Are We Too Embarrassed to Order What We Want?

Is your restaurant ordering impacted by a fear of embarrassment? More and more people are admitting “yes.”

Four management professors — Avi Goldfarb, Ryan McDevitt, Sampsa Samila and Brian Silverman — have started a project that will measure the effects of social embarrassment in retailing. In a recent paper subtitled “An Embarrassment of Niches?” the men looked at different retail experiences and choices when we’re faced with ordering publicly from another human and when we’re able to order privately. Their findings? Our fear of embarrassment, even when there isn’t much of a chance for any, does often impede us from ordering what we really want.

The first case addressed in the paper is a late 1980s change in Swedish liquor retailing. Stores began moving away from the “ask a clerk to retrieve a bottle” model to a “self-service” model. Removing the middle man (actual human interaction) not only increased sales by 20 percent, it also led to a shift in sales of difficult-to-pronounce drinks. Seems ridiculous at first, but actually totally makes sense, right? I can think of at least a few times when I literally had to hold up my menu and, as discreetly as possible, literally point at something I wanted off a menu. At a liquor store, this would be harder to pull off.

Two decades after the liquor store observed these behaviors, an undisclosed pizza chain (like a Domino’s,  but with a regional focus) started offering detailed online ordering. While this definitely made things more convenient (both for the consumer and the employees) it also once again dramatically changed the kinds of things being ordered. While the original website was really basic (no search, ratings, recommendations or saved orders), the researchers were able to compare the orders of the 6.7 percent of their customers now using the website to what they previously asked for over the phone.

What they found is that customers “loaded on additional toppings, spending $0.61 more per order on goods that were 15 percent more complex (as measured by the number of instructions customers gave for each pizza in their order) compared to what they used to order offline.” These were regular costumers who knew the menu, often ordered the same thing and now, with the introduction of a new system, were suddenly going all willy-nilly with their orders. This makes it more clear that people were now able to avoid any embarrassment about complex or fattening orders by not having to actually talk to another (possibly judgmental) human being.

What does this all mean? That ordering online might actually be bad for us? Health-wise, it would seem the answer is yes. But if we’re focusing on the idea that we should eat what we want and not be embarrassed about it (within reason), then no. Online ordering is great for us. Both examples clearly suggest that “removing embarrassment (of any imaginable kind) leads to consumers increasing the variety of products they purchase. This shouldn’t be surprising, as social pressures typically push us toward the norm rather than exploring new things and exercising our more finicky tastes. But the recent paper drives home that making a store safe for finickyness without shame has real effects. For the pizza chain, avoidance of embarrassment led to 21.4 percent more profits per customer.”

If you’re the owner of a store, how do you take this information? Not all businesses can eliminate any human interaction. Is there a way to make those interactions easier on all parties? As points out, this “requires a deeper understanding of what precisely consumers are embarrassed about when making specialized requests. Did I place a simple order because I sensed impatience from the clerk behind the counter? Or did I want to project my simple, unfussy ways to the folks in line behind me — and not draw attention to my eccentricities?

For the first type of embarrassment, you could imagine prompts that would coax the customer into asking for trickier options (“No topping combination is too hard for us!”). But this would likely have little impact on the second type of customer. Another solution is to bring the anonymity of online ordering into the real world, by giving customers the choice of placing orders using a tablet before getting to a check-out counter or with their own smartphone, preloaded with specialized options; something Starbucks has understood in its rollout of an app that allows customers to peruse its complicated menu on their phones (and pay with their phones, too).”

What do you make of this news? Do you avoid getting what you really want in some face-to-face situations?



Tanya W.
Tanya W4 years ago


Nicole H.
Nicole L4 years ago


Panchali Yapa
Panchali Yapa4 years ago

Thank you

Shan D.
Shan D4 years ago

"Ever order a baked potato and have it not be vegetarian?" (Susan B.)

I can't say I've ever considered whether or not potatoes are vegetarian. I assumed they live on "water, air, and sunshine" like all other plants. I hope you realize that potato growers need healthy soil to grow potatoes, and therefore find it necessary to "enslave" the little animal critters (ie. earthworms) that keep soil healthy and productive, right?

I do have to admit that at food courts I often have trouble reading the menu - they're often either too high, poorly-lit, the lettering is too small... so I end up just ordering a cheeseburger and coke. And I always order my pizza online.

gail mulloy
gail mulloy4 years ago

Interesting article...Thanks

Carole R.
Carole R4 years ago

I order what I want. If someone else doesn't think it's right, I consider it their problem. Life is too short to try to please everyone else.

Elena T.
Elena Poensgen4 years ago

Thank you :)

Tracy G.
Tracy G4 years ago

You pay for it, you can order it however you like.

Roxana Saez
Roxana Saez4 years ago


Susan B.
Susan B4 years ago

We don't eat out often at all, but when we do I could care less what people think. It's even better when the people who wait on you have no idea if the foods have any meat or not in them. Ever order a baked potato and have it not be vegetarian? Happened to me because the restaurant used chicken broth to keep it moist and for the first time EVER a waiter told me. When we are paying for our food we want it as we want it. That is why we very seldom ever go out.