Why You Bought That Ugly Sweater

The scientific tricks stores use to part you and your money

Marco Goran

There is a science to every sale. Among other findings of interest to retailers, researchers have shown that customers are drawn to items sitting on the middle of a shelf, as opposed to the ends [1], and that we perceive prices to be lower when they have fewer syllables and end with a 9 [2, 3]. Stores have figured out how to manipulate us by overpricing merchandise with the intention of later marking it down, knowing that (thanks to a cognitive bias psychologists refer to as “anchoring”) we will see the lowered price as a deal [4]. And they have learned they should give us options, but not too many—it’s well known that choice can be overwhelming to customers and can discourage purchases [5].

What is less well known is that snootiness can deliver a sale. Say a customer walks into a luxury store and is greeted with an askance look from a salesperson and no offer of assistance. You might think the customer would turn around and take her money elsewhere. But one recent study found that, compared with friendly salespeople, rude clerks caused customers with low self-confidence to spend more and, in the short term, to feel more positively toward an “aspirational brand” (that is, a brand that you covet but cannot afford—think Jaguar or Louis Vuitton) [6]. Speaking of insecurity, when a customer who feels badly about her appearance tries something on and spots an attractive fellow shopper wearing the same item, she is less likely to buy it [7]. Which means stores are wise to avoid communal fitting rooms.

“Retail atmospherics”—layout, lighting, wall color, music, and so on—can significantly influence customers’ moods, and their spending. Stores jammed with merchandise are known to induce claustrophobia, while those that are too bare can cause agoraphobia. Either extreme can lead shoppers to flee. One researcher found that stores could counteract these responses with the right scent [8]. A cluttered tchotchke shop, for example, might light a seashore-scented candle to evoke spaciousness; a big-box store could make customers feel cozy by piping in the scent of firewood. One paper now under peer review shows that cooler temperatures indoors lead to a more emotional style of decision making, while warmth contributes to a more analytical approach [9]—which could explain why expensive stores always seem to have their air-conditioning cranked up. Research has also demonstrated that consumers prefer spending money in stores with cool, blue-toned interiors over stores with warmer, orange-toned interiors, where they tend to be less enthusiastic and balk at high prices [10].

Touch is important too. Stores that keep their merchandise behind glass or in hard-to-reach places might consider making goods more accessible. People are more likely to buy a high-quality item if they can handle it [11]. Music is likewise a powerful tool: The right genre can increase customers’ pleasure and cause them to lose track of time (which would presumably be a good thing, from a retailer’s perspective) [12]. One study found that popular music leads to impulsive decisions, while lesser-known background music leads to focused shoppers—ones who are, say, more likely to carefully process information about promotions [13].

So now you know: You’re not entirely to blame for that regrettable statement necklace, or that unused man purse. Anchoring and atmospherics got the better of you.

[1] Rodway et al., “Preferring the One in the Middle” (Applied Cognitive Psychology, March/April 2012)
[2] Coulter et al., “Comma N’ Cents in Pricing” (Journal of Consumer Psychology, July 2012)
[3] Anderson and Simester, “Effects of $9 Price Endings on Retail Sales” (Quantitative Marketing and Economics, March 2003)
[4] Ariely et al., “Coherent Arbitrariness” (The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Feb. 2003)
[5] Iyengar and Lepper, “When Choice Is Demotivating” (Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Dec. 2000)
[6] Ward and Dahl, “Should the Devil Sell Prada?” (Journal of Consumer Research, Oct. 2014)
[7] Dahl et al., “Social Information in the Retail Environment” (Journal of Consumer Research, Feb. 2012)
[8] Poon and Grohmann, “Spatial Density and Ambient Scent” (American Journal of Business, April 2014)
[9] Hadi et al., “Mental Thermoregulation” (presented at the European Conference of the Association for Consumer Research in Barcelona, 2013)
[10] Babin et al., “Color and Shopping Intentions” (Journal of Business Research, July 2003)
[11] Grohmann et al., “The Influence of Tactile Input on the Evaluation of Retail Product Offerings” (Journal of Retailing, April 2007)
[12] Yalch and Spangenberg, “The Effects of Music in a Retail Setting on Real and Perceived Shopping Time” (Journal of Business Research, Aug. 2000)
[13] Petruzzellis et al., “Hey Dee-Jay Let’s Play That Song and Keep Me Shopping All Day Long” (Journal of Marketing Development and Competitiveness, 2014)