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Psychology of shopping: The why behind the buy

By Kagure Gacheche | Dec 17th 2013 | 4 min read
By Kagure Gacheche | December 17th 2013

By Kagure Gacheche

Kenya: There is a reason January blues exist: we let loose in December, impulsively give in to holiday sales and spend money like we have no bills the following month.

We explain away our overindulgences with dubious rationalisations that only make sense at the end of the year.

But then in January, we realise the new year is really no different from the past one — there is still rent to pay, school fees to find and textbooks to buy for the children.

Customer manipulation

So how can you keep a handle on your money without making your holidays miserable? One of the most common things we do around this season is go shopping, but few of us attempt to counter retailers’ attempts to get us to spend more than we planned to.

How often do you find yourself going into a supermarket to buy milk and bread, but come out with ice cream (it was on sale), freshly baked cake (it smelled so good), a pack of crisps (you are feeling rather hungry) and a soda (you don’t want to choke on the crisps, after all)?

Retailers have customer manipulation down to a science.

For instance, they know sales increase when shoppers are hungry, so the baked goods section is often placed at the front of the store. You walk up to the shelves thinking you’ll just pick bread for breakfast, but as the warm bakery smell wafts towards you, the cakes and cookies gain appeal.

Shelving is also crucial in getting customers to make purchases.

Most stores make use of a sales technique called triangular balance. It works on the idea that your eye is drawn to the centre of a shelf, so that is where the biggest and tallest products with the highest profit margins are placed.

So when you look at a shelf, your eyes will automatically by-pass the smaller products and go right to the middle where the more expensive items are. If you are shopping in a hurry, you will just grab what catches your eye soonest.

Research has also shown that when shoppers walk down an aisle, they focus on the shelves that are at eye level. So this is where supermarkets place the items with the highest profit margins, because if you are looking for biscuits on impulse, you are not likely to rummage at the bottom of the shelves for a bargain.

Products on sale and those you need on an almost daily basis are often placed at aisle ends to get you to walk as far into a supermarket as possible, which makes it harder for you to leave without picking something.

It is for the same reason you have to walk nearly halfway around a multi-storey supermarket to find a lift or stairs, which encourages you to see more of what the store has to offer.

The milk is also usually placed at the end of a fridge to ensure you walk past the hotdogs, sausages and yoghurt, and opposite these, the breakfast cereals. The placement is carefully managed to get you imagining you may need more than just milk for breakfast.

And then there are the slippery floors that prevent shoppers from dashing in and out. As you slowly navigate your way to the checkout, you catch sight of a box of glasses/packet of sugar/bottle of juice that you just remembered you needed.

Sample stations have the same effect as they slow you down enough to get you thinking about what products you possibly forgot to put down on your shopping list.

Smaller tiles

Some supermarkets also place smaller tiles in areas with expensive items, such as television sets. This causes a trolley to click faster, which makes you think you are moving too fast, so you subconsciously slow down and spend more time in these sections.

The bright lights and music are designed to make you lose track of time and get you in the mood to make a purchase. In fact, research shows shoppers are more likely to buy high-end and expensive items when classical music is piped through supermarket speakers.

And when you finally get to the checkout and are standing in line, you are in a supermarket’s most profitable section. Since you cannot stare straight ahead the whole time you are there, your eyes drift to the sodas, chocolates and chewing gum on display. And more often than not, you succumb to the temptation.

As trips to the supermarket become more frequent with the holidays, be aware of just how susceptible your mind is to retailers’ techniques if you hope to make better choices and avoid budget-breaking buys.

To break the cycle this year, do not go shopping hungry, stick to a shopping list and keep your wits about you. 

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