Shapes in businesses affect customer response

Some of the study participants were shown one of the two doctor’s offices above. The office on the left featured angular shapes and the office on the right had circular shapes. This was the busy office. Others saw an office that wasn’t busy. Credit: Ohio State University

COLUMBUS, Ohio – When you’re waiting in a busy restaurant or doctor’s office, it may matter whether the tables, light fixtures and other objects are round or square.

In a laboratory study, researchers found the shape of physical objects in a service business affected customer satisfaction, depending on how crowded the business was in the experimental scenarios.

Angular shapes suggested competence to customers, which increased their level of satisfaction when the business was busy. In contrast, circles suggested friendliness and warmth to customers, which increased their satisfaction when the business was not crowded.

“Just manipulating this subtle environmental cue had an influence on customer satisfaction in our study,” said Stephanie Liu, lead author of the research and assistant professor of consumer sciences at The Ohio State University.

Stephanie Liu

The findings may seem odd, but the effect of shapes on people has long been studied in fields such as psychology, marketing and architecture, said Vanja Bogicevic, co-author of the study and a doctoral student in consumer sciences at Ohio State.

“For example, circles and angles are used in very deliberate ways in urban design to convey meaning,” said Bogicevic, who is a former architect.


Vanja Bogicevic

Circles are a signal of warmth due to their resemblance to the sun, and suggest harmony and friendliness. Hard angles are generally found in human-made objects – think street grids in cities – and so have an association with competence, toughness and strength.

This is the first time researchers have explored the impact of circular and angular shapes on consumer response in the service industry, according to Liu.

The study appears online in the Journal of Business Research and will be published in the August 2018 print edition. Liu and Bogicevic conducted the study with Anna Mattila, a professor at Pennsylvania State University.

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