Fashion professor finds past research takes on new life
Sharron Lennon
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9:34 a.m., April 17, 2009----University of Delaware professor Sharron Lennon is one of the world's foremost experts on human behavior and dress. She has studied consumer behavior and the relationship between appearance and social perception for nearly 30 years.

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Her dissertation research at Purdue University focused on how physical appearance cues affect people's impressions about each other.

Recently, however, she has found that colleagues interested in consumer behavior are beginning to study consumer behavior by looking at avatars -- animated characters that people create to represent themselves in computer-generated virtual worlds such as Second Life.

Lennon, the Irma Ayers Professor in the Department of Fashion and Apparel Studies, was recently called upon to give an overview of such trends in fashion and behavior research over the past 25 years at the annual meeting of the International Textile and Apparel Association (ITAA), where she was honored with the organization's 2008 Distinguished Scholar Award.

Her talk, titled “Back to the Future: What Goes Around Comes Around,” highlighted research topics popular in the 1970s and '80s that have reappeared in recent literature but with a technological twist. Instead of examining consumers' in-store or catalog shopping habits, for example, market researchers have begun examining the shopping habits of the Second Life avatars.

“Instead of studying research participants' impressions of drawings of people, researchers are now studying impressions of avatars,” Lennon says. “In the past, researchers found that attractive people are liked better than less attractive people. Researchers today find that attractive avatars are better liked than less attractive ones. In the past, we found that people who wear glasses were judged to be more competent and credible than people who don't. Today, researchers have found that avatars who wear glasses are judged to be more credible than avatars who do not.”

According to Lennon, scholars are not only reviving impression formation research, they are extending it to study the effects of the appearance characteristics of avatars on consumer behavior since avatars are now being used as “recommendation agents” on commercial Web sites.

“Such research asks questions such as whether an avatar is capable of igniting imitation in real life -- even a popular fad,” she said.

Research into the influence of social networking sites such as Facebook also has historical parallels.

“Past research showed that inferences made about a taxi driver's appearance extended to inferences about the city in which he drove,” Lennon explained. “In a similar way, researchers have now found that the appearance of friends posted on a Facebook page evoke extended inferences about the creator of the page.”

In a more serious vein, current research in the field focuses on dark topics such as egregious consumer behavior on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving, which many retailers depend upon to put them “in the black”) and unsustainable fashion consumption.

Since arriving at the University of Delaware three years ago, Lennon has taken on the topic of Black Friday shopping behavior herself. She is developing a model to explain aggressive consumer behavior on that day, which sometimes results in injury or even death to shoppers or workers as consumers rush to take advantage of sales on limited quantities of in-demand merchandise.

“I've learned that Delaware is actually a destination for Black Friday shoppers from a relatively large region, probably due to our lack of sales tax,” Lennon said. “The eventual goal of our research on this topic is to enable retailers to devise strategies to defuse overly aggressive consumer behavior.”

The ITAA Distinguished Scholar is chosen to acknowledge ITAA members who have contributed outstanding scholarship in a specific area and increased the knowledge base of graduate students and faculty on special topics. Lennon has published more than 100 peer reviewed journal articles related to human behavior and dress. She has mentored 27 graduate students as a thesis/dissertation advisor and worked with numerous faculty colleagues across the country.

Lennon has been actively involved with ITAA over the course of her career and has served as president, vice president for research and education, and vice president of scholarship. She is also an ITAA Fellow, the highest honor bestowed on members of the organization. Currently she serves as editor of the organization's professional journal, the Clothing and Textiles Research Journal.

Article by Beth Chajes