6 December 2005

University of Queensland PhD graduand Alastair Tombs has spent a fortune on coffee and muffins researching the effects of the social environment on customers.

Dr Tombs, of the UQ Business School, said he was interested in situations such as restaurants and cafés where more people can be a good thing rather than a negative.

“Most of the research suggests that fewer people in a given context such as a supermarket makes for a better experience for customers,” he said.

“In some places like restaurants, cafes, and pubs that’s clearly not the case, and I was interested in exploring the social dynamic in those kinds of settings.”

Dr Tombs, who will attend the December 16 graduation ceremony at UQ St Lucia at 6pm, said the first stage of his research involved observation of customers in cafes and restaurants.

“Sitting around in cafés really was an important stage of my research,” he said.

“After that I ran focus groups to validate my observations and then I produced short videos showing different types of customer behaviour.

“I asked participants how they would feel walking into the scene on the video.”

Dr Tombs said by testing a participant’s emotional state before and after watching the video he was able to measure how customer emotions could be "caught" by other customers.

“This is called emotional contagion and has been observed before between workers, and between customers and service providers.

“To my knowledge, this is the first study to examine emotional contagion customer to customer.”

Dr Tombs said one of the most interesting findings was that customers sometimes experienced the opposite emotion.

“If you want a quiet coffee or to do an interview or something, a big group of people having a great time at another table can be really annoying,” he said.

Dr Tombs said he went back to university after working in engineering landscape design and then running his own wholesale and retail business in New Zealand. He was awarded a scholarship to do a PhD at The University of Queensland Business School.

For more information contact Cathy Stacey telephone (07) 3365 6179; mobile 0423 606 331.