The Science of Shopping



There is a whole science to shopping. We don’t realise it, but we are herded like sheep (and yes, as shoppers, we ARE sheep) through shops in a way that maximises 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 in addition to 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 and bread 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 acclimatising 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. Some shops  have club-type music and a party atmosphere to get you into a good mood for some frenzied social shopping. Top Shop used to do this.  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 to fulfil a basic need. 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.

Sales are another trap. Some items are actually produced only to be offered on sales or at outlets. Other times a chain store will have one vacuum cleaner (as an example) in another store at an artificially high price for a month, just to be able to drop the price and shout ‘75% off’ and make it seem like a bargain.

Companies also use the scarcity principle to lure people into buying by having signs that say ‘Limited edition’, ‘only a small number left’, ‘get it before it’s gone’. Think of how seeing the last item on the shelf makes you want to buy it because it must be popular or being discontinued.

And let’s not talk about Instagram influencers peddling wares they have been paid to endorse (but have often never used)  to their fans, who rush out and buy it.

Similar to this is the wave of trends in interest-led communities where everyone rushes out to buy something because other people are rushing out to buy it. And then when the items sells out or is discontinued, the hysteria continues with people prepared to pay higher and higher prices for it. Until the bottoms falls out of the market when the next big thing arrives.

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?

I know I have!

Author: Janet Carr

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

5 thoughts

  1. I have a few tried and tested techniques to help make me a little less susceptible to these marketing ploys. The big one is not being a driver. It’s amazing how quickly the urge to buy more disappears when you know you’ve got to lug everything home (at the very least all the way from the shop to your bus stop). Not to mention the fact that a lot of bargain shopping is limited to locations which are only accessible by car. Another useful tool is to have a very contrary nature. Everyone else wants that thing? Huh, you’ll never catch me buying/owning/using it. This is linked to shopping alone – there’s nothing like going shopping with a friend to have you thinking they must be insane as they point out the most hideous things and suggest you should buy them. My trump card, though, is simply getting old. You’re physically able to carry and, indeed, reach less items, and you have easy access to a more limited range of shops. You’ve learned what you like and what you hate. People wandering slowly along the aisles in browse mode won’t make you stop and buy things you don’t need – you will skip that aisle/area completely and go somewhere that has people moving at the right pace, usually muttering under your breath as you go. I know we can’t completely resist the hype, but we can minimise its effect to an acceptable level.

  2. 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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