The Science of Shopping




There is a whole science to shopping. We don’t realize it, but we are herded like sheep (and yes, as shoppers, we ARE sheep) through shops in a way that maximizes our desire to spend.

From the smell of fresh bread encouraging us to buy, to the sweets and magazines at the checkout counter, all is carefully planned. Loss-leaders like cheap toilet paper (usually placed at the end of the aisles) entice us into the store but then once in, we buy other more pricey things as well as the toilet paper. More expensive items are placed at eye level on shelves while the cheaper stuff you have to crouch or stretch to reach. Expensive items are always in the centre of a display. Companies pay supermarkets for best placement for their products – in the middle of a gondola at eye height is the most expensive – some merchandisers say ‘the eyeline is the buyline’ . And BOGOF (buy one get one free), 2 for 1 and 3 for 2 offers just make you spend more than you were intending to.

Smaller floor tiles make you slow down, because the frequent clicking as your trolley wheels go over them makes you feel you are going too fast. Staple goods like milk are right at the back so you have to walk past all the non-essential temptations to get to them. And staple goods are often not close to each other – the bread is very seldom close to the milk, for example.  Other tricks are to have the ‘dwell zones’ (where we want to stay) deep in the store, and put things like flowers in the ‘dead zones’. Dead zones are just inside the door, where you are still acclimatizing to the shop and in no state to buy.

Music makes  a huge difference. Fast, loud music makes you eat more quickly so fast food chains tend to use it. Cosmetic departments usually have soft soothing music, encouraging you to browse. Shops like Topshop have club-type music and a party atmosphere  to get you into a good mood for some frenzied social shopping. IKEA not only makes you go through the entire shop to get out but they have a) cheap food b) play areas for kids and c) lots of free toilets inside the shop so that you don’t have to leave. They also have cheap hot dogs at the exits. Now there is an incentive to go through the entire shop! Has anyone EVER left IKEA empty handed?

The smell of fresh bread in a supermarket makes you want to spend, just as the smell of coffee in a house will make you want to buy it, and the smell of leather in an upmarket store will make you feel it must be selling quality products. And surprisingly, pristine shelves do NOT make you want to buy. A slightly rifled through rack and a ruffled pile of clothes suddenly makes them more attractive as you feel someone wanted what was on them really badly. An estate agent who says ‘I have so many people wanting this house’ or ‘you are third in line for this property’ has a way better chance of making a sale than one who tells you that the house has been on the market for years and there has been no interest at all in it.

When it comes to fast food restaurants, they get you in and out in the shortest possible time while encouraging you to eat as much as possible. They do this by playing loud music, which makes people eat faster and drink more in a shorter amount of time, by using uncomfortable chairs, and by decorating in warm colors like red, orange and yellow, which stimulates your desire to eat. And when it comes to food, the label ‘80% fat free’ is more likely to make you want to buy it than one saying ‘20% fat’.

Have you ever thought how you make a beeline for a red tag, believing it to be a bargain? Or how smooth floors guide you into a shop but carpeted areas make you stop and browse? Or how the words ‘limited edition’ really make you want to buy something. And even pay silly money for it? Or how 3 for 2, buy one get one free or gifts with purchase make you buy more than you were intending? The store does not lose in the end because people buy more than they would have otherwise done, and you also tend to purchase other items while you are there.

How many of us have done the following:

  • bought something that does not fit because it was on the sales rack?
  • bought something you did not need because it was 3 for 2/limited edition?
  • gone to the supermarket for one thing but come out with a whole trolley full of items?
  • bought something at Duty Free without checking if it is actually cheaper or not?
  • bought something you didn’t need because you were shopping with a friend as a social activity?
  • bought something you didn’t want or need online just so you could qualify for a free gift or free shipping?

Author: Janet Carr

Fashion, beauty and animal loving language consultant from South Africa living in Stockholm, Sweden.

One thought

  1. Marketing is a whole complex system. It takes years to understand and master it and everything is studied : scents, colours, position on the shelves, place of the products in the shop… It is extremely difficult to list all the techniques as they greatly differ according to the type of shop of course but also to the countries. Habits, customs, weather… have a great importance on how shops are organized.

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