No matter what type of store you walk into—from the Apple store to Wal-Mart—you'll find all types of carefully engineered tricks that get you to fork over cash. From the scent of coconut in the summer clothes section to the end caps filled with junk you don't want, stores are carefully organized in ways you may never notice. To get an idea of how this all works, I spoke with Dr. Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University and co-author of Gen BuY: How Tweens, Teens, and Twenty-Somethings Are Revolutionizing Retail.
It shouldn't be surprising that the main sense that retail stores go after is your sense of sight. What is surprising are the subtle cues they leave around to get us to spend more. These are small symbolic cues that have a big impact on what we decide to buy, and how long we're willing to stay in a store.
For example, color has a big impact on our shopping choices. Each color often evokes or represents a feeling, and retailers use that to their advantage. Yarrow explains:
It could be the color of the product, or if they're displayed in groups of colors that tends to have a big emotional impact. Colors have different associations and those things tend to get people going. So, for example, red is almost always the color associated with sales because it inspires people to take action and it's a stimulating sort of color.
If Target's logo was blue, it wouldn't be perceived as a place where things are reasonably priced. I think value-oriented stores tend to have logos with red, but it could also be orange. Black is almost always associated with higher prices and luxury.
Colors have all sorts of impact on how we spend. Studies have shown that waitresses who wear red tend to get bigger tips, and red even makes us spend more online.
It's not just color, though. Retailers also tap into your unconscious is by creating simple navigation roadblocks. For example, people often go to a grocery store just to pick up a single item like milk, but milk is in the back of the store. You're forced to walk through and see everything before grabbing your one item. Chances are, unless you put the blinders on when you're walking through that you'll grab another item or two.
Retailers want you to get lost in the store so you to see more of their products. Take Ikea, for example. The store is structured in a way that you're bound to get turned around and lost. This causes you to see more than you need to, and in turn you end up with a couple more items in your hand. You could always walk in the exit doors to avoid getting lost when you're grabbing one item, but you don't have that option at every store.
Stores like Apple and Ikea also want to create a lifestyle image:
A lot of this is about a brand image. It's to get you to feel a particular way. One of the things I've found works really well is when you create a theme or a lifestyle, and people can see themselves living in this lifestyle. That causes them to want to buy those things—that's why Ikea sets up those rooms—you go to buy a lamp, and suddenly you want to buy that couch too. Pottery Barn is really good at this—they'll create a theme of a room or a party, and people kind of slip into that and they want to buy it.
It's not just big budget items. Stores do this all the time with little add-on purchases. They'll include a complementary pair of shoes next to some new jeans, or a cell phone case that happens to match a skirt right next to it. They want you to see yourself using or wearing what they're offering, so they present it all in a way that your brain makes those connections without you realizing it.
The idea here is that stores manipulate your sight so you see more products that you might want and also an entire lifestyle you want to live in. Unfortunately, it's one of those things that typically works so well that the only thing you can really do to avoid spending more money is to recognize what's happening and try not to fall for it.
Why Touching Products Makes You Want to Buy Them
All those carefully designed stores aren't structured just to assult your eyeballs with shiny objects. They're also about forcing you to touch more things. Why? Because touching tends to lead to purchasing for most of us. Yarrow explains:
[Environmental psychologist] Paco Underhill talked about stores that create roadblocks so that when you walk in you're forced to stop. He suggested that when you touch something, you're more likely to buy it. It turns out that we now know he was right.
Research shows that when people touch things they're more likely to buy them. So, you want to place things where people are more likely to pick them up. That means not-perfect displays—where things are a little off-kilter—because people are more comfortable picking things up that way. I know that's true for me, if I go into one of those jean stores where everything is folded and organized, I don't want to try and find my size because I know I'll just mess it up.
Essentially, the more time an item spends in your hand, the more likely you are to purchase it. That means stores are structured so you're always picking things up. That might mean an end cap filled with items, or even a cluttered looking shelf that you have to sift through. It's not just random shelves either. Even where an item is on a shelf makes you more likely to notice it and pick it up:
Shelf placement is really interesting and it's a newer concept. People really tend to gravitate to the center of displays. We seem to have this sort of homing instinct and there's research that shows people are more likely to buy something that's in the center of a display.
If you've ever walked out of a stuffy store where you weren't comfortable picking up items, you know how important the idea of touching a product is. That same sense can also be used against us though, causing us to pick up items we don't really want.
Why the Perfect Scent Makes You More Willing to Spend Money
You might not even notice it, but what you smell when you're shopping can impact the choices you make to a strange degree. Yarrow offers this simple example:
Our senses bypass our conscious mind. So, we smell something like baby powder, we feel all warm toward babies, we just happen to be in the baby department, and we spend a little more money. Or we smell coconut and we suddenly get beach fever.
Those are some obvious examples, but research has shown all kinds of ways that retailers manipulate our choices when we're out shopping. Essentially, as this study from the Journal of Business Research points out, odors and scents have a strong tie to memory. If retailers can evoke the right memory, we're more likely to get in the mood to spend there. If not—as is evidenced by anyone overwhelmed by a perfume counter—we won't. Scents in stores can indirectly affect our view of a product's quality, and when done right gives us a more favorable experience of shopping as a whole.
As Adweek notes, retailers go to absurd lengths to pipe in scents using something like a HVAC diffuser. One example from Hugo Boss shows off how time retailers spend thinking about this stuff:
Simmons relates that Hugo Boss spent two months tweaking the formula of its signature scent before getting it right. And little wonder. Asked to describe the juice, Simmons says it contains "light accents of fruits and citrus with a hint of cocoa fill[ing] the top note before a green floral heart of gardenia, jasmine and muguet over a foundation of vanilla, sandalwood, cedarwood and amber."
The idea here is very similar to how stores are set up to manipulate your sight. They want to create an lifestyle, and by providing subtle, ambient scents, they can evoke feelings that match that lifestyle. When it's done right, you'll hardly notice it, but you might just spend more.
How the Right Song Makes Expensive Products Look Better
The sounds you hear in a store also complement the overall image a store is trying to produce. A lot of retailers pipe in music specific to a store. Places in the mall targeted at teens tend to play high-volume pop music, whereas a high-end jeweler might play classical music. Yarrow explains why this is:
I think music is more of the ability to create a feeling. So, what stores are trying to do with music is tap into emotion. My favorite example is: imagine watching a movie without any music, and it just wouldn't work—once in a while I'll be watching something with the sound off and I'll think "that looks so cheesy." Music is emotionally evocative and that's what retailers want to do. They want you to get you feeling things and not thinking things.
Of course, it goes further than that in some cases. One study from the European Journal of Scientific Research suggests that music at a loud volume gets people to move through the store quicker, whereas slower and quieter music makes them stay longer. Slow tempo pop music might make you spend more on impulse purchases, and the effect of tempo and key might affect mood enough to alter shopping choices as well.
While music can influence you in all types of ways, the main purpose of using it in a retail store depends on what the retailer wants you to do. Sometimes they want you to move through a place quickly (like a fast food restaurant), while other times they want you to linger. The side effect of that is that you might end up spending more money if a tune happens to you hit you in the right spot.
While you can't do much to prevent these tricks from getting to you, the idea here to point out how these things work, and how they affect your choices. A store's main goal is to get you to spend money. One of the best tricks they have is to make you feel comfortable, and show you a lifestyle you want that's within your grasp. When you know what they're doing, it's a little easier to stop yourself from making bad choices when you're shopping.
The fact of the matter is: stores are always looking for new ways to sell you stuff and get you to spend more. It's not always a bad thing, but all these subtle, psychological cues are worth paying attention to when you're shopping. If you know about them, you can take steps to avoid their effects.