Mandy Kloppers

The Psychology of Shopping


The psychology of shopping relates to the science behind how consumers shop and how they spend. Many factors are involved that influence our shopping style. Music, lights, decor, positioning of merchandise and scents all influence how much we spend. Many of us go in with a plan. We have a list and an idea of how much we need to buy. Invariably we end up coming out with a trolley much fuller than we anticipated. So what’s going on here? Many of us abandon our plans when we are presented with a plethora of shiny new goods.

Researchers from Bangor University are currently running tests using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) on a group of subjects that are told they have £80 ($129) to spend on a weeks worth of groceries. The research team is testing for the subjects ability to spot rip-off special deals from worthwhile discounts. Their preliminary results suggest that the subjects brains stop donating full effort around 23 minutes into the simulated shopping trip. At 40 minutes, nearly all the shoppers began purchasing emotionally, rather than rationally. And as any avid snack fan can attest, emotional shopping is dangerous shopping.

Here’s a little more on factors that influence how we shop:


Females tend to take on more information than men do. Perhaps due to women’s initial status as gatherers, whilst men were the hunters. Red sales labels apparently influence men who believe that a red label indicates a reduction compared with a black label. A red label is seen as a convenient shortcut. Studies have shown that women are more suspicious of red labels, wondering if they are being tricked.

Leonard Lauder, chairman emeritus of Estee Lauder, claims you can judge the economic climate by the sale of red lipstick. The premise is that women will treat themselves to a lipstick instead of buying something more expensive during an economic downturn. Estee Lauder called the lipstick effect in a recession when we see an increase in the sale of colour cosmetics, Puccinelli explains. It’s interesting, because mascara takes a hit but eyeshadow, lipstick and blusher don’t. You also see an increase in the sale of fast food, alcohol and confectionary, too. They all thrive.


I say never shop for food on an empty stomach. We all tend to buy more when we are hungry. Most people are familiar with the supermarket bread trick. Stores know that sales increase when shoppers are hungry and so they waft warm bakery smells through the air-conditioning system.

Hugo Boss spent two months tweaking the formula of its signature scent before getting it right. And little wonder. Asked to describe the juice, staff said it contained “light accents of fruits and citrus with a hint of cocoa fill[ing] the top note before a green floral heart of gardenia, jasmine and muguet over a foundation of vanilla, sandalwood, cedarwood and amber.”

Stores want to create a lifestyle, and by providing subtle, ambient scents, they can evoke feelings that match that lifestyle. When it’s done right, you’ll hardly notice it, but you might just spend more


Stepping into any store from a cold high street overwhelms the senses with smells, lights, sounds and a sudden change in temperature. This first area that you enter into is known as the “dwell zone”. Department stores often use this space for escalators and directories. Fashion stores use it to promote “this season’s look”. In supermarkets, it’s the place they put the “distress goods” ,“ flowers, newspapers, cigarettes “ that are bought in a hurry.

Triangular balance

This is used everywhere and it’s very effective. It works on the idea that your eye will always go to the centre of a picture.they put the biggest, tallest products with the highest profit margin in the centre of each shelf and arrange the other sizes around them to make it look attractive. When you look at the triangle on the shelf, your eye goes straight to the middle and the most expensive box.

Shelf psychology

The psychology of shopping involves how shelves are stacked. This is crucial to customer manipulation. Examples: umbrellas near the door and sweet sold near the till. The most profitable impulse buys and special offers are placed on aisle ends and shops are designed to ensure you pass as many ends as possible. The supermarkets’ key weapon is the use of the eye-level display. Experiments have shown that when we walk down an aisle, we often look only at the shelves that are level with our eyes.

That means that items with the biggest profit margins go at eye-level, while the cheap stuff, the nasty baked beans at tuppence a tin go on the floor. If you want value brands, you’ll find them eventually. But you won’t buy them on impulse. The position of the bread and milk is important as the “destination goods”. They are placed at the back and the middle to ensure you walk past as many other aisles and ends as possible. Stores are keen for you to walk past clothes, gifts and gadgets – the most profitable lines.

The psychology of shopping has lead to Supermarket design changing in the past few years. Many now break up the aisles into two (doubling the number of aisle ends) and put the groceries at the rear of the store, forcing you to walk through the more profitable non-food areas. But fresh fruit and vegetables are almost always at the front door. That’s not just to make the store seem fresh. Fruit and vegetables look healthier and fresher in natural light. In contrast, meat and fish need a clean white light, otherwise they look tired.

Music, lights and decor are also all crucial and need to be well matched to the merchandise. TopShop needs to play funky music or customers may categorize the shop as being out of touch. If clothing piles seem too neat, then obviously no one else is buying these items. Younger customers prefer slightly messy clothes displays as it suggests these items are popular. Older women are more exacting in their standards. Shops that obsessively fold up clothes can end up inadvertently holding back sales.


There are many ‘tricks’ employed to encourage you to part with your money. One well known one is to mark items at “99p”. This is to try to convince you that you are spending less money than you actually are.  Most of the prices in electrical stores end in.99p. But a few end in.98p or 95p. That’s a signal that a product is old stock and needs to be sold quickly. If you’re foolish enough to ask a sales assistant for advice in a big electrical chain, the loyal staff will steer you towards these.

Top tips when bargain hunting

1) Try to avoid stores that are too busy with loud music. This can confuse and distract you from judging what is a genuine offer.

2) Ask the sales rep to repeat the sales details in a clear and slow manner and if possible ask him/her to write them down.

3) Before you make a decision take a break, count from one to ten or walk around the store and come back later once you have thought about it.

4) Can you shop alone? Peer pressure has been proven to be a key indicator for individuals buying products that they do not need.

5) Never shop when you are feeling emotionally upset. Purchasing to overcome any mood or behavioural troubles is not beneficial in the long term. When we are feeling down or vulnerable we can use shopping as a way to feel better but the high will be short lived and your finances will suffer.

6) Go shopping after a meal or when in a good and clear mood. There is evidence that shopping when you feel peckish can make you spend more than intended.

A good example:

The Apple Stores tend to be good examples of the psychology of shopping being used to it’s maximum potential. There is a lot of light and space. Space equates to luxury. There are many friendly staff members with name tags. The whole experience leads you to feel welcome and relaxed. You can play on the items and ask questions to the available staff.

Ultimately, you are still in control of what you purchase. Keep in mind that stores want you to part with as much money as possible and will make the shop environment as pleasing as possible. Ask yourself whether you really need the item. Keep your wits about you and stay focused on the original plan that you came into the store with.

Mandy X


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