Shoppers may think they have a choice, but are they being subtly manipulated?
It's the Saturday before Christmas, and you decide to take your family to buy those last few gifts. You think you know roughly what you need and how much you have to spend - but as you step into the shopping centre, there are invisible forces at work.
We may think we are free spirits who make our own choices but in fact enormous amounts of research and money have gone into manipulating the shopper for the benefit of the shop manager, cajoling us into spending more than we ever intended.
Inside, the seemingly innocuous muzak is skilfully varied. It speeds up around 11am and again near 4pm, the times when our biorhythms would otherwise slow us to a natural low.
Hard-bitten store managers did not always believe that this would work, until they were shown videos of tired shoppers perking up and scanning the store more actively. Indeed, researchers have shown that cows produce more milk within earshot of a quickening pace.
The family is lured deeper into the store. They quickly lose sense of time, as clocks are banned. It's also going to be hard to get out, for exits are far away and difficult to find.
Faint clouds of ionone molecules (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ionone) - the active chemical in the odour of fresh hay - are likely to be emanating from ventilation ducts, making people feel strangely at ease.
There's a delay at the lifts and the store has to prevent shoppers from getting restless. The simplest solution is to put mirrors on the walls between the elevators, for it's almost compulsive at least to glance at your reflection. According to one poll, men claimed never to look at themselves in shop windows, but video evidence showed them twice as likely to do so than women.
The next best thing is to keep shoppers happy while they wait is to install an information display near the lift: as many as one in three people are curious, or nervous, enough to stop and check location details.
Some stores even keep one lift with its doors permanently open. People march in, and although they end of waiting as long as they would have outside, they invariably feel better huddling inside than out.
Indeed, at one airport it took two minutes to walk to the carousel where the luggage arrived, and eight minutes for the luggage to appear. Customers were unhappy, so managers redesigned the path so it took eight minutes to walk to the carousel. Luggage 'magically' arrived a bare two minutes later, and complaints dropped.
At the clothes shop, women happily plunge in while dad is more likely to be spotted on video cameras waiting fearfully inside the entrance. Stores try hard to help men. In expensive boutiques, female sales personnel are often trained to greet buyers with their mouths slightly open - a sexy trick copied from air-hostess manuals.
In medium-price stores, the most over-priced jeans or shirts are often put on large tables near the entry. This wastes valuable space, but only when the psychologically crucial 'petting' of the fabrics has taken place is there much chance of a sale.
At all stores, wall displays are designed to appeal in different ways to men and women:
- Men find it almost impossible to resist a sexy photo or drawing - the pupils of their eyes are liable to expand by 2% simply by seeing the word 'nude'.
- Women, however, turn to displays that show success in group activities, such as a bunch of chatty friends being attracted by a new aerobics outfit.
Men are uncomfortable with that, and a certain shop has gone so far as to have only single samples of suits on display, rather than entire racks, to emphasise individuality.
There's nothing in the clothing store so the family tries another department, then another. They think they're the ones deciding what they choose, but that is unlikely if you are in a hurry. Items with a low mark-up tend to be stored in narrow aisles, which shoppers rush through. It is in the slower, wider aisles, where the family is likely to meander, that items with the highest profit margins go.
Since we also tend to look straight ahead, shelves at eye-level usually have the worst bargains of all. In the business these are called 'hot spots', a place where you are twice as likely to buy than anywhere else.
When tired, a family will make selections following rules of thumb - almost all of which are wrong. Items that are widely advertised are often felt to be the best, but branded goods often cost 50% more than the same item in a less celebrated container.
The wife reaches for kitchen paper towels - there will be a lot of cooking over Christmas - and instinctively selects the mega-pack roll, assuming it will be the cheapest. But manufacturers know that consumers reason this way, and regularly take advantage of it. One company made sure that there were fewer pieces of paper on each roll in its biggest packs, so that the average price per sheet of kitchen towel was actually higher.
Finally, when all the goods are gathered, dad reaches for his store credit card. Stores only receive a profit from those shoppers who accumulate interest charges: big stores often hunt through data banks to find people reputedly slow at paying back debts.
As you trot, hands full, back to your car, you chuckle quietly to yourself: that seems to have gone as planned. Which is exactly what the storekeeper thinks....