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The science of shopping

Whether you’re IRL shopping on the high street or indulging in a bit of online retail therapy, there are loads of ways that retailers use psychology and science to make you part with your money.  Here we reveal some of the tricks of the trade, so you can be a smarter shopper.

When it comes to supermarkets, most of us can predict where we’ll find our favourite products, even if we’ve never visited that particular branch before. And that’s not because they’re all designed by the same person, but because they’re all designed with one goal in mind: to get you to spend more. And how do they do that? Simple shopping psychology.


Enter the average supermarket, and you’ll first stumble across what is known in the trade as a ‘decompression zone’. It’s a place for you to get your bearings, where you’re unlikely to immediately make a purchase, so it’s used for things like Pick’n’Mix, magazines and cigarette counters. Leave there, and you’ll immediately enter the fruit and veg section, which doesn’t make much sense really – fresh produce is squashable, and would be better off picked last. But start your shopping off in a healthy way, and your mood will be positive, ultimately leading you to spend more.  Essentials, like eggs, milk and bread, can often be found at the back of the store, forcing you to walk through it even if you just want to pick up a pint of semi-skimmed.


Clever, eh?



But if the care with which real-life stores have been designed is surprising, just wait til you hear about what goes on online…


As the ability to recognise you as being unique to any other shopper gets more sophisticated, the way that retailers target you does as well. While you might be used to ‘cookies’ meaning that any product you browse while online shopping then appears in Facebook and Instagram ads, this same technology can be used to build an entire shop based around your likes and dislikes.


For instance, buy a yoga mat from an online sports retailer and you’ll have told them that you have an interest in yoga. So, the next time you visit the site you might find that the front page features big images of people in downward facing dog, and even the menu is changed to prioritise yoga categories and products. The colour of the banners could even change to correspond more closely with the ‘yoga persona’ preference. And yet someone who has purchased swimming goggles will find the site appears to them full of products, photography and links to swimming. It will literally look like a completely different site, showing each of you the products you’re most likely to buy.



As LCD displays get cheaper, they’re going to take the place of the paper pricing on shopping shelves, and the ability to change these digital signs remotely is going to change how we’re sold to. Marks & Spencers trialled this type of digital display by changing the prices of their sandwiches before noon to encourage people to buy their lunch earlier – and it worked! It might not be too long before signs magically change before your very eyes after recognising what type of shopper you are. They will prioritise the information you’re most likely to care about, such as the ethical origins of a pair of jeans, or the celebs that have been spotted wearing them.


The big aim for the future of shopping is to personalise the experience for you, whether that’s online or on the high street. And while that might sound fun, it does mean it’s going to be harder to say no to that impulse purchase. In the future, we’re either going to have to strengthen our resolve, or buy bigger wardrobes!


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