“Nothing in the store is by accident.

Everything is by design.”

–  Paco Underhill (Founder and CEO, Envirosell)

The human brain is easily influenced. Thousands of years of evolution and adaption have made it unknowingly vulnerable to external cues. The hunter in us subconsciously reads these signs and prepares for action. There is a clear science behind our decisions. And this science can be maneuvered.

An inordinate amount of time is invested every year by the retail industry experts to advance and apply the scientific tactics which influence consumer choice and help stores sell more stuff.

Ten of these are:-


Notice how most stores share a similar layout?

Ever wonder why the dairy section is usually all the way in the back?

The strategic placement of the dairy display case (which contains high conversion essential products like milk and butter) draws in the shoppers deeply into the store. During their journey to the back of the store in search of a must-have item, they must pass the tougher-to-sell items, sighting which increases the chance of their purchase. Some stores like Ikea have a frustrating maze-like layout to disorient customers into stop looking for what they were shopping for and jump headlong into the exploratory shopping experience. This phenomenon experienced by the shopper is known as Gruen Transfer.


The more time they spend in a store on average,

the more things they’re going to buy.

 – David Bell



Stores keep expensive items on shelves that are at eye level. This is done because products at the same eye level as the customers garner psychological favor with them. Brands pay hefty premium to obtain this visibility.

This strategy is especially effective for children’s products. Take candy for example. Stores intentionally place it at a child’s eye level. Once they spot it, majority of children are likely to nag their parents to buy them that colourfully wrapped candy on a lower shelf. If you listen carefully, and over the noise of a kid throwing a temper-tantrum in the middle of a store, you may be able to hear the sound of one store marketing strategist high-fiving another.


Olfactory senses can be exploited with otherwise innocent holiday smells to establish an ambiance of trust.  This is why stores prefer to have the bakery located up front. The sweet aroma of the baked cinnamon-y goodness gets the shoppers to instinctually crave and buy more. Flowers at the entrance create a welcoming atmosphere and the accompanying smells comfort and sway customers to spend more time shopping.


Studies show music affects purchasing habits. Slow music blaring from the store speakers slows down the time for the shoppers, who thereby spend more. In an attempt to increase sale of expensive items, stores have been known to resort to Classical music as well.


Colour is responsible for roughly 62-90% in the making of a first impression, say researchers. Different colours hold different associations. When Heinz changed the ketchup colour from red to green, they noted over $23 m in sales in the first month itself, higher than ever.  The experiment found that the customers associated the colour green with health, wealth and peace.



As a supermarket customer yourself, you may have experienced feelings of gratitude towards the establishment for graciously providing you with amenities of convenience that are shopping carts. You may have even marveled at their generosity when they shower you with freebies at the sample stations. In reality, store management is a little more selfish. The large sizes of the carts encourage addition of more stuff in order to fill it up as much as possible. Free goodies, on the other hand, aim to please only to invite off-the-list purchases. A sweet treat can “activate goals associated with indulgence… and encourage subsequent acts of indulgence” concludes Journal of Consumer Research.


The checkout counter strategically plays on people’s impulsive natures. Knick-knacks are displayed at the last station of the shopping experience because the customer is quite likely to pick them up due to the build-up of a sense of urgency felt towards the ‘end of shopping’.


From simple counting to complicated digital signs, sneaky stores use various methods to track and analyze consumer movement. Customized advertisement is pursued based on the analyses of products the eye visits the most. Store loyalty cards – believed to be instruments of frugality- are in fact part of a store’s active demographic data technology.



Discount signage and Bulk sales appeal to and turn customers because human beings are emotionally poor at mathematics.

The more-value-for-money illusion pulls them in. Just the thought of getting a good deal persuades shoppers to buy more than what they may need. 6 for the price of 5 sounds better than paying full price for just the 3 they originally came in for.

Not only this, the customers also have little fore-sight. They will buy a shirt for 5% off only to pay more later on the credit card.

The 99 effect is well known, yet effective. People tend to pay more attention to the left most digit since most reading is done left to right. Apple successfully used numbers to make its pricing seem like a steal ($499). This effect comes in handy for supermarkets and even the budget-conscious customers struggle to keep track of spending.



Lighting can effect mood and evoke emotions. Bright lights in the fresh produce section can make the fruits and vegetables look vibrant and healthy. Dim lighting in the lingerie department implies the discreet nature of the store. Humans, like birds, are attracted to and fascinated with shiny stuff. One particular study found that pedestrians automatically stop outside a sparkling store. This may have something to with our ability to help find clean water which evolved back when the skill was a very big asset for survival.



  • Always make a list to avoid hasty decisions.
  • Make the list aisle by aisle to cut down on time.
  • Shop without children whenever possible.
  • Shop at off-peak hours.
  • Never shop hungry or tired.
  • Get through the checkout area without getting distracted.

Now that you are aware of how stores use science to trick you into spending, you can gamble and hunt with the difficult knowledge that a predator is a possibility. Stay and shop as long as you feel in control. Just remember not to stay too long for the house always wins in the end.

Consider yourself shopping-savvy? Think you can see through the little tricks that retail outlets employ to increase sales? Share some of your own shopping experiences with us in the comment section below.

Contributed by Ankita Verma, IBS Hyderabad, Class of 2009


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