It's easy to be lured in by the sale signs and special promotions at a department store, but by the time you leave, you may feel as if you've been had. Department stores employ several "tricks" to get customers to spend more -- and to the untrained eye, they are not so easy to spot.
"At the end of the day, retailers are just trying to sell stuff," says Nicole Thompson, who has worked in merchandising positions for Circuit City and the May Department Stores, and now has her own business providing outsourced buying services and retail consulting.
"They are approaching it with some creativity, but they're also approaching it with some science," says Paco Underhill, a New York author of the popular book Why We Buy, which details several of the practices used by retailers to improve sales.
Here's how department stores get customers who planned on only buying one item to walk out with five or six:
There's a reason why perfume counters are located at the front of a department store: Not only is perfume a moneymaker, but it also smells good.
"That, in part, gets our saliva glands developing, and when we are salivating we are much less disciplined shoppers," says Underhill.
Music can lure shoppers to stay, or send them away. But it needs to make sense for the store's core demographic. Abercrombie & Fitch, for example, blares music a 40-year-old doesn't want to hear, so that he or she won't stick around, but younger shoppers will.
Some stores change their music depending on the time of day, such as Frank Sinatra on Monday mornings when older shoppers and mothers with young children are more likely to be around, and then switch to modern, hip music on Friday nights to attract the younger shoppers, says Underhill.
They're conveniently located near the entrance so shoppers at Target, Wal-Mart and other big box retailers can easily grab one and put their stuff in it while walking around the store. You may have intended to buy only a few items, but a huge cart makes it easier to buy more because there is so much room in it, says Thompson.
The stuff you came for is in the back of the store
Most of the staples that consumers regularly shop for are often located at the back of the store, thereby forcing them to walk past the store's less in-demand items on the way there. That provides more opportunity for you to spot something you like -- but weren't planning on buying. Toy departments are often located near the back of the store as well, because pretty much every child will beg their parents to make a stop there while shopping.
High-end items will be on the right
Stores are designed like a racetrack, with areas for shoppers to get on and get off. High-profit items may be to the right of the entrance. "Typically people just walk to the right when they go into stores," says Thompson.
Department stores also strive to offer shoppers plenty of places to comfortably stop, increasing the chance that they'll take some time to look around and buy something. Underhill calls it the "butt brush factor," where shoppers, mainly women, are less likely to buy if they're crowded from behind. They prefer a comfortable place to stand and look at the tie or blouse, he says.
Just as stores play on the senses of smell and sound, lighting can also be used to increase sales. Putting a product near eye level in a dark basket, and highlighted with warm lighting, can make it look much better than it ever will at home, says Underhill. Williams-Sonoma does an excellent job of lighting its appliances, table tops and other selling areas in this way, he says.
Eye level, and end of aisle
The most expensive version of a product are placed at eye level so it's the first item you'll see. Cheaper options are typically on bottom shelves where you'd have to look down to see it and stoop down to pick it up. A similar philosophy is employed at the end of an aisle. The "end cap" as it's called, is where items are usually put on sale because shoppers often notice those areas, says Thompson.
Impulse buys and displays include multiple products
In clothing sections, for example, focal points such as displays will be created showing an ensemble, so that a shopper looking solely for a blouse will also see a bag and pair of shoes that go with it. "If we were only in the business of selling this blouse, we would be out of business," Underhill says. "We very much want to link items."
Impulse buys, as every shopper probably knows, are near the checkouts. You're probably thirsty after shopping and standing in line, and an overpriced drink near the checkout stand looks enticing. Other impulse buys include candy and accessories, such as bracelets and sunglasses.
Accessories and store brands
Some of the best profit margins come from accessories, especially in-house brands, says Thompson, who was a buyer for Circuit City. A USB cable made by the company's brand will often be placed right near the checkout counter. So a shopper who had the more expensive name brand in their cart may opt to switch to the cheaper version right before checking out.
Even being aware of these tricks of the trade, doesn't mean you won't fall prey to them. Thompson says that even though she's employed these tricks in her own line of work, "I fall for them every time I go into a store."
Aaron Crowe is a freelance journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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