As a savvy consumer, you know by now that stores are set up to cause you to spend more. You might avoid the inner aisle of the grocery store for this reason, or clamp your hand over your wallet as you weave through the maze at checkout, in order to ignore all the small, last-minute impulse purchases like magazines, lip balm batteries.
But there are also ways that retailers try to influence your shopping habits subconsciously, and of these strategies you may not be quite as aware. They’re under the surface of a shopping experience, not nearly as blatant as end-cap displays or free samples in the aisles. But they’re just as effective in causing you to tack another $5 or $10 onto your receipt. David Lewis, a UK psychologist, outlines many of these strategies in his new book, The Brain Sell: When Science Meets Shopping (Nicholas Brealey Publishing). Here, the ones I found most striking. Lewis says just knowing that these tactics are at play can save you money. “You need to be aware, because you put yourself in charge of the situation by looking out for these techniques.”
Scent. Retailers inject smells into a store that are designed to trigger subconscious memories, says Lewis. So a travel agent’s office may smell faintly of coconut oil, or the baby section of a department store of baby powder. “In one study, a chocolate aroma was infused into bookshops. It was so faint that most people didn’t detect it, but it made them stay in the stores longer and it increased their desire to purchase certain genres of books,” explains Lewis. Not cookbooks, as you might expect, but romance novels. Be aware of how the store smells and what that might do to your defenses.
Sound. You’ll rarely walk into a retail store that doesn’t play music. It makes for a more pleasant shopping experience and a better atmosphere. Make no mistake, though — the music choice is carefully calculated to get you to open your wallet. “Research found that when classical music was played in wine departments, retailers sold more high-ticket wine,” explains Lewis. It feels fancy, special and high-end, and it makes you want to select a fancy, special and high-end bottle when you may have otherwise gone for the $10 version that typically lands in your cart.
Empathy. I have a Money Rule that says, essentially, that the salesperson is not your friend — though he or she may try to be. Lewis’s research supports this rule, and notes that shoppers should be aware of what he calls the “feel, felt, found strategy.” “Say I’m the salesperson, and I’m showing you an iPad. You might say, ‘I don’t know, I’ve always worked on a laptop and I think I need a keyboard.’ And I’ll say, ‘I know exactly how you feel, I felt the same way when I first used it, but very quickly I found that I adjusted and actually liked not having a keyboard.’” In other words, the salesperson will try to apply his or her experience (which may or may not be fictional) to your needs. In this scenario, it helps to go into the situation having researched your choices carefully and outlined your must-haves. Then, don’t stray from that list, no matter what the salesperson says.