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Mind games: The tricks used to have you buying what you don’t need

By Graham Kajilwa | Nov 16th 2021 | 5 min read
By Graham Kajilwa | November 16th 2021
Many supermarkets also heavily rely on psychological pricing. For instance, items are priced with odd or even numbers such as Sh999, which is often interpreted by customers as Sh900. [File, Standard]

Sometime back, I went to a restaurant in the city known for its tasty chicken wings. The nuggets are served in six or 12 pieces.

I made an order for the six-piece with a plate of fries, but the waiter suggested a slight change to the menu.

“You should go for the 12-piece chicken wings since it comes with a free plate of fries,” he suggested. Brilliant, I thought.

The food came, but the plate of fries that was accompanying the chicken was not what I had pictured. It was a sauce plate. 

While I enjoyed the meal, as a student of public relations and advertising, I knew the restaurant’s marketing tactic had worked on me. Sadly.

The meal cost Sh1,190, whereas my initial order would have cost Sh850 - though there were more chicken pieces.

Such deals offered by businesses, while being exciting, can leave a customer startled by their own intelligence-or lack of it, like a woodpecker who has never heard of a knock-knock joke.

It is such gimmicks that businesses use to softly ‘compel’ consumers to make an instant purchase decision with no time for rational thinking.

And it does not matter the scale of the business. In the matatu industry, you will encounter a version of the same when you get into a vehicle thinking it is full, only for five people to alight - and then one of them starts touting: “Wannee wa ukweli (only four more and we leave),” as he whistles.

On the streets of Nairobi, hawkers have mastered this art as well. Dare not approach a hawker who is shouting ‘mia mia soo’; mia or soo being the street slang for Sh100.

You will be shocked when you pick that hoodie or jacket your eyes have fallen in love with and hand over Sh100 to the seller.

Mia mia soo …hiyo ni mia tatu (three Sh100 make Sh300),” he will tell you before casually resuming his chorus.

If you do not agree with him on the value of the hoodie, you will leave there wondering if it is your elementary mathematics teacher who erred, yet you are a fresh graduate of actuarial science, statistics or pure mathematics.

Women hawks oranges and bananas along the the streets of Kisumu on May 3, 2021. [Collins Oduor, Standard]

Sociologist and St Paul’s University lecturer Anthony Odek says some of these gimmicks, which he refers to as manipulation, should be classified as new forms of crimes.

“People do not mean what they say and it is becoming the order of the day that manipulation appears to be working for different ventures,” he told FS.

“They capitalise on the fact that Nairobians are always in a hurry, and so will rarely rationalise their decisions or choices.”

Dr Odek says the tricks are at times due to pressure for businesses to meet their targets, and so the sellers will think ahead of the consumers, who are unprotected and uninformed on some of the strategies.

“The touts and hawkers are under pressure to perform, no matter what strategies they would use to achieve their goals,” he said.

It is the same pressure, probably, that sales people in supermarkets are under when the outlets have promotions for a particular product that is new, or one that is slow to move.

Just when you thought you have made your decision by picking item X, the salesperson comes with a seemingly juicy offer of trying the new product that works just as well or better.

The deal could also be saving you two or three shillings.

And just like that, you smile while adding the product into your shopping basket, only for you to realise later that the size is smaller so you have not saved a cent, or it does not work as per the selling pitch.

“For men, we have that face of ‘please I know what I came to pick here’ but sometimes you would go with a lady friend, mother, aunt or wife and they get swayed easily,” said Martin Oduor, a business executive with Standard Group.

“When you come out, you have to budget again, wondering where your transport for the next week will come from.” 

Mr Oduor compared retailers Tuskys and Nakumatt in how they went ahead of the customers.

He said men loved Tuskys because the supermarket did not move its shelves, the shopper always knew where the milk or bread section was, and so Tuskys maximised on this by bundling like items close to each other.

Nakumatt, however, used to reposition the shelves, which might be a subtle move, but with significant impact to the shopper.

“When you entered the store, you knew you had a list, but you see something you had not seen before, so you end up going for it,” Oduor said.

“The supermarket set-up should be simple; ‘I am picking what I want and leave, cash discount or not’.”

Many supermarkets also heavily rely on psychological pricing. For instance, items are priced with odd or even numbers such as Sh999, which is often interpreted by customers as Sh900.

Other outlets use the loss-leading pricing tactic, where a few essential goods are priced lowly to invite shoppers.

Once shoppers are in, the small loss is compensated by big margins placed on other items that they buy in the ‘cheapest’ outlet. 

For hotels, Oduor said, they usually bundle meals such as buy one burger get one free. However, a keen client would read between the lines.

“High-end hotels operate in a way that whatever cash discounts they give you, there are certain services they strike out,” said Oduor.

Whether such moves are ethical, he said, depends on how you see it and the threshold put on what is ethical.

Odek said if an investigation is done on some of the marketing tricks, the value for money or time wasted could be a lot.

“If you have to fill a matatu by wasting someone’s time, and they lose money because we are gullible and unprotected; if you quantify this, it could be a huge figure,” he said.

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