Down the Rabbit Hole
I remember the first time I walked into Wegmans. Expecting to grab my groceries and leave, the interior design of the store was the last thing on my mind. So I was woefully unprepared when I walked through the automatic door and stumbled into Wonderland.
The atrium of the building took my breath away- hundred foot ceilings and faux-Mediterranean tiling placed me in a 15th century Italian Villa. After a quick bout of sensory overload, I looked to my right and was quickly whisked off to France- sharp, bow tie-clad waiters turned its in-store food joint into an open-air Parisian Bistro. Embracing my final teleportation, I turned to my left, and tumbled into a B grade 50’s sci-fi flick: three robotic pancake-cookers sprung out fresh backed hot-cakes into a big basket, and turned my attention to an isle of Campbell soup cans piled 8 feet high and stretching as far as the eye can see. I’d fallen down the rabbit hole, and landed in Wegmans.
The Scheme behind the Sanctuary
A friend of mine described Wegman’s as “the most magical place on earth” and he was right: from a consumer’s perspective, grocery stores are panaceas, catering to all of their needs. But behind the alluring façade, is a carefully constructed maze designed to lure you, and your pocket book, into the palm of their hand.
The first and most obvious scheme is the one I was privy to at Wegmans. Sensory overload is defined as: “a condition of receiving too much information or stimulation via visual or audio sources” according to dictionary.com. It gives recipients a brief, out of body experience, both cheering them up, and making them briefly forget about their budget.
Other tactics are less obvious. Subtle manipulation of how products are placed within the store can lead to substantial profit increases for firms.
Here are some basic tricks I’ve researched on syncrat.com:
• “The Boomerang effect“- The most popular items and brands are placed in the middle of the isle so that buyers entering the isle from either direction are exposed to as my items as possible.
• Eye-level marketing is more obvious- items with the highest marginal profit are placed at buyer’s eye level, so that they are more likely to be noticed.
• A more sinister use of Eye Level marketing is placing those sugary cereal boxes that kids love on the lowest rack, right at kid’s eye level.
• Product Grouping– now this one just makes sense. Complementary products are placed near each other. Ex.- spaghetti sauce placed near pasta.
• The final one is not only manipulative, its downright irritating- essential products, the stuff that everyone comes for in the first place, is placed in the four far-corners of the store, so shoppers who just want, say, milk and hamburgers have to pass dozens of isles of junk food en route.
The Good News
For those who are beginning to feel like one of Pavlov’s dog’s, I have good news for you: the thousands of hours spent modeling consumer behavior, the thousands of dollars spend scheming up ways to subconsciously influence us, the dozen’s of little traps set up in every super market, simply don’t sell that much.
This can be seen in Cornell’s study on unused food purchases, which asked consumers the primary reason why they purchased food. 54% said that they either had a recipe or some other preordained purchase in mind when they went to the grocery store. Less than 10% chocked it up to sales, impulse buys, or other reasons that could be attributed to psychological manipulation.
Consumers aren’t lab rats, they’re intelligent people with busy schedules who could probably care less as to how their supermarket is set up.
1. Psychology of Supermarkets, Syncrat.com
2. Brian Wansink, How did That get into the Pantry, foodpsycology.cornell.edu
3. Sensory Overload, dictionary.reference.com