In Messy Stores and High School Mess Halls, Behavioral Economics Rules

Retailers are picking up on a simple observation: The messier a shop looks, the more affordable the merchandise appears to buyers. Stephanie Clifford at NYT with a fun piece:

It turns out that lots and lots of stuff piled onto shelves or stacked in the middle of store aisles can coax a shopper to buy more.

After the recessionary years of shedding inventory and clearing store lanes for a cleaner, appealing look, retailers are reversing course and redesigning their spaces to add clutter.

Dollar General is raising the height of its standard shelves to more than six feet; J. C. Penney is turning its empty walls into jewelry and accessory displays; Old Navy is adding lanes lined with items like water bottles, candy and lunchboxes; and Best Buy is testing wheeling in bigger items, like Segways and bicycles, to suck up the space created by thinner TVs and smaller speakers.

The converse is true, too. The cleaner a shop looks, the more expensive its items seem, and the less likely shoppers are to put them in the cart. Presumably, this idea does not extend to online shopping, where I can't imagine the clutter of pop-up windows and disorganization adds to the user experience or the bottom line.

More than anything, this reminded me of some of the behavioral economic tricks nutritionists are using to make kids eat healthier food. These strategies include:

Moving Fruit to the Register: Kids make impulse purchases at the cash register. So when you put a bowl of fruit next to the register instead of candy, candy sales go down and fruit sales go up with little change in total revenue.

Moving the Salad Bar in Front of the Door: When one school moved a salad bar to the middle of the lunchroom to make it an impediment to traffic flow, sales increased markedly.

Charging Cash for Desserts: Let kids charge food to a debit card but make candy and soda a cash-only purchase, and what happens? You've introduced a prohibitive psychological hurdle for kids who want to get their food and go. What's more, according to the authors' study of USDA information, the change did not hurt revenue but led to greater sales of more nutritious items.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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