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GUEST COMMENT How stores can tap into customers’ subconscious mind

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95% of our purchase decision making takes place in the subconscious mind, according to Harvard Business School professor Gerald Zaltman. It is, therefore, of little surprise that stores are tapping into customers’ subconscious minds to increase sales. But, in doing so, stores need to walk a fine line between boosting sales and remaining ethical. In this piece, we are looking at how stores can leverage three techniques, informed by behavioural science, to boost sales.

Technique 1: Leveraging customer traffic

Tracking customer flow within a store is one of the best ways to gain insight on where particular items should be placed. Historically, stores have used cameras to detect and deter shoplifting. While they still serve that function, stores are increasingly using them to better understand their customer flow.

Looking at footage, stores are able to map the actual behaviour and path of customers in the store including traffic, visited areas, dwell time, and loyalty. Based on the data they gain from monitoring these aspects, stores can create a layout that is aimed at selling more items, or bigger ticket ones.

Technique 2: Leveraging the olfactory

Neuroscientists have evidenced how odours play a special role in memory formation and retrieval. It is this special role that helps explain why odours may not only induce an experience of pleasure but may also increase customers’ propensity to buy. A classic example of the latter is Nike. In 1993, Alan Hirsch conducted a survey for Nike that proved that most consumers would buy more shoes and be willing to pay more for them if the shopping area smelled like flowers.

This technique goes beyond artificially inserting smells and can be used in conjunction with customer path tracking. Grocery stores will often place bakeries in the rear of stores, with the smell of fresh baked goods attracting customers. In order to make their way to the bakery, customers will have to walk through the rest of the store and more often than not, will purchase additional items on their way to the till.

Technique 3: Leveraging psychological biases

Social proof and limited choice are two of the most used psychological biases that stores do leverage. In terms of leveraging social proof bias, stores can make the most of their reviews (for instance, by putting in-store adverts of what previous customers think) to give customers the confidence to buy the item.

In terms of leveraging limited choice bias, stores can limit what is available, as customers are more likely to make a purchase if they are presented with fewer options to choose from. If you look at a sample aisle from most of the big four grocery stores, own brand items, which have lower profit margin, will typically be placed on the lowest shelf, where a customer may not see them or would have to bend down to do so. Name brand items, which have higher profit margins, will be placed right at eye level.

More people will be shopping in person now that most lockdown measures have been removed, and this presents stores with an opportunity to capitalise on. Being able to break down store layout to be almost formulaic, based on customer behaviour is essential to stores wanting to maximise the amount customers spend. As neuroscience makes new strides into understanding the brain structure and finding out which regions involved in purchase decision making have been underestimated or overlooked, stores will be able to leverage new techniques to boost sales.


Dr Alexandra Dobra-Kiel, head of behavioural research and insight at Behave

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