How Stores Trick Your Eyes, Ears and Nose to Get You to Spend More

By Aaron Crowe, dealnewswriter

As much as shopping is a sensory experience — we love to browse, touch products, try stuff on — there are ways that stores are manipulating our senses while we shop that we aren't even aware of.

Using sound, visual, taste, smell and touch sensory inputs, companies can lock a shopper's attention without the shopper knowing why. There's no downside for the shopper, since they aren't generally cognizant of the efforts. But what's the upside for the store? This can increase sales up to 300%, says Joseph Carrabis, founder of NextStage Evolution, a company that helps online businesses get customers using these methods.

Here's how some of the tricks work:

Good smells can have a halo effect and put shoppers in a positive mood, which affects their perception of a product, says Dr. Alan Hirsch, a neurologist and psychiatrist who is the founder of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. "If something smells good, it is good. If you view a product in a positive way, you're more likely to buy," he says.

Women are more attuned to it than men, according to his research, and adding smells to attract shoppers is mostly done in higher-end stores. Flower smells are popular on stores' lower levels, and the combination smells of leather, baby powder and citrus can increase shoe sales more than just using leather alone.

In fact, the new car smell in a car is often artificially created. Most people prefer the smell of artificial leather in cars because real leather can have a harsh, bitter smell.

And not only will people buy something when enticed by good smells, but they'll pay more. Hirsch says his studies have found that shoppers were willing to pay $10 more for Nike shoes when a mixed floral aroma was in the air. Stores can use smells to direct shoppers to certain areas, where they're then likely to spend more because of the scent.

An upcoming story in the Journal of Consumer Research points out how scents can increase sales. Researchers found that a gentle scent of vanilla makes it more likely that women shopping for consumer electronics or mutual funds will make the purchase. This might be because vanilla is a scent found in breast milk, and women associate the scent with confidence, says Bruce D. Sanders, a consumer psychologist and retailing consultant.

This kind of enticement is difficult to achieve online, naturally, but shoppers can still be enticed with pictures. One of Carrabis' clients was a specialty cake bakery that increased sales by having a photo of a smiling mom pulling a cake out of an oven.

"The sensory system will go back into sensory memory and pull back the image of a cake," Carrabis says.

Sight is another area shoppers respond to, colors particularly. "Reds generate excitement associated with fast movement and enhanced appetite," Sanders says. "At McDonald's, red causes you to eat more quickly, creating space for the next customer. At Target, red makes it more likely you'll pile your purchases into the cart quickly. On the other hand, blues tend to produce leisurely, deliberative shopping and a personality of the store that researchers call 'sincere.'"

The colors of a website can convey messages, from authoritative black to youthful pink or optimistic yellow.

Combining certain colors with other sensory cues can multiply the effect, Sanders says. Cool colors on the walls combined with a lavender scent and slow-tempo background music in a fine-dining restaurant can slow diners down and increase high-profit liquor sales.

When adding sound to websites, Carrabis advises clients to start the music low and increase lightly. "Always give the visitor the option to turn the sound on or off," he says. Nine out of 10 people will pay attention to the sound signal if it is introduced thoughtfully.

Matching musical beats to a user's breathing rhythms, even if the website is hideous-looking, will keep them on a website without knowing why they're still there, he says. "You can basically entrance someone and really keep them on your site."

The idea is to keep music just low enough in the background that shoppers aren't distracted by it. "If people start paying too much attention to the music, then they're not paying attention to what you're selling, unless you're selling music," Carrabis says.

The downside of having your senses manipulated, Carrabis says, is that even if you're on the lookout for it, you can't avoid it and will still want to pick up the item you're being pitched. As sophisticated as average consumers are, they don't know enough to know when they're being stimulated to buy. The goal of the seller is to not make it so obvious.

"The first thing to be aware of is that when a marketing signal is so obvious, then that signal is what's being paid attention to, and not what's being sold," he said.

Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has worked as a reporter and an editor for newspapers and websites. Follow him on Twitter — @AaronCrowe.

Photo credit: Smath

DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).


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