We spoke Dr Gorkan Ahmetoglu, a lecturer in business psychology at UCL, to find out how it all works.
People are cross about shops playing music too loudly. Do they do that to stress us out and make us buy stuff quickly?
Dr Gorkan Ahmetoglu: There are several studies showing that if shops play music, people will spend more. Not every type of music works, though – generally, if the volume is lower, if it’s a familiar tune playing in the background, people will get more pleasure out of shopping, and when people are in a good mood, they spend more. Sometimes, if people don’t like the type of music or if it’s too loud, it will have a negative effect, or no effect at all.
I heard that McDonald’s plays fast music so you eat quickly and leave?
Yeah, exactly. Music with a higher tempo makes people feel more aroused. Some research suggests that higher tempo music makes people move faster – and even spend more.
How about smells? I’ve been to a lot of places where a shop will have a specific smell. Is that something they’re trying to cultivate?
It’s the same as with music – nice smells make people feel better, and therefore they spend more. An important thing with smell – and indeed with music – is that it’s congruent with what kind of product is being sold and what the product is like. So if you’re selling chocolates, the smell should be chocolate, not flowers.
Subway has such a distinctive smell – do shops make their own smells to pump out?
Yeah, take Starbucks: coffee is a strong smell. You can smell a Starbucks on the street from metres away. It’s very unlikely that the coffee they’re producing is actually that strong, so I think there could be evidence to suggest they’re using additional smells. Rolls Royce put leather scent in their cars in order to get people to feel at home with their new cars, and that has a positive impact on sales.
If I go into Starbucks I’ll smell it and I’ll know exactly what I’m about to get. Is it also a way of cultivating brand loyalty?
I wouldn’t say it’s brand loyalty, necessarily. You associate the smell with a nice taste. So, in essence, the smell triggers positive emotions, and positive emotions are related to shopping more. There’s a pure evolutionary explanation for that: we use our smell to understand the quality of products, and therefore retailers can use smells to trigger those positive emotions.
What else do shops do to make us buy more?
A classic thing is putting sale signs everywhere to make it complicated for the consumer, so they start using automatic judgments rather than rational decisions, which is impossible when there’s so much information. Using hedonic products like fruits and chocolates when you’re just entering a shop makes people feel positive and up for shopping more. Also, putting impulse purchase items throughout the stores and at checkouts keeps people shopping, and also gets them excited when they think they’ve finished shopping. Colour and lighting is important, too.
Like in Abercrombie & Fitch shops – where it’s dark and there are people above you dancing on podiums?
Yeah, exactly. From a psychological standpoint, they are probably trying to get you to think that the brand is all about sexual appeal, so if you make the shop like a club or a bar – where there is above average sexual tension in the air – you are probably more inclined to look at clothes that would be in line with that, and just be more aroused, let’s say, and more open to suggestion.
Do you think consumers are aware of this?
Most consumers won’t be aware of these influences or environment cues. Even when they are aware and are sceptical, they will still be influenced by them. The human brain – when it comes to practical stuff like shopping – tends to go by intuition rather than rational thinking. So the point of all this stuff is to try and guide our intuition in particular directions.
Even when we know all that stuff is by the checkout so we buy it compulsively, we still do it.
Yeah, you can’t control it. You just can’t control your instincts – it would be too much effort. If you tried to not be influenced by marketing tactics I think you probably wouldn’t be able to live a normal life.