about 180 pounds.

While non-dieters ate more snacks when the server was "thin," dieters ate more when the server was wearing the prosthesis. Dieters were also more persuaded by a heavy, compared with a thin, server, choosing both a healthy and unhealthy snack more often when she recommended it to them.

"This research examines how a subtle social influence cue can have a significant impact on our consumption choices," Dr. Dahl says from his Vancouver office.

The study notes that being aware of how these "situational influences" might affect food choices is important for correcting them and making healthier lifestyle decisions.

OIL SPILL'S 'NEGATIVE CULTURAL ANOMALY'

Alberta School of Business, University of Alberta, Edmonton

It's considered the biggest accidental oil spill disaster in history - the BP-leased rig Deepwater Horizon exploded off the coast of Louisiana in April, 2010, killing 11 platform workers while releasing thousands of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

But researchers now say there's little evidence the tragedy will lead to "deeper" changes to prevent future disasters.

"The BP oil spill is, potentially, a 'cultural anomaly' for institutional changes in environmental management and fossil fuel production," says the study, conducted by P. Devereaux Jennings of the Alberta university and Andrew Hoffman of the University of Michigan." But true change in our approach to handling issues related to oil drilling, oil consumption and environmental management have yet to occur."

The research notes that when an event or issue poses a potential challenge to a "dominant technological or economic institutional order, conflict ensues over the nature, meaning and response to the event." A challenge significant enough to generate substantial conflict can become a "cultural anomaly," it adds.

The BP spill occurred during a period of heightened attention to environmental issues, and when politicians and the public expect companies to be good "corporate citizens," the study adds.

While the spill led to many initiatives, including how to organize regional environmental relief and how to charge multinationals for pollution and distribute remuneration, "large-scale changes do not seem to have taken place," the study says.

OBSERVING THE 'UNOBSERVABLE QUALITY'

Desautels Faculty of Management, McGill University in Montreal

Many people associate high product prices with quality, but assistant professor of marketing Chun (Martin) Qiu warns consumers should also consider "unobservable quality," and not just go by online reviews.

Dr. Qiu notes growing evidence that opinions on the Internet have become increasingly important in consumers' decision-making, especially for electronics.

But he warns that online reviews, including through word of mouth, may be biased or misleading, if they fail to represent the population or aren't based on a large enough sample size.

In determining whether consumers should invest in "experiential" products, Dr. Qiu cites the importance of their unobservable quality.

For instance, in the case of digital cameras, unobservable quality could include their reliability, durability, ease-of-use, picture quality and performance stability. Those should be measured along with their "observable" quality features, which can include size, speed, megapixels and zooms.

The study also notes that a name-brand item isn't necessarily the best.

"The takeaway is that a high price of a product under a strong brand name does not necessarily indicate a high quality," he says. "Such a high price could merely reflect the value of the name tag. On the other hand, a high-priced product under a weak brand name actually reflects the high (unobservable) quality of the product."

THE DYNAMICS OF OUTSOURCING

Richard Ivey School of Business, University of Western Ontario, London

Prof. Ning Su has uncovered some intriguing and fast-evolving dynamics in outsourcing between developed countries and companies in emerging markets like China and India.

Outsourcing companies are maturing and have become powerhouses in their own right, with western multinationals looking to them as sources of innovation and knowledge, Dr. Su has found.

His studies have focused on how developed companies can better work with companies from emerging markets - a process he describes as "co-creating value."

"Outsourcing today is much more than setting up a help desk in a low-cost country," Dr. Su says. "It includes the outsourcing of knowledge-intensive services, such as product development, research and design."

Dr. Su's interviews with 100 managers from western and Japanese Fortune 500 companies, as well as technology companies from emerging markets, found that sourcing companies need to combine formal structures with "organizational" flexibility to create the balance needed for companies to deal with their new role in the market.

"It's necessary to have a very top-down, structured process," Dr. Su said of the processes for managing global supplier relationships. "An example is setting up a formal program management office to rationalize the company's overall strategy."

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