Photo source: Capital Grille

As a smart consumer always seeking the best value for your money, here are two words to keep in mind anytime you're shopping: “Psychological warfare.”

That's shorthand for the thousands of tricks designed to convince people like you to not merely buy things, but to buy more and spend more than you otherwise would. Remember: marketing and advertising are multibillion-dollar industries for a reason.

It's not that companies are engaged in some nefarious mind-control conspiracy which shoppers are near-helpless to resist; it's more along the lines of, “Market research consistently shows we make more money under these conditions than those conditions, so let's establish these conditions in our businesses.”

What are “these” conditions? They vary, depending on what's being sold and who it's being sold to – are you selling luxury items or practical items? How much money do your customers have to spend, and how much of it are they willing to part with? And how much can you change their mind, where that last question is concerned?

Common tactics

Here's a trick you've probably heard about before: supermarkets are always laid out so that common, perishable staple goods are kept as far apart as possible – if you only want milk, eggs, bread and vegetables you must walk the whole length of the store, to increase the chances you'll see something else you'll want to buy.

A similar principle applies in the enclosed shopping malls that dominated suburbia in the 1980s and '90s (as well as the outdoor “shopping villages” of today): the major, big-name “anchor stores” people are most likely to visit are at the ends, so you can't go from one to another without passing lots of little specialty shops offering other enticing things for sale.

The packaging of goods and their very placement on store shelves is also studied intensely and modified as necessary to increase sales. Last April, for example, researchers at Cornell University discovered that children's cereal boxes – the sort decorated with colorful trademarked cartoon characters – were all designed so that the cartoon figures made direct eye contact with the young (and short) children tagging alongside their parents in grocery aisles.

Not that there's any shortage of tricks aimed at adults. This week, Business Insider ran a listsicle about “11 psychological tricks restaurants use to make you spend more money.”

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Don't mention money

Most of those tricks are merely restaurant-specific versions of techniques many businesses use in some form or other, especially the first item on the list:

1. They don't use dollar signs. A dollar sign is one of the top things restaurants should avoid including on a menu, because it immediately reminds the customers that they're spending money.”

“Help the customer forget they're spending their own actual money” is one of the most commonplace marketing tricks (or psychological-warfare weapons) out there. If ever you've visited a casino, or even seen a realistic one on TV, you'll notice they never allow people to gamble with actual cash money — instead, you must buy casino chips, and gamble with those.

Why is that? Because, due to a weird quirk in our psychology (perhaps a tendency to confuse the distinction between symbols and what they actually symbolize?), many people simply do not view a $10 casino chip as equivalent to a $10 bill, even if they personally spent the bill to buy the chip, so they're more likely to gamble their money away in chip form than if they could directly use actual cash.

Credit cards offer the same problem for many people who have a hard time truly grasping “Putting $10 on a credit card is just like spending a $10 bill — worse, actually, because credit card purchases rack up interest fees if you don't pay them off in full.”

Countless studies show people who pay for things with credit cards are likely to spend far more than people paying in cash. Business Insider mentioned researchers at Cornell University who discovered a related principle with restaurant menus without dollar signs:

guests given a menu without dollar signs spent significantly more than those who received a menu with them. Even if the prices were written out with words instead of numbers, such as "ten dollars," guests spent less money because it still triggered the negative feelings associated with paying.

Friendly 95

Item two on the list is a restaurant-specific twist of the old 99-cent trick, where a price is listed as $7.99 rather than $8.00 (with or without dollar signs):

Menu designers recognize that prices that end in 9, such as $9.99, tend to signify value, but not quality. In addition, prices that end in .95 instead of .99 are more effective, because they feel "friendlier" to customers. Most restaurants just leave the price without any cents at all, because it makes their menu cleaner, simpler, and to the point.

The extremely descriptive language restaurants use on their menus is no accident either:

… menu engineer Greg Rapp poses an example of Maryland Style Crab Cakes. They are described as "made by hand, with sweet jumbo crab meat, a touch of mayonnaise, our secret blend of seasonings, and golden cracker crumbs for a rich, tender crab cake." This brings the ultimate sensory experience to the reader, and the descriptive labeling will make customers more likely to be satisfied at the end of the meal.

“Ultimate sensory experience?” “More likely to be satisfied at the end?” Sounds like menu engineers and sexy-pornographic-story writers follow the same style guide: “Use explicit language to make the reader want what you're describing.” Try our hot, steamy, spicy fajitas ….

Business Insider also calls attention to the ways the order of things listed on a menu can influence what you buy (and, once again, this is something you should watch out for not only in eateries, but any place offering items or services for you to buy).

They analyze your reading patterns. Restaurants consider scanpaths, which are a series of eye fixations that can be studied to see how people read certain things.

According to a Korean research study, a third of participants are likely to order the first item to which their attention is drawn. As a result, restaurants will put the most profitable items in the upper-right corner, because it is where people's eyes go first.

This strategy is based on the primacy effect, which means people remember the items at the beginning of a list better. Another reason this works is that seeing a really expensive dish at first glance will make the rest of the menu appear reasonably priced in comparison.

The trick of showcasing an expensive item to make others look reasonably priced by comparison is similar to the “save money” price tags you'll often see in tourist-trap “outlet malls”:




These retailers know that if you can think of a purchase as “I'm saving 30 dollars” rather than “I'm spending 10 dollars,” you're more likely to buy it. (Indeed, if you're not careful, you can actually buy so many low-price amazing-savings items that you come full circle and end up wasting money instead: “I don't need this thing, I might not even have any use for it, but I'm buying it anyway because it's such a fantastic bargain!”)

The full 11-item list is worth reading in its entirety, because the psychological techniques it describes aren't only used in restaurants, but in every industry. It's easier for consumers to keep hold of our money when we can recognize the tricks used to make us part with it.

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