Are you still spent from holiday shopping? Do returns and gift cards inspire dread? You may have succumbed to subtle tactics of retailers. As these books by branding and retail experts reveal, merchandisers target our most primitive instincts—from our status anxiety to our sense of smell—to get us to buy. Exploring the fascinating science of retail psychology, these authors equip you with the knowledge you need to avoid falling for merchants’ tricks of the trade. Here are a few traps to watch out for.
Technology: Men love it (but women buy it)
Computers and phones sometimes seem targeted to male shoppers, but in his classic exposé of retail secrets, “Why We Buy,” Paco Underhill shows how tech chains have detected subtler truths about their customer base. “Personal computers and cell phones all began life as toys for boys,” Underhill writes. “But the fact is that often, women are the earliest adopters of new technology.” Playing to this fact, electronics stores have employed methods to specifically entice female customers. For instance, “RadioShack has gone out of its way to hire female store managers,” and Best Buy has taken similar measures. Companies also pay attention to how each gender approaches technology. While men are in love with gadgets’ “gee-wiz” factor, women “look at technology and see its purpose, its reason,” stripping “even the fanciest gizmo of all that is mysterious and jargony in order to determine its usefulness.” This leads companies to market the usability and convenience of their products and de-emphasize the intricacy of how they’re made and operate.
Bridget Brennan, in her book “Why She Buys,” avers: “[Apple] may be the world’s most discreetly feminine brand,” she writes. “The stereotype of the nerdy guy audiophile, with his mysterious knowledge of woofers, tweeters and amps has been replaced by women in workout gear running to their favorite songs on shiny teal Shuffles.”
Toy stores: Keep in reach of children
Toy stores and other purveyors of products aimed at children have learned the importance of shopping by touch. Retailers, Underhill points out in “Why We Buy,” purposefully place enticing products on lower shelves so that children can pull them off and play with them easily. And if a child feels compelled to touch a product, Underhill observes, “there’s at least a chance that Mom or Dad will relent and buy it (Dad especially).” Warning, waistline-watchers: Grocery stores employ similar tactics with kid-calibrated candy and cookies.
Big-box stores: Data mines reveal buying minds
Corporate retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Target, amass virtual mountains of consumer data in order to make educated guesses about individuals’ lives, says Charles Duhigg in “The Power of Habit.” This information helps them to predict what you might want to buy. Target is a particular advocate of this marketing method: Once they’ve pegged specifics about an individual customer, Duhigg observes, they’ll send coupons tailored to that person’s needs. One Target analyst, Duhigg reports, “noticed that women on the baby registry were buying unusually large quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester.” This information led Target to create a (successful) campaign in which they red-flagged female customers who bought likely pregnancy products, including unscented lotion, and then sent them deals for new-baby goods, such as strollers and cribs.
The strategy has, at times, proven to be uncomfortably effective. Target landed itself in hot water when they sent baby product deals to a teenager whose shopping habits indicated that she was expecting—inciting a bewildered protest from her father. (To his chagrin, the young woman did in fact turn out to be pregnant.)
Sexy clothes: A basic instinct
In “Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy,” branding expert Martin Lindstom traces our shopping habits back to primal instincts. When we buy expensive and popular products (such as an iPod or a Lexus), he argues, we’re satisfying a primordial desire to enhance our social standing and, in turn, the probability of our successfully mating and reproducing. He points to the clothing industry—and teen-targeting clothing brands such as Abercrombie & Fitch—as major exploiters of this desire. The “clothing mecca for teens and tweens,” he argues, combines erotic wall art, attractive employees and an instantly-recognizable scent to suggest to customers that buying the brand’s clothes will catapult them into the ranks of cool and sexy. The atmosphere of the store targets both an intellectual instinct to social-climb and a physiological craving for sex. “Between your mirror neurons making you feel sexy and attractive,” Lindstrom writes, “and your dopamine creating that near-orgasmic anticipation of reward, your rational mind doesn’t stand a chance.”
Grocery stores: Right on the nose
In addition to our status anxieties and sexual impulses, retailers also target our five senses to get us to buy, Lindstrom says in his book “Brand Sense.” Grocery stores and food manufacturers excel in this domain. Cereal, he points out, seems to “taste” better simply if its texture is crunchy. Freeze-dried coffee performs poorly in comparison to canisters of fresh grounds, which entice us with that unmistakable aroma. And if you think bakery sections of supermarkets are placed near the entrance by chance, think again. That pervasive smell of freshly baked bread, Lindstrom suggests, activates customers’ appetites, leading them to buy more food during their visit.